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Verdi and Shakespeare as Men of the Theater

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The full text of a lovely article by Gary Wills on Verdi and Shakespeare as kindred men of the theater has been posted on The New York Review of Books’ website. Wills points out that the working methods of Elizabethan playwrights and 19th century Italian opera composers were quite similar to each other, but very different from modern practitioners of these arts.

The article details some of the day-to-day workings of both 17th century theater and 19th century opera, which is interesting in its own right, but I found it particularly intriguing because of the many parallels between what playwrights and composers were expected to do then and what choreographers are often expected to do today: specifically, tailor roles to the particular talents (and limitations) of the performers they’re creating works for and with whom they likely have a close association.

I don’t think that there are many modern theater or opera analogues to today’s major repertory dance companies. (The RSC, maybe, or regional German opera houses?) An opera star may sing at the Met or La Scala, but isn’t a part of either of those institutions in the way that, say, Wendy Whalen or Marcelo Gomes are a part of their respective home companies. And we expect those companies to give us new works every season, year in and year out, that showcase their stars and develop their rising talents. The major opera houses just don’t work like that anymore, although they once did. (ABT is admittedly something of a hybrid model.) The Met has to schedule and cast its operas something like three to five years in advance from a relatively limited pool of international stars, which must make commissioning, rehearsing, and mounting a new work tricky in terms of creating a role for a particular talent. I don't know how much lead time Peter Martins needed for "The Architecture of Dance" festival, but it's hard to imagine an opera or theater company being able to undertake a similar project.

Anyway, here are some quotes from Wills’ article to whet your appetite:

n the modern theater, performers are fitted to the play, but in Shakespeare’s time, the play was fitted to the performers. If the playwright had an ongoing relationship with the troupe—like Shakespeare’s with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men)—he could create his text for the known strengths of particular actors, as Shakespeare did for the talents of the great Richard Burbage. Shakespeare wrote comic scenes in different ways for the famous clown Will Kemp and for the intellectual jester Robert Armin.............In modern productions, with an established text, producers can shop around in a large pool of unattached actors to find two couples who are plausibly similar, but Shakespeare began with the four men already in his company and wrote the play to use them.
The trickiest job was to write for that rare commodity, the boy actors who played women. These were hard to come by and train in the brief time before their voices broke. That is why women’s parts make up only thirteen percent of the lines in the plays. ............The boys’ memories were such that Shakespeare wrote shorter parts for them than for adult actors—an average of three hundred or so lines to the adults’ 650 or so lines per play. But when he had a spectacular boy like John Rice, he was able to write as big a role for him as that of Cleopatra (693 lines).
The working methods of a composer of operas in the nineteenth century had much in common with those of an Elizabethan playwright—enough to make them ideal subjects for a study in comparative dramaturgies. The playwright had to tailor his drama to the resources of a particular acting company. ..................In his version of Otello, the Moor is a tenor, Iago is a tenor, Roderigo is a tenor, the doge is a tenor, and the gondolier is a tenor. Only Desdemona’s father, not a very important role, is a bass.

... When Verdi did his version of Macbeth, he had only one weak tenor at hand, and he gave him the minor role of Macduff, with only one aria late in the opera. He did not let him sing his own climax-song (cabaletta) alone, but had the chorus join in with him. He had chosen Macbeth as a subject because he knew he could get by with only a minor contribution from the tenor, so long as he had a great baritone—which he demanded from the theater—to play Macbeth.

Even with a proven performer like Felice Varesi singing the role of Macbeth, Verdi was tailoring and adjusting the part as he composed................ When he sent her first music to his Lady Macbeth (Marianna Barbieri-Nini), he wrote, “If there should be some passage that lies badly [for her voice], let me know before I do the orchestration [for the passage that needs change].” He did the same with Varesi, writing him: “I’m convinced that the tessitura [range] suits you well, but there could be some notes or passages that are uncomfortable for you, so write to me before I orchestrate it.” He asked Barbieri about the state of her trill before writing trills into her role—after her assurances, he gave her many trills in her drinking song.

This “hands-on” approach to composition had long been the case. As [Julian] Budden writes:

In the eighteenth century…the singer, not the composer, was the starting-point. When Mozart was a youth no one would dream of composing an aria until he had first heard the artist who was to perform it; and this might be no more than a fortnight before the premiere. Thus, for instance, Leopold Mozart to his wife during the composition of
Mitridate Rè di Ponte
in Milan in 1770—”Wolfgang has composed only one aria for the
primo uomo
, since he has not yet arrived and Wolfgang doesn’t want to do the same work twice over.” More than sixty years later, when Bellini was writing
I Puritani
for the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, the situation was no different. “The whole of the first act is now finished, except for the trio, because I want first to try it out (
) on [the tenor] Rubini.”
is the word used for trying on a suit. Bellini’s contemporary, Giovanni Pacini, one of the most prolific operatic practitioners of his day, wrote in his memoirs that he always tried to serve his singers as a good tailor serves his clients, “concealing the natural defects of the figure and emphasizing its good points.”

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