The Dance: Shakespeare, Opera, and Finding What Comes Next
Updated: Aug 7
The short version of this is: directing Shakespeare is much like directing opera.
Both times, the text comes with certain ideas that are requirements. True, Shakespeare’s blank verse is more flexible than opera’s music and text-setting, but the ideas rhyme.
Both times, the work [or at least, in most operas I like] is rich and winding about itself in multiple ways, such that the whole ends up being the sum of its entire set of parts. Both defy cutting (opera more than Shakespeare), for each part ideally contributes to what the entire effect is.
You can take up the carpet and still have a house, but it’s not the same. You can cut Angus’ Act 3 Scene 6 monologue from Macbeth, but it’s not the same.
Ideally, cut the ballet scene in Act 3 of any French grand opera between about 1800-1900. As far as I can tell from reception studies, that’s just a chance to bring out the young women in revealing skirts.
And finally, both times require finding a way to direct them through these requirements. They resist “This Is So” readings. The works have been around long enough that there are generations of different interpretations, understandings, and takes; whole libraries could be filled with works based on Shakespeare, or operas.
Instead, a director can but hope to drink it all in, and find the way through that works right now, in this place, in this time, with these people.
Oh, and also: for both, the director is rarely given time to actually find that way through, but is expected to come in with a pre-existing idea so that the set can be built by midway through rehearsals.
[I’ll admit that, for me, Mozart operas are the best comparison here. Baroque operas (i.e. those from a compositional age before Mozart) tend to have under-worked drama; Romantic operas (i.e. those from a compositional generation after Mozart) tend to have over-worked Morals, or be about the inner life of a particular society rather than an entire world.]
So what comes next?
Modern drama rarely tries to merely reflect the world by layers of harmony and discord, yet that is what the weaving lines of narrative, character, verse, scene, and philosophy in Shakespeare do, much like narrative, character, music, scene, and expression do in opera.
Partly, this is a matter of taste. We like stories set in specific, dramatic worlds. And I am very aware that I am drawing broad generalisations while trying to find likewise general conclusions; it might be that someone will comment with exactly what I’m hypothesising about or looking for.
I suspect that budget is also a reason. Who can try dreaming about a large scale commission that might enter the canon to touch the heart like those Great Works?
Perhaps we are past the time that Great Works can be established. When I look in a bookshop, there are so many modern Great Works I am told to read, and yet even my literary circle has rarely read all of them. They’re too busy earning surviving.
But let us try to dream of what comes next. How might we capture a world?
One of the obvious gaps in operatic adaptation is Waiting For Godot.
Why? Because Waiting For Godot captures a world in where it is not. These two undefined figures mention Paris, but that’s about it. To quote Le Guin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, “where the pot is not is where it’s useful.”
By echoing words against the silence, Waiting For Godot captures something extraordinary (yes, I’d kill to direct it).
It’s why the world of Waiting For Godot is so much better than the mock-Tolkein worlds of so much modern writing, from superheroes to traditional drama, because it doesn’t try to fill in every gap. It sketches a line, and doesn’t ask the viewer to fill it in; just feel the play rhyme with all the things that line might be, from a tree to a road to a hangman’s noose.
All it requires is that you… jump.
Trust the void that Beckett has made, try not understanding, and delight in trying to be in the rhyme, rather than the reason.
Perhaps that is what’s needed, in a loud and modern world. And I can’t see what opera would add, beyond clutter.
Maybe someone will.
But “the use of silence” is one thing.
Another thought I have is that theatre has been about relating to the world, society, and one another (broadly speaking, 1600-1800, 1800-1950, 1950-now).
Might it be time, in an age of environmental crisis, for the drama of being?
We have almost infinite ways to fill time, but what if our time slows down; we see the world and its occupants rhyming with one another?
To be, within the self, to others, with the world, and for being-in-the-world to thus also mean world-being-including-us?
That is something I think we find being moved towards in Beckett.
It also draws on Morton’s ideas about being ecological, and object oriented ontology (if you’re interested).
I am not sure yet, but the drive from relating to being might be a direction of travel.
And finally, there is simply noise.
Perhaps, as ever, it is a helpful time to think about whether live performance should die.
Structured sound and speech might be dead.
We live in an age of disordered noises and constant stimulation.
Maybe the prophet is not Beckett, by Cadigan in Synners, where all forms of content - from cookery shows to news to drama - is suffixed -porn.
Food-porn, news-porn, and so on.
All in an overwhelming, multi-layered noise without meaning beyond that the individual viewer ascribes to it.
In some ways, it matches the arc of modern technology, where compression technology, financial transfer, and more have been shaped by the needs and applications of the adult entertainment industry.
Not to mention Peter Watkin’s idea of monoform, where video content uses ever-shorter shot lengths (from an average of 10 seconds in the 70s to about 3 seconds now) to try and keep the picture changing, stimulating the viewer by novelty without actually engaging them.
The only question I’d have is this: can it be a shared experience?
For my money, I think that’s the only thing it might struggle to do, because it is highly individualised, while also echoing someone’s entire world.
But I don’t think that’s enough to save live theatre. Because as we’ve learnt since the pandemic: home content doesn’t have to be better than live performance.
It just has to be good enough that you wouldn’t bother leaving your home comforts for something else.