By benjamin britten a study guide

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Prepared by Virginia Opera

Cast of Characters 2

Brief Plot Summary 3

Annotated Full Synopsis with Musical Highlights 5

Historical Background 14

The Creation of the Opera 16

Notable Features of Musical Style 19

Discussion Questions 20

A Short History of Opera 21

The Operatic Voice 23

Opera Production 24

Glossary of Operatic Terms 25


Music by Benjamin Britten

Libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears,

Adapted from William Shakespeare’s play

First performance on June 11, 1960 at Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh, Suffolk County, England

Cast of Characters

OBERON, King of the Fairies


TYTANIA, Queen of the Fairies

Coloratura Soprano

PUCK or Robin Goodfellow

Acrobat/speaking role

THESEUS, Duke of Athens


HIPPOLYTA, Queen of the Amazons, betrothed to Theseus


LYSANDER, in love with Hermia


DEMETRIUS, in love with Hermia


HERMIA, in love with Lysander

Mezzo Soprano

HELENA, in love with Demetrius


NICK BOTTOM, a weaver

Bass Baritone

PETER QUINCE, a carpenter

FRANCIS FLUTE, a bellows mender



SNUG, a joiner


TOM SNOUT, a tinker







MOTH, fairies serving Tytania


Brief Plot Summary
A wood near Athens, in ancient times. The story involves three separate groups of characters who all interact in various ways: supernatural fairies ruled by Oberon and Tytania; high-born mortals ruled by Theseus and Hippolyta (who are shortly to be wed); and a group of tradesmen called Rustics.
Announced by the mischievous Puck, Oberon and Tytania enter at odds, arguing over who should claim a changeling boy they each want. Alone with Puck, Oberon plots to defeat his wife by casting a spell on her as she sleeps, one that will cause her to fall in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening.
Lysander and Hermia enter, having fled to the wood to escape Hermia’s forced marriage to Demetrius. Prepared to defy the edict of Theseus, they pledge their faithfulness to each other. Oberon returns to observe the arrival of Demetrius, pursued by Helena. Demetrius is searching for Hermia, greatly annoyed by Helena’s repeated declarations of love. When Puck returns with the flower Oberon will use to bewitch Tytania, he is ordered to place a similar spell on Demetrius that will cause him to love Helena instead of Hermia.
We next meet the Rustics, who are gathering in the wood to begin preparing a performance of the drama Pyramus and Thisbe as part of the wedding celebration of the royal couple. After Peter Quince assigns all the roles, the friends agree to return shortly for a rehearsal.
Lysander and Hermia, exhausted and lost, fall asleep. Puck, mistaking Lysander for Demetrius, casts the love-spell on him and exits. Demetrius enters with Helena in tow; Ordering her to stop following him, he goes on alone as Helena spots the sleeping Lysander. When she wakes him, Lysander instantly declares his love for her, to her surprise and displeasure. She runs off with Lysander in pursuit. When Hermia awakes, she is frightened to find herself alone; she wanders off in search of her lover.
Tytania, ready for a night’s rest, is sung to sleep by her retinue of fairies. Once she’s asleep, Oberon enters stealthily to apply the magical flower-juice to her eyes.
The Rustics reappear to get down to the business of rehearsing their play, observed by Puck. When Bottom exits the “stage”, Puck magically transforms him into an ass. When he returns, his friends flee in terror. Bottom, confused, begins to sing loudly, causing the sleeping Tytania to awaken and become instantly infatuated with him. She commands her fairies to attend to Bottom; they obediently pamper him. Oberon enters, very pleased at the results of his spell. He is not happy, however, when Demetrius enters with Hermia, who pleads to be released from their engagement. Oberon realizes that Puck put the wrong lover under the love-spell, as Demetrius is still determined to marry Hermia. Hermia runs off; Demetrius, exasperated, decides to catch forty winks. Seizing the opportunity, Oberon applies the spell to Demetrius so that he will choose Helena over Hermia.
The four confused lovers meet, with Helena sure that the two men are mocking her with their joint declarations of love. Tempers flare as the two ladies hurl accusations at each other while Lysander and Demetrius prepare to fight a duel for Helena’s hand. Oberon, angry with Puck for having caused this situation, directs the fairy to lead the men away from one another until they’re too exhausted to fight. One by one, the four would-be lovers tire and fall asleep yet again. Puck applies the spell to Lysander so that his affections will return to Hermia.
Oberon comes upon the sleeping Tytania. Having taken possession of the changeling boy, he now reverses the spell on his wife. When she awakens, she no longer loves Bottom; Oberon and Tytania reconcile in a celebratory dance.
The four young nobles awaken with the sunrise, with all spells broken except for Demetrius, who will remain in love with Helena, thus allowing Lysander a clear path to Hermia. They all happily leave the wood.
Bottom wakes up, marveling at his strange dream. Quince and the other actors are relieved to see him in human form again. They leave to ready their costumes for that evening’s performance.
At the Duke’s palace in Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta greet the two pairs of lovers as their guests. Learning that Demetrius now loves Helena, Theseus agrees to overturn his previous ruling and allow the young people to marry whom they wish.
All settle in as the Rustics announce the beginning of Pyramus and Thisbe. The performance, marked by comically bad acting, draws amused comments from the audience. Following the play, there is a celebratory dance before Theseus sends the three couples off to their nuptial bed.
As midnight bells toll and the palace becomes quiet, the fairies enter to cast a spell of blessings on the household. Puck, addressing those who have watched the comedy, suggests that anyone who was offended should merely regard it as a dream.

Annotated Full Synopsis with Musical Highlights
Act 1
We are in a forest near the city of Athens in mythical times. A brief orchestral introduction consists of a choir of strings sliding up and down between various major chords, creating a mysterious magical atmosphere presaging the appearance of fairies. The sliding effect (called portamento) also represents the sound of deep breathing or snoring, as when one sleeps and dreams.

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Example 1

A chorus of fairies, led by Cobweb, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom and Moth, enter, singing of their service to Tytania, the Queen of the Fairies; their task is to bedew the Queen’s flowers. They sing a melody that will recur in various forms. It is accompanied by the sliding chords as well as the “magical” sounds of bells and the celesta.

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Example 2

Robin Goodfellow (commonly called Puck), a magical boy who serves Oberon, enters with a warning: the Fairy King is very angry. Tytania has kidnapped the son of an Indian king to keep for herself. Oberon, however, also wants the boy to serve as his squire.
At that, the fairies hide as Oberon and Tytania enter; they are in the midst of a full-blown argument over the child. Their disagreement is causing havoc in Nature: fields are barren, livestock is dying, and the seasons have switched places, causing chaos. Oberon says it’s up to her to restore order by giving him the child. But Tytania refuses, explaining that the changeling’s mother was one of her worshippers whose company she enjoyed. But the mother died, and the Queen is set upon keeping him. Oberon angrily orders her away with the warning that he will torment her until she relents.
Oberon calls for Puck, commanding him to fetch a flower, one to be used to play a prank on Tytania. The nectar of this flower, when applied to sleeping eyes, causes one to fall madly in love with the first living creature seen upon awakening. Puck flies off on his errand; Oberon disappears.
Two young citizens of Athens enter breathlessly. They are Hermia, daughter of Egeus, and her lover Lysander. Hermia is distraught because Theseus, Duke of Athens, has ruled in favor of her father’s plan that she marry Demetrius, another young Athenian. In desperation, she and Lysander have fled the city, hoping to escape the edict of Theseus by eloping in the distant home of Lysander’s aunt. Pausing to rest, they re-affirm their mutual love, ardently pledging faithfulness over and over:

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Example 3

Anxious to make good their escape, they exit. Oberon re-appears just another pair of young Athenians enter. Curious, he decides to make himself invisible to overhear their conversation. The new arrivals are Demetrius (Hermia’s betrothed) and Helena, a young girl who is in love with him. Helena has told Demetrius of Lysander and Hermia’s elopement, spurring him to the woods in pursuit his fiancé. Demetrius bluntly tells Helena she should stop following him because he can never love her. However, Helena is not easily discouraged, replying (in a short solo) that, like a faithful dog, she will love him even if he abuses her.

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Example 4

Exasperated, Demetrius runs off, but Helena, vowing to “make a heaven of hell”, doggedly tags along. Oberon decides to work magic on Demetrius to make him return Helena’s love.
Puck returns with the enchanted flowers. In the aria “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows”, Oberon outlines the detail of his plan to cast a spell on Tytania.

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Example 5

The forest is momentarily silent before six rough-hewn villagers enter, a group of “rustics” or simple tradesmen. They are Peter Quince (a carpenter); Nick Bottom (a weaver); Francis Flute (a bellows mender); Robin Starveling (a tailor); and Tom Snug (a joiner). They have met in the forest to work in secret on a theatrical project: they hope to present a performance of the tragedy Pyramus and Thisbe at the imminent royal wedding of Theseus to his bride Hippolyita, the Queen of the Amazons. Quince describes the play and assigns a role to each man. Bottom, a loud-spoken man with large ambitions, is to play Pyramus, but as Quince mentions the roles of Thisbe and the Lion, Bottom complains that he would be the best choice for those roles also. Quince puts his foot down: Bottom will have to content himself with playing Pyramus. Flute is assigned the role of Thisbe, though he is somewhat dismayed to learn that the role is the female lead. Complaining that his beard is just coming in, Flute accepts Quince’s dictum and begins practicing a high-pitched woman’s voice. Snug is to play the Lion. Rather slow-witted, Snug frets about learning his lines until Quince explains the entire role is nothing but roaring.
Quince hands out each actor’s part, directing them to learn all their lines. They agree to return later that day for a rehearsal.
Lysander enters with Hermia. They have lost their way in the woods and, exhausted, they stretch out on the ground to rest, quickly falling fast asleep. Puck enters; seeing the sleeping Lysander, he concludes that this must be Demetrius, the man to whom he is to administer the flower nectar as Oberon ordered. Quietly, he sprinkles the love-nectar on Lysander’s eyes, then leaves to report to the Fairy King.
As Lysander and Hermia sleep, Demetrius and Helena return. She is still begging for his affection, but Demetrius, at the end of his rope, commands her to stop following him and runs off. Helena unhappily wishes that she were as pretty as Hermia when, suddenly, she spots Lysander on the ground.
Unsure whether he is asleep or dead, Helena calls out to him. Lysander sit up, wide awake now and under the spell of Puck’s flower nectar. To Helena’s great surprise, he immediately declares his passionate love for her. Helena not only is concerned at Lysander’s apparent betrayal of Hermia; she also angrily assumes that he is mocking her with false words of love. She exits in a huff, but Lysander follows after.
Hermia now awakens, confused and frightened to find herself all alone. Calling out for Lysander, she sets out in search of her lover.
As afternoon shadows lengthen, Tytania enters with her retinue of fairies, ready to rest. Cobweb, Mustardseed and the rest of the fairy chorus sing her gently to sleep with a lullaby, the melody of which is that of “Over hill, over dale” (Example 2), but in inverted motion: ascending/descending rather than descending/ascending. The “sleeping harmonies” (Example 1) once again accompany them.
Once Tytania is asleep, Oberon approaches her as the fairies disperse. He squeezes the flower-nectar into her eyes, ensuring that she will fall in love with the next living thing she sees.

An orchestral introduction depicts the enchanted forest at night, with various mysterious sonorities suggesting Tytania’s sleep, the sprinkling of the magic flower nectar and the impish movement of the fairies.

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Example 6

Later that night, the rustics return to the forest to begin rehearsing. Bottom, having looked over his script, is worried that the play contains too much violence for the ladies in the audience. He suggests a Prologue in which he, Bottom, can reveal that he is not really Pyramus but Nick Bottom the weaver. Other technical problems of stagecraft ensue. The problem of how to display moonshine will be solved by having an actor enter holding up a lantern. When Quince puzzles over how to suggest the stone wall that separates the two lovers, it’s decided to have an actor represent the wall; he can hold his fingers in a circle to make the hole in the wall through which Pyramus and Thisbe kiss.
As the rehearsal proper begins, Puck flies in, greatly interested in these mortals’ strange doings. Bottom declaims his lines, occasionally mis-pronouncing words; Quince patiently corrects him. Bottom exits as the script indicates, wandering off for a moment. Puck is struck with inspiration: he is going to cast a spell on the weaver. Meanwhile, Flute makes a mess of his role. Quince points out with some irritation that Flute does not wait for cues, but says all his lines at once, including the stage directions.
Bottom, again on cue, re-enters, only to find that his companions staring at him open-mouthed before fleeing in terror. Unbeknownst to Bottom, Puck has changed his head into that of an ass. Half-man and half-ass, Bottom supposes that Quince and the rest are playing a trick on him, trying to give him a scare. Certain that they’re nearby and determined not to give them any satisfaction, he launches into a raucous folk-song, singing at the top of his lungs in a voice that occasionally emits an involuntary “hee-haw”

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Example 7

Bottom’s off-key braying performance awakens Tytania who, under Oberon’s spell, begins doting on him, praising his voice, his wisdom and his beauty. Bottom, seemingly unaware of his changed appearance, is rather sanguine about this unexpected attention from the Fairy Queen, who calls for Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Moth. In a lilting aria of comic grace and delicacy, she bids them wait on the object of her affection.

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Example 8

Bottom and the four fairies have a bit of cordial conversation, with the ass asking two of them to scratch his hairy hide. Tytania calls for music; as the fairies play upon pipes and drums, Bottom dances with gusto.

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Example 9

Bottom is overcome with sudden exhaustion. The fairies lead him to a bed of honeysuckle and ivy, where he falls asleep in Tytania’s arms. Puck and Oberon enter; the Fairy Kind is delighted with Puck’s choice of a love-object for his wife. But when Demetrius enters with Hermia, Oberon asks if he too has been enchanted, his delight turning to dismay when a greatly confused Puck says this is a different Athenian.
Thus, Demetrius is still in love with Hermia and not, as Oberon wished, Helena. Hermia begs him to allow her happiness with Lysander, but Demetrius threatens violence against his rival. Hermia, saying she never wants to see him again, exists furiously. Demetrius, muttering that there’s no use following her in such a mood, lies down and falls asleep. Oberon, greatly annoyed, orders the chastened Puck to go fetch Helena. Alone with the sleeping Demetrius, Oberon produces the magic flower and applies the nectar to his eyes, ensuring he will transfer his love to Helena when he awakens.
Puck directs Helena to enter, with the love-struck Lysander in tow, thus bringing both couples together in the forest for the first time. Helena is still upset with Lysander’s unwanted wooing. For his part, Lysander reminds her that Demetrius doesn’t love her. At that moment, Demetrius wakes up, sees Helena and, to everyone’s surprise, instantly begins declaring his passionate love for her.
This is too much for Helena, who concludes that all of them are amusing themselves by tormenting her. A scene of comic misunderstandings ensues. Helena, assuming that Hermia is in on the joke, attacks her friend, hurling accusations of betrayal. Lysander and Demetrius begin arguing over which of them loves Helena more. Hermia, shocked and hurt by Helena’s accusations, turns on her, accusing her of having stolen Lysander. Hermia, who has always been self-conscious of her short stature, now accuses Helena of having used her taller stature to attract Lysander. Helena, picking up on this, rubs salt in the wound by repeatedly calling Hermia “little” and “low”. Lysander and Demetrius resolve to fight with swords to win Helena’s hand’ they stalk off to do battle. Hermia, now at the boiling point, chases Helena, with the latter boasting that her longer legs will keep her from being caught.
Oberon and Puck, having witnessed all this, form a plan. Puck, who is amazed by the foolishness of these mortals, is to keep the two men separated so that they cannot hurt each other. Puck, imitating first one’s voice and then the other’s, leads them further and further apart. Once the urge to fight has been replaced by weariness, Puck lures all four to gather: first Lysander, followed by Demetrius, Helena and Hermia. Exhausted from all the discord and confusion, each falls deeply asleep. The chorus of fairies enters, singing sweetly that all will be well when they awaken.
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Example 10

Dawn of the following morning. Oberon tells Puck that, as he has now taken possession of the changeling boy, it is time to remove the spell from Tytania. As the Fairy Queen rouses, she tells her husband of the strange dream she had of being in love with an ass. Seeing the sleeping Bottom at her side, she expresses revulsion at the sight of him. Oberon calls for music to lull Bottom and the four Athenians into an even deeper sleep. He and Tytania, now fully reconciled, dance as Oberon declares that the fairies will do a dance of blessing at the palace of Theseus that very evening following the wedding of the three couples. While they dance, Puck removes the spell from Bottom, returning him to human form.
The three fairies exit as the sleeping couples begin to stir. Sitting up groggily, the young people are unsure whether they are awake or still dreaming. Lysander’s spell has been broken, meaning that he is once again in love with Hermia. However, Demetrius, now permanently under Oberon’s spell, is in love with Helena for the first time. Each couple exchanges rapturous words of love; they arise to make their way back to Athens.
Bottom, too, awakens, wondering whatever happened to his fellow thespians. With a sense of awe, he recalls having had a strange dream; a dream so bizarre he cannot find the words to describe it. In an addled mis-quote of a passage from I Corinthians, Bottom declares that “the eye of man hath not heard,

the ear of man hath not seen…” such a dream. He wanders off, musing that the dream ought to be set down as a ballad.

Quince, Flute and the other rustics now enter, distraught over the mystery of Bottom’s transformation and disappearance. They fret that if he is not available to play the part of Pyramus, the performance cannot go on. They are greatly relieved when Bottom now joins them, bringing them news: the Duke’s dinner has concluded and they have been invited to perform their play. They set out for the palace.
At the Duke’s palace, Theseus and Hippolyta happily anticipate their wedding-day, Theseus remarking that though he conquered the warrior-princess in violent combat, their marriage will be joyous and triumphant.
The two couple enter, kneeling before the Duke. When Thesus observes the obvious happiness of Hermia and Lysander, he generously reverses his prior ruling, allowing them to wed in spite of Egeus’s wishes. Calling for after-dinner amusement, Quince enters with a playbill for Pyramus and Thisbe. Hippolyta and Lysander register amusement at the unintentional wording of Quince’s description of the play, which calls it “tedious and brief” as well as “tragically comical”. Theseus commands the performance to begin, and the actors take the makeshift stage,

Throughout the rustic’s performance of Pyramus and Thisby, the composer employs a deliberately anachronistic musical style, with constant parody of Italian bel canto. The drama begins with the entire cast reciting the Prologue in unison. Their listeners observe that the recitation completely disregarded punctuation, rushing headlong from beginning to end. Snout begins the drama’s action, announcing that he is the Wall separating the forbidden lovers of the title. He makes a circle with his fingers, explaining that it is the “chink” in the Wall through which Pyramus and Thisbe speak. In contrast with the “human” characters, the Wall sings with the Expressionistic device of Sprechstimme.

Bottom now enters in his role as Pyramus, emoting for all he’s worth in a highly melodramatic monologue beginning “O grim-look’d night” and going on to implore the Wall to reveal its chink. The melody is very much in the style of Verdi:

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Example 11

Next to enter is Flute, made up in gown and wig to portray Thisbe. He sings to the accompaniment of solo flute in a melody similar to the style of Donizetti:

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Example 12

As “Thisbe” begins her aria, she is dreadfully sharp, a full step above the flute, before settling down and finding the right key. At the climax of her scene, the two “lovers” exchange a quick kiss through the Wall’s chink, Flute quickly denying he kissed Bottom at all, but rather the chink in the Wall. The three couples in the audience make continual sardonic comments.
Snug, as the Lion, and Starveling, as the Moon, now enter. Snug takes pains to assure his audience that he is not a real lion, but merely Snug the joiner. Starveling tediously explains that his lantern is the moon, he, the man in the moon, and the dog, a dog.
Thisbe enters, only to be chased off by the “roaring” of the Lion, dropping her mantle as she departs. Pyramus enters; finding the mantle “stained with blood”, he assumes his lover is dead, lamenting his loss in a thunderous G minor accompanied by trombones.

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Example 13

After Pyramus kills himself in a death scene to end all death scenes, Thisbe enters. Beholding the corpse of her lover, she expresses her grief in an aria sounding suspiciously like Edgar’s Tomb Scene in the finale of Lucia di Lammermoor. To make the reference to that work even clearer, Thisbe interpolates a cadenza recalling Lucia’s Mad Scene in its simultaneous scales for flute and voice, though the effect is distorted a bit by Flute having once again lost the key:

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Example 14

Thisbe’s suicide ends the play. When Bottom offers an Epilogue, Theseus quickly declines, requesting instead a Bergomask dance to bring the evening to an end:

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Example 15

As the hour of midnight is tolled, Theseus invites suggests all couples retire to bed. When they have exited, the woodland fairies make a stealthy entrance, singing that though the night is their time to frolic, the household will not be disturbed. Puck joins them, followed by Oberon and Tytania. The fairies unite in a song of blessing to Theseus, his bride and their guests.
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Example 16

All the fairies leave except for Puck, who addresses all those who have watched the events of the story unfold. His advice: anyone who has been offended should just consider all that’s happened to have been a mere dream. Asking for applause, he bows and disappears.

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