By benjamin britten a study guide


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Historical Background
Shakespeare’s comedy

Though we know that William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND) was first printed in 1600, it is impossible to establish the exact year in which it was written with certainty. When scholars attempt to form a chronology for Shakespeare’s works for the stage, various factors are taken into consideration, including:

  • Mentions of the play in contemporary sources and documents of the period;

  • References in the script to actual persons or events of Shakespeare’s day;

  • Aspects of style, as Shakespeare’s writing went through various stages of development throughout his career;

  • Records of public performances;

and others.
In this context, many believe that AMND was written around 1595, possibly following the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Like Romeo, it is in a lyrical style. Another factor is the play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe, presented by Bottom and the other “mechanicals” at the court of Theseus in Act V.

Pyramus and Thisbe is a classic tale of doomed lovers. The oldest surviving version dates from the year 8 A.D. in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There are later adaptations by Boccaccio and Chaucer. Given the basic elements of the plot (lovers separated by a family feud ending in dual suicides resulting from misunderstandings), it is obvious that Shakespeare used it as the basis for Romeo and Juliet. It is reasonable to assume that with Pyramus still fresh in his mind, he decided to follow his tragedy by including a parody of the story in his next project. This became the mechanical’s comically absurd re-telling in AMND. (Note: Shakespeare’s parody inspired a classic 1960 American musical comedy, The Fantasticks. It, too, features young lovers uniting despite their father’s feud. It also includes a character taken directly from Shakespeare: as in AMND, the lovers are separated by a wall portrayed by a human actor.)

There is no particular source for the main plot of AMND; it appears to be largely the work of Shakespeare’s fertile imagination, although some characters are not original. For example:

  • Puck, also called Robin Goodfellow, is a traditional character thought to date back some one thousand years with roots in Norse and Celtic mythology. Variously termed a spirit, a hobgoblin or pixie, Puck is a mischievous entity whose trick and pranks range from innocent to evil depending on the story being told, similar to Til Eulenspiegel, a character of German folklore. Puck/Robin appears in English literature as early as 1531 in the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as other sixteenth-century dramas.

  • Oberon, the Fairy King, is a character dating from thirteenth-century French literature and song. Interestingly, his origins indicate he is also a variant of the mythical character Alberich, who would later play a central role in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung operas. Oberon’s wife Titania is a creation of Shakespeare, although the name was also borrowed from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where it was used in association with daughters of the Titans.

  • Theseus is an important figure in Greek mythology, the hero of many tales. His exploits include slaying the Minotaur on the island of Crete in the kingdom of King Minos. Aided by Minos’s daughter Ariadne, he became her lover, later abandoning her on the island of Naxos, an event re-told in operatic form in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Theseus, in his deeds of strength and combat, resembles such heroes as Hercules and Samson.

  • Hippolyta, in mythology, is the Queen of the Amazons, a race of powerful female warriors. Theseus, as Shakespeare recounts in AMND, conquered Hippolyta and married her, one of his many romantic escapades.

It is often observed that, while AMND is ostensibly set in ancient Greece, the play clearly depicts contemporary English society and mores. This is thought to be a deliberate device of Shakespeare’s; a way of distancing his characters from the present, thus allowing social commentary without giving offence to living persons or institutions.

The structure of the play maximizes the contrast between the everyday civilized world of Athens, symbolizing “reality” (ruled by Theseus), with the magical, ethereal world of the Woods symbolizing “dreams” (ruled by Oberon and Titania). The comedy begins and ends in Athens, with the adventures in the Woods occurring in between. Thus, the impression is given of the characters passing from one day into a night’s sleep and then leaving the world of dreams to return, however transformed, to reality. As explained below, Britten’s opera departs from this structure.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was already an established operatic composer of high international standing when he undertook an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (AMND). His successful operas included such widely admired masterworks as Peter Grimes (1945), Albert Herring (1947), Billy Budd (1951) and The Turn of the Screw (1954).
AMND was written for a special occasion, in celebration of the opening of Jubilee Hall, a newly-rebuilt venue of the Aldeburgh Festival. The composer began work on the piece in the summer of 1959 for its premiere at the 1960 festival, a relatively brief span of time in comparison with his usual pace. Britten jokingly remarked that the short turnaround time prompted his choice of subject in that “a libretto was already at hand” with Shakespeare’s play. The irony of his quip lies in the fact that a Shakespearean play cannot function as an operatic libretto by simply setting it to music; such an opera would be several times normal operatic length. Any play by Shakespeare must be subjected to massive editing: characters must be cut or compressed, speeches truncated and entire scenes deleted or combined.
Britten set to work on the task of re-shaping the original comedy with the help of his collaborator and partner, the tenor Peter Pears. Their major alterations include these:

  • The expository material in Shakespeare’s Act 1, scene 1 was cut. Britten wanted the action to begin in the wood, to allow the music to establish an aura of magic and enchantment. The audience gradually infers the dilemma of Hermia’s forced engagement as the action unfolds.

  • The frequent comings and goings of the two couples in the play are condensed, with various scenes combined.

  • About one half of the 72,679 words in Shakespeare’s play are cut altogether. Of the words retained, they remain as Shakespeare wrote them word-for-word, with no updating or re-writing. (Britten inserted one short phrase not found in the play to clarify the reason for Hermia’s elopement with Lysander.)

  • In a few cases, lines spoken by one character in the play were re-assigned to another in the opera.

  • In the play, the action takes place over a span of four days; the opera compresses the action into a little over twenty-four hours.

The effect of these and other changes, while retaining the story-lines of the major characters, result in a fundamental restructuring. Some of Shakespeare’s structure is abandoned, but in its place, Britten finds his own unique structure.

For example, the structure of the complete play has a logical symmetry forming an arch shape to the whole:

Theseus  Quince  Fairies  Quince  Theseus

This frames the comedy with the court at Athens, representing “reality” and the “conscious world”, with the mechanicals (or, in Britten’s term the “rustics”) providing a transition to and from the enchanted world of dreams. The work as a whole takes on a pleasing symmetry.

With the wholesale removal of Shakespeare’s first act, the opera loses any vestige of that symmetry. However, Britten/Pears find new symmetries in their re-ordered action. Here is the outline of the action in Act 1 of the opera:

Fairies  Lovers Rustics  Lovers  Fairies

Thus, one element of symmetry is replaced by another.

The libretto does contain some flaws, as two details seem not to conform to logic.

  • In the final scene of the opera, where we meet Theseus and Hippolyta for the first time, Britten transplanted their dialogue from the opening scene of the play as the characters discuss their upcoming marriage. Theseus’s lines include these:

Now fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour

Draws on apace: this happy day brings in

Another moon: But oh, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes; she lingers my desires… (etc.)

When uttered at the outset of the play, in which the wedding is still four days away, we understand Theseus’s unhappiness with how slowly time is passing. But in the opera, this scene occurs literally on the wedding-day, making his impatience difficult to understand. In a related problem of logic,

  • Following the Rustic’s performance of Pyramus and Thisbe, Theseus invites all the couples to bed to consummate their marriages. However, there hasn’t yet been time for any of the weddings to take place. The two young couples have only just arrived at the palace for the performance, and by Theseus’s own admission, his nuptials still await. Commentators and critics of the opera are in general agreement that, perhaps owing to the speed at which they had to work, Britten and Pears may not have realized this error. Some have speculated that perhaps this was the composer’s nod to the freer sexual climate of the 1960’s in which the opera was first performed, but this idea has been largely discredited. And finally,

  • Theseus and Hippolyta have been reduced to mere cameos, far less important to the plot than in the play. It is true that the opera allows Theseus to announce the reversal of his earlier command that Hermia obey her father, but by cutting the play’s opening scene, that issue is made less important.

Nevertheless, the opera’s libretto stands as a remarkably clear and concise version of Shakespeare’s comedy with its extremely complex texture of plots and sub-plots. Almost all characters are retained, and the language is faithful to Shakespeare.

Themes of the opera

The more one knows about Benjamin Britten, the easier it becomes to understand why AMND would have attracted him as operatic material; it treats a number of themes which recur throughout his career. They may be summarized as follows:

A. Night, sleep and dreams. Ironically, for a man who admitted he disliked working late at night and admitted “By midnight, all I want to do is sleep”, as an artist he was fascinated with darkness and sleep. Previous works in this category include:

  • The Serenade, Op. 31 (1943) for tenor voice, horn and strings. This cycle of six songs on the subject of night is framed by a Prologue and Epilogue for solo horn. The poems are from various English poets.

  • The Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958): for tenor voice, a chamber ensemble of obbligato instruments, and strings. The texts for this cycle of eight songs are drawn from classic English poets (including a sonnet of Shakespeare’s) and all deal directly with night-time and sleep.

  • In the opera The Turn of the Screw (1954), the children Miles and Flora run into the woods in the night, where they encounter malevolent ghosts.

B. Young boys. The plot of AMND hinges on two boys: the Indian changeling child (who is discussed but never seen), and Puck, who is one of the catalysts of the action. Britten’s interest in the depiction of boys is a feature of many of his operas, including:

  • Peter Grimes (1945), in which the title character, a fisherman in a small coastal village, is suspected of having killed his young apprentice as the curtain rises. When he takes on a second boy as apprentice, he too meets an untimely end, causing Grimes, now driven mad, to take his own life.

  • Albert Herring (1947), a coming-of-age comedy in which the title character is an adolescent boy experiencing sexual awakening.

  • Billy Budd (1951) features a title character who, while being an adult sailor, is considered of such pure and innocent character by his ship’s crew that he is called “Baby Budd”.

  • The Turn of the Screw (1954), as mentioned above, centers on the efforts of the ghost of the evil Peter Quint to take possession of the young boy Miles. Despite the efforts of the Governess to protect him, Miles dies in the opera’s final scene.

  • Death in Venice (1973), Britten’s final opera, is about an elderly man’s obsession with a beautiful young Polish boy named Tadzio.

Taken as a whole, the five operas above plus AMND can possibly be viewed as Britten’s reflections on his own attitude toward boys, with both wholesome and unwholesome aspects combined in his psyche, adding up to a revealing self-portrait.
AMND was an immediate success upon its premiere production at Jubilee Hall and has remained a staple of the twentieth-century repertoire around the world ever since. It ranks with Peter Grimes and Billy Budd as Britten’s most-performed operas, ensuring his position as the most important English operatic composer since Henry Purcell

Britten’s choice of counter-tenor to portray the role of Oberon is noteworthy. Counter-tenors were seldom if ever used in the opera world in 1960. The unique timbre of the counter-tenor voice is apt for a male character who is neither a mortal man nor a god; the ethereal nature of Oberon’s vocal range effectively suggests the unsettling effect Britten clearly desired. Tytania, on the other hand, is written for a conventional operatic soprano. Some critics find that her more powerful voice leads to problems of balance in Tytania’s duets with Oberon.
Another feature of Britten’s musical characterization of Oberon involves the orchestral accompaniment. Oberon’s lines are generally accompanied by the celesta. Interestingly, the celesta was also used as instrumental color for the role of Quint in The Turn of the Screw.
Puck is a speaking role. Britten remarked that his conception of Puck was inspired by a performance he saw by a troupe of young Swedish acrobats. Having Puck speak his lines also conveniently avoided the challenge of finding an appropriate singing voice. Making him another counter-tenor would detract from Oberon’s uniqueness. A treble voice, as assigned to Mustardseed, Moth and the other solo fairies, would make Puck seem too young, whereas any standard male operatic voice (bass, baritone or tenor) would make him sound too mature. As with Oberon, Puck’s distinctive vocal style helps him stand out in the fairy world.
When the chorus of fairies sings alone in passages such as “Over hill, over dale” or the opening of the lullaby ending Act 1, Britten deliberately chooses a comparatively lively, essentially rhythmic style, avoiding any suggestion of the cuteness or sweetness associated with popular images of fairies from the Victorian era or the Disney canon. Harmonies are often astringent and harsh, and words are set in irregular patterns with odd syllabic stress. The intention, once again, appears to depict fairies as somewhat disturbing alien creatures. Their richest and most lyrical musical passage occurs in the final moments of the opera, when all the fairies are bestowing blessings on Theseus and his household.
The humorous use of musical parody in the Pyramus and Thisbe scene has been described above.

1. Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical Into the Woods depicts standard fairy tale characters from “Rapunzel”, “Cindereella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk” and others as they find themselves going to the woods to resolve various issues in their lives. Do you find any relationship in this theme to A Midsummer Night’s Dream? In what sense? Is it possible that Sondheim had Shakespeare in mind as an inspiration for his work?
2. The discussions in this guide have documented Britten’s interest in the subject of night-time, sleep, and dreaming. How would you sum up his attitude toward these aspects of the human experience? Be as specific as you can.
3. Why do you think the counter-tenor voice was not used in opera prior to A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What characteristics make it problematic or suitable for this art form?
4. In both the opera and the original play, the role of Puck has been played by boys as well as grown men. Is there anything about the character that suggests one or the other as being more appropriate?
5. Compared to the hundreds of operatic adaptations of Shakespeare that have been created throughout the history of opera, only a handful have been found successful enough to remain in the repertoire. What, in your opinion, might account for this small percentage? Is there something about the nature of Shakespeare that presents challenges to opera composers?
6. Listen to a recording of the Overture to Felix Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Compare his concept of “fairy music” to Britten’s. What, if anything, do Britten and Mendelssohn have in common in their conception of the story? What are the biggest differences?

The word opera is the plural form of the Latin word opus, which translates quite literally as work. The use of the plural form alludes to the plurality of art forms that combine to create an operatic performance. Today we accept the word opera as a reference to a theatrically based musical art form in which the drama is propelled by the sung declamation of text accompanied by a full symphony orchestra.

Opera as an art form can claim its origin with the inclusion of incidental music that was performed during the tragedies and comedies popular during ancient Greek times. The tradition of including music as an integral part of theatrical activities expanded in Roman times and continued throughout the Middle Ages. Surviving examples of liturgical dramas and vernacular plays from medieval times show the use of music as an “insignificant” part of the action as do the vast mystery and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries. Traditional view holds that the first completely sung musical drama (or opera) developed as a result of discussions held in Florence in the 1570s by an informal academy known as the Camerata, which led to the musical setting of Rinuccini’s drama, Dafne, by composer, Jacopo Peri in 1597.

The work of such early Italian masters as Giulio Caccini and Claudio Monteverdi led to the development of a through-composed musical entertainment comprised of recitative sections (secco and accompagnato) which revealed the plot of the drama; followed by da capo arias which provided the soloist an opportunity to develop the emotions of the character. The function of the chorus in these early works mirrored that of the character of the same name found in Greek drama. The new “form” was greeted favorably by the public and quickly became a popular entertainment.

Opera has flourished throughout the world as a vehicle for the expression of the full range of human emotions. Italians claim the art form as their own, retaining dominance in the field through the death of Giacomo Puccini in 1924. Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Leoncavallo developed the art form through clearly defined periods that produced opera buffa, opera seria, bel canto, and verismo. The Austrian Mozart also wrote operas in Italian and championed the singspiel (sing play), which combined the spoken word with music, a form also used by Beethoven in his only opera, Fidelio. Bizet (Carmen), Offenbach (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), Gounod (Faust), and Meyerbeer (Les Huguenots) led the adaptation by the French which ranged from the opera comique to the grand full-scale tragedie lyrique. German composers von Weber (Der Freischütz), Richard Strauss (Ariadne auf Naxos), and Wagner (Der Ring des Nibelungen) developed diverse forms such as singspiel to through-composed spectacles unified through the use of the leitmotif. The English ballad opera, Spanish zarzuela and Viennese operetta helped to establish opera as a form of entertainment which continues to enjoy great popularity throughout the world.

With the beginning of the 20th century, composers in America diverged from European traditions in order to focus on their own roots while exploring and developing the vast body of the country’s folk music and legends. Composers such as Aaron Copland, Douglas Moore, Carlisle Floyd, Howard Hanson, and Robert Ward have all crafted operas that have been presented throughout the world to great success. Today, composers John Adams, Philip Glass, and John Corigliano enjoy success both at home and abroad and are credited with the infusion of new life into an art form which continues to evolve even as it approaches its fifth century.

A true (and brief) definition of the “operatic” voice is a difficult proposition. Many believe the voice is “born,” while just as many hold to the belief that the voice is “trained.” The truth lies somewhere between the two. Voices that can sustain the demands required by the operatic repertoire do have many things in common. First and foremost is a strong physical technique that allows the singer to sustain long phrases through the control of both the inhalation and exhalation of breath. Secondly, the voice (regardless of its size) must maintain a resonance in both the head (mouth, sinuses) and chest cavities. The Italian word “squillo” (squeal) is used to describe the brilliant tone required to penetrate the full symphony orchestra that accompanies the singers. Finally, all voices are defined by both the actual voice “type” and the selection of repertoire for which the voice is ideally suited.

Within the five major voice types (Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Tenor, Baritone, Bass) there is a further delineation into categories (Coloratura, Lyric, Spinto, Dramatic) which help to define each particular instrument. The Coloratura is the highest within each voice type whose extended upper range is complimented by extreme flexibility. The Lyric is the most common of the “types.” This instrument is recognized more for the exceptional beauty of its tone rather than its power or range. The Spinto is a voice which combines the beauty of a lyric with the weight and power of a Dramatic, which is the most “powerful” of the voices. The Dramatic instrument is characterized by the combination of both incredible volume and “steely” intensity. Below is a very brief outline of voice types and categories with roles usually associated with the individual voice type.






Norina (Don Pasquale)

Gilda (Rigoletto)

Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor)

Liu (Turandot)

Mimi (La Bohème)

Pamina (Magic Flute)

Tosca (Tosca)

Amelia (A Masked Ball)

Leonora (Il Trovatore)

Turandot (Turandot)

Norma (Norma)

Elektra (Elektra)


Rosina (Barber of Seville)

Angelina (La Cenerentola)

Dorabella (Così fan tutte)

Carmen (Carmen)

Charlotte (Werther)

Giulietta (Hoffmann)

Santuzza (Cavalleria)

Adalgisa (Norma)

Azucena (Il Trovatore)

Ulrica (A Masked Ball)

Herodias (Salome)


Count Almaviva (Barber of Seville)

Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni)

Ferrando (Così fan tutte)

Alfredo (La Traviata)

Rodolfo (La Bohème)

Tamino (Magic Flute)

Calaf (Turandot)

Pollione (Norma)

Cavaradossi (Tosca)

Dick Johnson (Fanciulla)

Don Jose (Carmen)

Otello (Otello)


Figaro (Barber of Seville)

Count Almavira (Le nozze di Figaro)

Dr. Malatesta (Don Pasquale)

Marcello (La Bohème)

Don Giovanni (Don Giovanni)

Sharpless (Madama Butterfly)

Verdi Baritone

Germont (La Traviata)

Di Luna (Il Trovatore)

Rigoletto (Rigoletto)

Scarpia (Tosca)

Jochanaan (Salome)

Jack Rance (Fanciulla)


Bartolo (Barber of Seville)

Don Magnifico (Cenerentola)

Dr. Dulcamara (Elixir of Love)

Leporello (Don Giovanni)

Colline (La Bohème)

Figaro (Marriage of Figaro)

Buffo Bass

Don Pasquale (Don Pasquale)

Don Alfonso (Così fan tutte)

Basso Cantate

Oroveso (Norma)

Timur (Turandot)

Sarastro (Magic Flute)

Opera is created through the collaboration of different artists. First and foremost are the actors who portray characters by revealing their thoughts and emotions through the singing voice. The next very important component is a full symphony orchestra that accompanies the singing actors and actresses, helping them to portray the full range of emotions. The orchestra performs in an area in front of the singers called the orchestra pit while the singers perform on the open area called the stage.
The creation of an opera begins with a dramatic scenario crafted by a playwright or dramaturge who alone or with a librettist fashions the script or libretto that contains the words the artists will sing. Working together, the composer and librettist team up to create a musical drama in which the music and words work together to express the emotions revealed in the story. Following the completion of their work, the composer and librettist entrust their new work to a conductor who assumes responsibility for the musical preparation of the work. The conductor collaborates with a stage director (responsible for the visual component) in order to bring a performance of the new piece to life.
Set, lighting, and costume designers, wig and makeup designers and even choreographers must all work together to participate in the creation of the new production. The set designer combines the skills of both an artist and an architect using “blueprint” plans to design the physical set which will reside on the stage, recreating the physical setting required by the storyline. These blueprints are turned over to a team of carpenters who are specially trained in the art of stage carpentry. As the set is assembled on the stage, the lighting designer works with a team of electricians to place light onto both the stage and the set in an atmospheric as well as practical way. Using specialized lighting instruments, colored gels and a state of the art computer, the designer creates a “lighting plot” by writing “lighting cues” which are stored in the computer and used during the actual performance of the opera.
During this production period, the costume designer in consultation with the stage director has designed appropriate clothing for the actors and actresses to wear. These designs are fashioned into patterns and crafted by a team of highly skilled artisans called cutters, stitchers, and sewers. Each costume is specially made for each singer using his/her individual measurements. The wig and makeup designer, working with the costume designer, creates wigs which will complement both the costume and the singer as well as represent historically accurate “period” fashions.
As the actual performance date approaches, rehearsals are held on the newly crafted set, combined with costumes, lights, and orchestra in order to ensure a cohesive performance that will be both dramatically and musically satisfying to the audience.
ALTO (It.)

The lowest female voice. Also called contralto.

ARIA (It.)

pronounced (AH-ree-ah) - A song for solo voice.


pronounced (BARR-ah-tone) - The middle range male voice, between tenor and bass.


pronounced (BASE) - Lowest of the male voices.


Clothing a singer wears to portray a character.


The person who writes the music.


The person who creates the scenery, costumes and lights.


pronounced (do-ET) - Music written for two people to sing together, usually to each other.


Two or more singers singing at the same time to express their emotions and tell the story.


pronounced (lih-BRET-oh) - The word literally means “little book.” The

text or words of an opera.

A series of musical tones that make up a tune.


pronounced (MEDZ-oh soh-PRANH-oh) - The middle female voice, between soprano and contralto.


pronounced (AH-per-ah) - A play that uses singing instead of speaking and is accompanied usually by piano in rehearsals and orchestra in performances.


pronounced (pee-AN-oh) – A musical instrument used to accompany singers in rehearsals when there is no orchestra. The orchestral score is reduced from parts for many instruments to one part for the pianist, which combines all the important music that must be played to give a complete sound for the singers.


pronounced (ress-it-uh-TEEVE) - A type of music using words sung with the rhythm of natural speech with some melody added. Recitative can come before an aria or stand alone and it gives information or moves the story along.


The time singers and musicians spend practicing before a performance.


Objects placed on the stage, excluding scenery. Short for “properties.”


The book which contains both the music and the text of the opera.


The scenery used on the stage to show location for the action.


pronounced (soh-PRANH-oh) - The highest female voice.


The person who decides how the singers will move on stage and how they will act while they are singing their parts.


pronounced (TEH-nor) - The highest male voice.

TRIO (It.)

pronounced (TREE-oh) - Music written for three characters to sing together.


pronounced (vi-BRAH-toe) - The natural way for a voice or instrument to enlarge its sound through a very rapid but very tiny waver in pitch.


The scope of the human voice from its highest to its lowest sounds. Voices fall into these categories:

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