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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Tae Andrews | Friday, April 13, 2007

When the curtain goes up on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” tonight in Washington Hall, it will mark a milestone for Opera Notre Dame – the culmination of its most ambitious project to date.

Most college students have come to know and love William Shakespeare’s play through high school English courses, but it’s an entirely different show when presented in opera form.

For a quick refresher course, the play’s rather complicated plot revolves around two pairs of lovers – Hermia and Lysander, and Demetrius and Helena – who end up in a forest after Hermia and Lysander elope. The play is very soap opera-esque, as Helena is in love with Demetrius, who loves not Helena but Hermia, who in turn loves Lysander. This complex “who-likes-who” dynamic becomes even more complicated when fairy king Oberon has his hench-fairy, Puck, intervene. Puck plays Cupid with a series of love potion applications, which scramble the preexisting romantic relationships and create a whole new series of interlocking love triangles.

In addition to the lovers, a roving band of thespians arrives in the woods, Oberon feuds with his fairy wife Titania, and there’s an impending marriage between Duke Theseus of Athens and Amazonian queen Hippolyta.

Oh, and one man’s head is turned into that of a donkey.

As far as the opera goes, legendary British composer Benjamin Britten composed the music in late summer of 1959 for a performance at the Aldeburgh Festival, held less than a year later. Britten is considered to be perhaps England’s most important composer ever, but any discussion of the music of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” must include mention of Peter Pears, Britten’s lifelong friend and contemporary. In fact, Britten composed much of the opera with Pears’ tenor voice in mind. Due to the time constraints under which they wrote the opera, Pears was responsible for adapting the text of Shakespeare’s original play.

As such, there’s a considerable amount of change and revision in the operatic version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which makes its performance considerably more difficult.

“Whenever you’re talking about the opera, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s an adaptation,” director Mark Beudert said in the midst of a busy rehearsal Wednesday night. “The location of the opera is changed to the woods. The woods music runs through the whole opera. [Also], Oberon’s role is bigger and the lovers’ roles are propotionately smaller. The mechanicals are about the same. Theseus and Hippolyta are reduced to almost nothing.

“In Shakespeare’s text, there’s more words and therefore more nuances. However, for the opera, it can’t be handled the same way. You have to search for the nuances in the music. In fact, we had to go back and look for clues in the play in order to find back-story for the lovers.

“Here, you have a decision to make in order to create an opera that works well. You have to pick and choose. So it’s an interesting process.”

In addition to the challenge of custom tailoring the opera, there’s the music itself. Fortunately for Beudert, in Andrew Bisantz he has found a conductor up to the task.

Bisantz earned a Master of Music degree in Orchestral Conducting at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1997, making him the youngest person ever to achieve such a degree in the institute’s history. Ten years later, he is the resident conductor of Florida Grand Opera in Miami.

Of course, Beudert himself is an accomplished professional. A visiting professor of opera here at Notre Dame, Beudert is a tenor who completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University, then received his doctoral degree in music from the University of Michigan.

In terms of degree of difficulty, Beudert and company should be awarded a perfect ten for taking on the challenge of pulling off “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” As Beudert himself says, “This is music that challenges professionals.”

So why did he choose to put on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?”

“This is a fiendishly difficult opera to present, and it’s almost impossible for an all-undergraduate cast to perform – but we didn’t accept that,” Beudert said. “We have a very diverse cast, a very young cast. Frankly, we had so many talented people we had to do it. We have pushed everyone. It’s been a learning experience for all of us. I don’t know anyone else who’s doing this. I think it’s unique for us.”

But due to the difficulty of the performance, Beudert did wind up making one concession – calling in some backup with professionals imported from the South Bend Symphony.

“It’s a perfect opera for this campus because it’s a complete liberal arts experience,” Beudert said of the opera, speaking for himself, cast and crew. “It’s been a tremendous experience, and we’re looking forward to doing it in front of an audience.”