Hamlet: birth of a new opera

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For Festival 2017 Vladimir Jurowski will return to Glyndebourne for the first time since his tenure as Music Director ended in 2013.

He will conduct the world premiere of Glyndebourne’s new opera Hamlet, composed by Brett Dean. He has, however, been involved in the creation of Hamlet from the very beginning.

When did you first get involved in the creation of this new work?

The idea of creating and commissioning a new opera was agreed upon when I was still Music Director at Glyndebourne.

David [Pickard] and I both felt we wanted to devote more time to new music. David suggested Brett Dean to me and I knew of his work, but I had never met him. We met here at Glyndebourne in 2013 while I was conducting Ariadne auf Naxos. We talked about several options, but Brett was determined that the new opera would be Hamlet.

Then once the libretto was written and singers were commissioned, the project really started to take shape. So I’ve been involved along the way in all aspects of the opera except the composition, which Brett has mastered.

I also attended an early Hamlet workshop, where I was able to make some suggestions on the music, which Brett received graciously and incorporated into the score. I know the auditorium at Glyndebourne so well it is a second home for me, and so I know all about the acoustics and what works, and I’ve been able to explain this to Brett.

As with Love and Other Demons [Glyndebourne’s last Festival main-stage new commission] the collaboration between a composer and conductor is close and intense and I do feel like I am one of the parents of the work!


Hamlet workshop, 2016. Photo: Sam Stephenson

What is different about working on a new opera as opposed to one you are familiar with?

The main difference in working with a new piece of music is that the composer is alive and can be consulted. I can actually make the composer’s image of his work materialise, come to life and know it is exactly as he envisages it.

It will also be the first time Brett has heard his new opera performed so we’ll have a lot of time to fine tune any changes he may have.

Already during the workshops I saw how Allan Clayton worked with Brett and how they talked about some sections, for example, so Allan’s contribution will also form part of the final opera.

You can also create traditions – it will be the first time the singers sing these roles, the first time the music is played and heard – and it will be from here at Glyndebourne that future performances and interpretations will be compared.

To extend the parenting analogy a bit further, this opera will be born at Glyndebourne. It is very exciting.

What do you like about working on new music?

Simply, I like the idea that someone has taken the liberty to create sounds that have not been heard before and in doing so has opened up a new universe through his or her imagination. Music is only capable of survival as an artform if we keep reinventing it. It is that important.

In Mozart’s time new music was created all the time and it survived if it provoked an interest from the audience who were critical and had exacting, high standards.

New music was expected and embraced, which is actually the opposite of what happens now. In general audiences are scared of new compositions, scared of the unheard.

As performers we carry the responsibility to promote new music and help composers to bring their music to life with as much skill as we do for the dead composers.