What can an opera do that a play can't?

Key Stage 3

The play Hamlet opens on the battlements of the King of Denmark’s castle. It is a nervous time. The old king has just died, and there are fears that war with Norway might be brewing. Read the opening few lines of Hamlet here, perhaps you could read it in groups of four - each reading a different role.

  • In how many different ways can you read it? Nervously? Breathlessly? Excitedly? Does it look like normal Shakespeare? Do you notice anything about the line-lengths?
  • Try and read it exaggerating the punctuation, or making it sound as if you are interrupting the speaker before.
  • What do you think is the ‘thing’ that has ‘appeared again tonight’?

What atmosphere do you think Shakespeare is trying to create, and what tools has he been able to use to create this atmosphere?

Now watch and listen to the scene in the opera where Hamlet delivers his most famous soliloquy - ‘To be or not to be’. Both the director (Neil Armfield) and the opera’s composer (Brett Dean) are able to add their own ideas of the play’s atmosphere.

  • Discuss and list the various different techniques that are used to create this atmosphere, and then decide how many of them are unique to the art-form of opera.

Here is the section of the play where Hamlet sees the ghost for the first time. The ghost is of Hamlet’s father - Old Hamlet. Read the passage on your own, then perhaps in groups. You will need to discuss the language - particularly of Hamlet himself. Have a look at the word choices that Shakespeare uses.

  • How many different words can you find in this excerpt that relate to things hellish or supernatural?
  • Can you see where there is a description of what the ghost looks like?
  • Given the language that Hamlet uses, why do you think Horatio and Marcellus advise Hamlet to leave the ghost well alone?
  • What does Hamlet decide to do, and why? If you were directing this scene, how would you encourage the actor playing Hamlet to deliver his lines?

Now look at the ghost’s appearance in the opera.

  • What immediately strikes you about this scene, compared to the same scene in the play excerpt that you have just read?
  • Who is singing ‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us’?
  • What is added to the scene by the nature of the music, and how it is being sung?

Some of the decisions about how Hamlet might play this scene have been made by the nature of the music he has to sing. Some of the decisions have been made by the singer. What do you think Hamlet is feeling in this scene? Does it tally with the ideas you had about the scene from the play?

 

What can an opera bring to our understanding of the characters in Hamlet?

Key Stage 4

The play Hamlet is nearly four-and-a-half hours long. The opera is roughly half this length, and also has to make space for the singers to deliver text at a pace dictated by the music. This means that a lot of the detail of the original play has had to be left out. However, there are tools that an opera composer has, that a playwright doesn’t. Here is the text for the beginning of the first speech delivered by Claudius - (it is the old King Hamlet to whom he refers in the first line). He is explaining the current situation to the assembled court. Read it on your own, then discuss the following questions in groups:  What is the ‘tone’ of the speech? Solemn? Pompous? Celebratory? How is this tone achieved?. What linguistic features help you to understand the nature of the character of Claudius?  (Look at his use of pronouns, for example, and any obvious rhetorical features)

Now look at the section of the opera where this speech occurs. What immediately strikes you about the way that the character of Claudius is portrayed? As you watch and listen to this section of the opera, what extra tools can you see and hear that the composer and director have been able to use to help us understand the character of Claudius?

 

There are many smaller roles in the play Hamlet - many of them have been cut out entirely from the opera. However, some are critical to the plot, and so it is important that the audience get a quick and clear understanding of exactly what these characters represent. Here is an edited section from the play in which Claudius and Gertrude talk to the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The new king and queen are trying to persuade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on their friend Hamlet. Read it, first on your own, and then discussing it in groups - perhaps taking a part each. What strikes you about the language that each character uses? What does this language tell you about the characters, and what they are trying to achieve in this scene? Can you find at least one short quotation from each character that sums up their status and intention?

 

Now listen to one of the appearances of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the opera. It is from Act 2, where the pair have been sent to encourage Hamlet to accept a duel with Laertes. In fact, they have been sent to lay a trap.

  • How has Brett Dean (the composer) understood the characters in this scene?
  • How effective do you think his characterisation of these two is?
  • Can you point to at least one specific example of where something that Brett Dean has done has helped clarify a particular feature of Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern that perhaps you picked out from looking at the play excerpt above?

Homework extensions

Key Stage 3

Key Stage 4

Key Stage 3

Hamlet is full of famous soliloquies (monologues where characters share their thoughts and feelings with the audience). Here is one, where Hamlet decides he needs to finally discuss the suspicious death of his father with his mother. If you were directing this soliloquy, what sound, music or special effects might you use to add extra drama to the effect of the text?

Key Stage 4

Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia, and meets a sticky end halfway through the plot of Hamlet. Here is perhaps his most famous speech in the play, in this speech, he is giving advice to his son, who is about to leave to go to university. What sort of character do you think would have made a speech like this? Try and isolate at least three different character traits that this speech might give away, and justify them with a short quotation.

Polonius appears in the opera, but this speech has been cut. When you see the opera, think about how the character has been portrayed. Is it what you expected? If so - why? If not - why not?