Opera Philadelphia – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reviewers: Nan and Linor

The Takeaways

  • Stunning design across the board
  • Gorgeous music and musical performances
  • Excellent direction
  • A (mostly) white cast

 

Unload your pockets

Linor: I walked into the show that night in a rough mood, and not feeling particularly well. But I was excited to see a spectacle.

Nan: I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it– I tend to come to opera also excited to see big exciting design, but a bit apprehensive since so much opera is rife with antiquated social politics. I’ve also seen Midsummer about a million times as a play so I wasn’t sure if I’d be as bored with it as an opera.

Linor: Yeah, totally. I have a friend who LOVES Benjamin Britten, but I haven’t heard most of his stuff. I was excited to for that reason too.

 

The design

Nan: Robert Carson and Peter Van Praet designed the lighting for this production 28 years ago, and Adrian Plaut designed the lighting for this revival performance. I don’t think there was a design element I wasn’t impressed by.

Linor: Agreed. It has stayed with me even this long after seeing the performance. There was one moment when a single doorway of light shone on the stage, illuminating I believe Tytania, that was so stunning.

Nan: Yes! I haven’t seen light used so well as a clear part of the storytelling in ages. The whole section where the lighting indicated the opening and closing door was so strongly evocative of being a kid and being aware of light from outside your room showing your parents coming and going. Wow.

Linor: I also think the lighting had such an effective relationship with the set. The green color being evocative of Oberon’s dominion, and blue for Tytania – I noticed that the white fabric on the bed in Act I changed dramatically with different lighting. The white fabric changed from green to blue with the lighting depending on who was the lead in each scene. It was so pleasant and compelling.

Nan: Agreed. Those huge swaths of single color could have been a big challenge but the color theory between the set and lighting was so elegant and successful in evoking many different colors and moods.

Linor: So good.

Nan: I have to say I don’t really know where the boundary is between the music and the sound design in opera. I need to learn more there.

Linor: That’s a good thing to bring up. I mean, here’s what I’ll say: there wasn’t a lot of sound design, you know, separate from mixing and the orchestra/singers. It’s one of the things that I found interesting about opera – different from a lot of musicals, opera intends that the instruments and voices make the sound of the world around us. Or at least, I assume that’s what it intends.

Nan: True. They also don’t have a sound designer listed in the program. I do feel like the storytelling sounds that aren’t strictly musical are still made by the orchestra and voices. I wonder how much of it is just different delegation of jobs in differently titled positions from what we do in theatre.

Linor: Right. Just showing a little of our inexperience with opera. Maybe we should use this as an opportunity to focus on the singing/music.

Nan: Sure! I was really interested in the vocal aesthetic of the show– the tone wasn’t exactly what I’m used to in opera. It felt a bit more modern, and I wonder if there’s a more “Britten-esque” kind of vocal style that is being used. I think I’m mostly responding to the beautiful sort of tremulous quality of the children’s choir of faeries. But I was also really interested in the fact that Oberon was a countertenor.

Linor: I know! It was such a surprise to me. I didn’t really ever get used to it – every time he opened his mouth to sing, I had to readjust my expectations of that role. But I really loved that. It pushed against my internal assumption about what masculine roles are like in opera.

Nan: Same. But that was such a dramatically useful choice for Oberon. He always kind of made me come out in goosebumps. Definitely the most unearthly Oberon I’ve ever experienced.

Linor:  Definitely. I mean I think in general the music was BEAUTIFUL. I now understand why my friend is so obsessed with Britten. Likewise I loved that Hermia was such a lower part than the other women. Everyone had such specific qualities to their parts, and together it was quite dream-like.

Nan: Yes! I think part of why I loved it so much was that I tend to find that opera is especially interested in tradition, that the love interest is a soprano and the imposing older man is a baritone and whatnot, and I think both with design and other choices they really broke the mold in a lot of ways. It makes me really want to learn more about Britten and his work as well.

Linor: Agreed! I appreciated that Britten stuck with the dreamier bits of the show, and didn’t necessarily try to condense the whole plot into his opera. Like, I didn’t care that the King and Queen showed up at the very end of the show. And I felt like he had weighted the Mechanicals as equally as the lovers, which I know does not always happen in the straight stage play. And I loved that about this production.

Nan: For sure. I think he knew what were the good bits and stuck to them, which I appreciate. I loved that he uses pretty much exclusively Shakespearean text (with only six words in the whole score that weren’t Shakespeare, I believe) but made a smart cut. I was also really impressed with the costumes (originally designed by Michael Levine). I’m not really sure where to begin! There was so much going on. I think a lesser designer would have been tempted to just continue with the “beds” motif and have everyone in some kind of pajama, but I think Oberon and to some extent Tytania were the only ones in pajama-like clothes. Really smart use of very different silhouettes too, especially useful in opera where most of the audience doesn’t get a very close look at what’s onstage.

Linor: Right. The story that’s telling is really that they’re the orchestrators of these dreams.

Nan: I think they did a thing that is one of my favorite design choices in Shakespeare, which is to costume each person in what best helps tell the story of their character, even if it doesn’t necessarily all fit together into one big overarching theme.

Linor: Right! I was SO INTO the lovers wearing costumes from all different time periods. It was SO amusing and really surprising.

Nan: You’ve got the lovers in white, but totally different styles– Hermia in a fluffy, big skirted period number, and Helena in a pencil skirt and sort of “nerdy” 50’s look complete with cuffed socks and saddle shoes

Linor: Demetrius in a 30s three piece suit and Lysander looking like Mr. Darcy.

Nan: And then of course the way they all sort of gradually shred their clothes and pick up smears of green as they continue through the woods, and by the end are only in underwear.

Linor:  It’s really quite clever. And I did love the coordination amongst the boys choir, playing the fairies that I assume are Oberon and Tytania’s children. The striking greens and blues in their clothes really helped tell that narrative. It was honestly really liberating to be watching a performance that made such bold choices in its visual storytelling.

Nan: And it gave them so much to do in terms of supporting the stage picture– like twenty little fairy clones, doing synchronized movement, with the red gloves? So visually interesting and fun. Meanwhile, the set (designed by Michael Levine again) – I loved that they were willing to pretty much cut all ties and start fresh design-wise when it came to the Royals and the Mechanicals’ play at the end.

Linor: Right! All of the sudden we were no longer in the forest. The set was one of my favorite design pieces.

Nan: What a versatile design.

Linor: I keep coming back to the forest and the fairies being the King and Queen of dreams, and how every moment in their realm we were surrounded by or in a bed. The bed in the first act was incredible, with those two GIANT pillows. And the beds hanging from the ceilings! I’m fangirling.

Nan: Oh man. Me too. And the many beds in act two that I think can only have been bed frames with supplementary trampoline rigging in them, they were so dang bouncy. And the moon, in various phases of nearness to us.

Linor: Oh I forgot about the moon! That was INCREDIBLE.

Nan: Just beautiful. And the hanging beds being set down and then coming back up with the blanket floor covering attached to make a kind of curtain, which then sort of related to the curtain in the mechanicals’ play? Man. Likewise, I thought the props were great. I loved the huge, three foot long magical flower with its convenient pitcher shape.

Linor: Definitely. And Hermia’s bag that got progressively more raggedy along with the lovers.

Nan: Yes. Super smart and economical.

Linor: I could talk about this design for hours. I think it was the strongest element of the show. 

 

Performances

Linor: I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I honestly hadn’t thought that opera might make me laugh. I was totally floored by the Mechanicals’ performances, particularly Miles Mykkanen as Flute. Or George Somerville as Snout/the Wall. The lovers were also delightful. I keep thinking about Tim Mead as Oberon, though! He had a very different energy than other Oberon’s I’ve seen, and it was a really interesting backdrop against the lightness of his countertenor voice. 

Nan: I definitely shiver a little bit whenever I think about Oberon. Whoo. I was also so pleasantly surprised that Puck was not a singing role.

Linor: I happened to be in the lecture preceding the performance, and the lecturer mentioned that Britten wrote that role specifically for an acrobat/clown. 

Nan: I love that Britten deliberately put a non-opera performer into an opera! Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones) was such a great choice! I had no idea he was such a skilled clown, a total pleasure to watch. I will also say the four featured fairies were also so much fun to watch. Those kids know how to mug. Big kudos to Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and Moth.

Linor: Absolutely! I love a show that integrates kid performers. And treats them like all the others!

Nan: I have never seen such attention toward good comedic bits in opera. The whole section in which Bottom (Matthew Rose) is asking the fairies to do all these tasks is usually cut from the play because nobody wants to hire people to play fairies with two lines each, but they really made a meal of that scene.

 

Direction

Linor: So, correct me if I’m wrong, but Robert Carson also directed this production 28 years ago?

Nan: Looks like he directed the original staging, but this revival was directed by Emmanuelle Bastet. There are a bunch of different credits that I assume reflect the original design and the designers for this revival.

Linor: Yeah, I don’t know how touring productions like these work. In any case, I think the direction for this production was so smart. It brought out the dreamy qualities of Britten’s composition with a kind of wit and levity that I don’t always see in this story.

Nan: Agreed. Not only the stuff that likely carries over from the original production but things that can only happen in the room, like the acting coaching with the kids. This production made me love Midsummer in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid.

Linor: Such a feat!

Nan: It really is. I was incredibly impressed. I also saw some kids in the audience and wished there were more. What a great way to be introduced to opera. In the program chat with the director it says that part of their intention with the design was to create a forest without having to make an actual forest onstage, and I think the creation of that sense of wonder and magic is really unusual and a pleasure to witness.

Linor: Oh yeah, I mean, it’s brilliant. And totally successful.

 

Accountability

Nan: I tend to have a decent amount of side eye for productions that have been running this long but I was so glad to have seen this. All that said, it was a pretty white group of leading performers.

Linor: I’ve only ever seen one other Opera Philadelphia show before, and I saw POC performers within OP’s chorus that filled in casting, but that was also an nearly all white cast, with no POC performers in leading roles.

Nan: Yeah. I don’t mean to inadvertently gloss over any POC that I didn’t recognize, but it’s not like there is any dramatic reason why the show would be so devoid of POC. The fairy choir definitely had a pretty diverse group, at least?

Linor: Right, and those were Philadelphia Boys Choir performers, so I feel like Opera Philadelphia can’t really take credit for that. I should also say though that I believe (though I cannot 100% confirm) that the woman who played Tytania is POC. But I think our criticism still stands.

Nan: I do appreciate the fact that Opera Philadelphia does foster the creation of a lot of new work, and a decent amount of that these days does include POC, but why hasn’t it reached the big mainstage productions?

Linor: Right. I guess something that’s worth mentioning, as I sort of work out where the burden of responsibility is is that I don’t know whether this touring show is cast by Opera Philadelphia, or OP is presenting it and it was cast by another organization. In either case, I agree with you, that there is work to be done to bring the investment in new work and POC artists into the more classic works of opera, in particular to POC performers.

Nan: That’s a good point. I guess I assumed it was a fresh cast because this is an American premiere for the production and at least six of the cast members have worked with Opera Philadelphia before. But it’s possible it’s touring; I know Miltos Yerolemou has been wth the show for awhile.

Linor: I mean, I don’t say that to cut OP any slack, I just have to be honest and say I don’t know much about this process. But whatever the process is, there’s absolutely no reason the main cast has to be all white. (Or mostly all white.)

Nan: I guess I’m still just trying to figure out where I’m at– I loved this show so much, but it was so white (and so straight, and cis, in terms of visibility) and I don’t know if I can say much good about who it is for. Still kinda parsing through that personally.

Linor: The thing that was so amazing for me was the design – and the spectacle. We talked about it the night of the show, but because of the theater industry, I feel like we’ve had to scale down our performances so much. There’s intimacy in a black box, but it was honestly so liberating to see a performance that was that enormous and striking. I know the opera industry is “dying” as much as theater (if not more), and going through the same conversations that we are about race, gender, and representation, and so I agree with you that if we’re not populating this show with people who look like most of the world, it’s not as effective. BUT I do think this production is gorgeous and I would want people to see it. I’m right there with you in the murkiness.

Nan: Well summed up.

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