Sunday, November 6, 2022

Shakespeare Lives on in New “Tempest” Opera Premiere

INTERVIEW: Allen Shearer, Claudia Stevens

San Francisco Herbst Theater


San Francisco will witness yet another new Shakespeare-based opera in Allen Shearer and Claudia Stevens’s Prospero’s Island Set for a March 25, 2023, premiere at the Herbst Theater, the upcoming opera is based on The Tempest, one of the Bard’s most frequent inspirations for the operatic art form.

“It will be a high-profile, beautiful production—our eighth opera to be produced,” says librettist Stevens of her long-standing collaboration with composer Shearer. “My adaptation is quite provocative, but it is also poignant, funny, sad and timely in the current state of the world.”

Allen Shearer, Claudia Stevens;
David Becker photo

Phil Lowery, who directed the duo’s Middlemarch and Howards End operas, will helm the team’s newest effort. Producing the premiere is San Francisco's Ninth Planet, the new music performance ensemble, a prominent commissioning and advocacy organization for new works.

I was fortunate to have a rare opportunity to explore this upcoming premiere with the composer and librettist in advance of its debut.

ERICA MINER: Many composers have set Shakespeare’s plays to music in opera, and Tempest has proved one of the most frequently done. What is the time period of Prospero’s Island, and what inspired you to set this play in that period?

CLAUDIA STEVENS: Thanks for inviting us, Erica. Yes, The Tempest is such a wonderful play, so full of fantasy! What composer could resist creating music for Ariel flying through the air or the monster Caliban grunting and cursing? And not just opera—one sees many new theater adaptations of the play. Shakespeare sets it in the Rennaissance, but the story lends itself to other times and places and a contemporary focus. That can include switching of gender roles. Our opera, Prospero's Island, is not the first to do those things. But it is unique in the way we have re-imagined the play and its characters.

EM: Switching gender roles is very timely indeed, Claudia.

ALLEN SHEARER: Prospero's Island is set in the mid-fifties, as was coincidentally our previous opera Howards End, America. In both operas I bring in music from the fifties. In this opera, Steffi and Trish, who correspond to Shakespeare's ribald characters Stephano and Trinculo, twang away at a lusty American drinking song. That helps us to place them and recognize their types. I import other material, too: a wedding march from The Marriage of Figaro, and a solo for Ariel influenced by Elizabethan lute songs. Now, if I were writing concert music, I would not be inclined to use imported material or styles. But opera needs a broader canvas.

EM: Well said, Allen. A broader canvas is such an apt description.

CS: What our opera does, quite provocatively, is to create a past for Prospero as a World War II criminal in hiding. So, his island hideout had to be a remote one. We chose an island off Argentina, a country known as a refuge for escaped Nazis. Such a concept places the action at a very specific historical moment, dictating both the timeframe and the physical setting. It was a very happy coincidence that the Falklands, off Argentina, are rich in penguin wildlife, providing an opportunity to have a chorus of singing and acting penguins!

EM: How unique! What are the most important underlying themes in the opera?

AS: Atonement for past misdeeds is certainly one. In our opera it is Prospero who will confess and try to atone. He asks the characters, especially his daughter Miranda, to forgive him—something of a twist, since in Shakespeare's original he begs the audience's indulgence at the end. Another theme is liberation, and that too did not turn out as I expected. Ariel's liberation is usually seen as a blessed, joyous event—there are modern poems about this. In our opera it takes on a dimension I had not expected—darker and freighted with irony.

Amy Foote as Miranda;

CS: For me the most significant theme is the imperative of truth: the idea that truth, however terrible, will always come out, secrets will be disclosed. And this opera has surprises and secrets to knock the socks off our audience! Confronting reality is hard, it requires courage—the courage to discard illusions of a perfect world, to grow and change, to begin the world anew. All the opera's major characters will do that, each in their own way. This gives new meaning and power to the famous line in The Tempest, “Oh, Brave new world.”

EM: How does your Prospero character differ from Shakespeare’s portrayal?

AS: When we started on this project, I saw the need to adjust my habitual idea of Prospero. In my mind's eye was the benign, genial one played by Sir John Gielgud in the film Prospero's Books, who treated his servants respectfully and didn't appear to have dark secrets.

Andrew Dwan, who plays Prosopero;
Xiaoming Tan
CS: But there are hints in Shakespeare's play that perhaps Prospero DID have a dark past. He uses magic learned from secret books to create a storm and bring the crew of a ship to shore so he can resolve past grievances and secure the happiness of Miranda. But this Prospero is an enigmatic, not-quite-real figure. Shakespeare does not fully reveal him to us. Some have suggested he is actually Shakespeare himself, hiding behind the character. By contrast our opera's Prospero is not a magician but a scientist—a genius who had misused his knowledge, experimenting on prisoners during the Third Reich, with ghastly results. He has escaped from justice, but now, full of remorse, he stages his own capture. This is a more complex Prospero than Shakespeare's and more visceral; we can understand his motivations, his guilt, his reluctance to give up power, the pleasure he takes in manipulating others, all the while knowing that his end is at hand. We may even pity him. 

EM: Fascinating take on this character. Your own personal experiences growing up are quite unusual, Claudia. How have these influenced your adaptation?

CS: Like Miranda, I was a deceived child. My parents had created a false past. I knew nothing about their identity as Jews, their struggle to survive in Europe or even their countries of origin. The shock of suddenly finding those things out—like Miranda in the opera learning the truth about her father—was overwhelming at first. The near destruction of a people in the Holocaust had been an abstraction for me, and then suddenly, in one afternoon, it became the central reality of my life. It's hard to describe what that felt like, but ultimately for me (I was nineteen) it meant recalibrating and starting the world all over. My libretto gives something of that experience to Miranda, but also to Ariel, whose discovery of her own identity and parentage at the opera's end is at the opera's nexus.

EM: Sharing our experiences is one of a writer’s greatest gifts. What is the importance of the penguins in the opera?

AS: They demonstrate Prospero's need to dominate and manipulate, which is already evident in his relationship to his daughter. He teaches them human language, but they use it mostly to parrot what others have said without understanding it. He teaches them music and rudimentary math only so he can show them off and boast.

Ariel Flying;
Public Domain

CS: Now wait a minute! Prospero's oddball school is a great equalizer—his daughter, the two chimeras Ariel and Caliban and a bunch of birds all studying together in a multi-graded school

AS: Well, okay. Prospero in our opera sings, "I was not all bad," and maybe he wasn't. The penguins will add a lot to the spectacle—I can't wait to see them! This project was a long time in the planning, and at the times when we had our doubts, the idea of singing penguins on stage was always a strong incentive to go forward with it.

CS: Those penguins gave Allen the opportunity to create wonderful and funny material for them to sing. We could not resist giving them trilling and cawing vocalizations like those of their cousins the emperor penguins.

EM: Penguins do have a universal appeal. Like Shakespeare’s play, your opera contains comic elements. What are some of them?

AS: Stephano and Trinculo are the comic characters in The Tempest, and we have Steffi and Trish wisecracking throughout. Caliban may not mean to be funny, but his self-pity and his mooning over Miranda provide a lot of the comedy.

CS: Caliban has wonderful, funny arias all about being a lowly worm. And his exchanges with the naughty penguins will get plenty of laughs.

Candace Johnson, Julia Hathaway (Trish, Steffi);
Joy Graham

EM: Shakespeare certainly demonstrated the importance of comic relief! Is there anything you would like to add?

AS: Only that it has been wonderful to adapt a Shakespeare play. He gave us so much to work with—a good story, and characters that just rise up before us in our imaginations.

EM: A great joy—and a great challenge.

CS: Developing this opera, from its beginnings over a dozen years ago, gave us creative joy. It also was humbling and challenging. The Tempest is such a great play, and among Shakespeare's most popular. We had to ask, "Is it possible to improve on Shakespeare?" And, with reverence for Shakespeare's wonderful language 
and enduring vision, how much alteration is a good thing? But as part of our process, that question answered itself. The medium of opera requires a fresh treatment of material, which we have done, giving the play a new and intense life. Shakespeare is not “God,” his is a living art. And indeed, it is possible to re-imagine the play for our own time, to dig deeper, to expose places in the minds and souls of our characters that add dimension to them.

AS: Also, to provide inspiration for our fabulous singers, San Francisco Girls Chorus members, our team of design artists and the wonderful players of Ninth Planet—and give pleasure to our audience.

EM: Yes! In the end, both Shakespeare and the opera composers wrote their stage works for the enjoyment of their audiences. It sounds as if Prospero’s Island will fulfill that mission beautifully.

Prospero’s Island will premiere March 25, 2023, at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Details at:

Public Domain


                                   Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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