Photo: Kari Sarkkinen

A musical dream of no common class


In the wake of this thrilling staging of Benjamin Britten’s setting after Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream you are going to witness a dream of no common class. A fantasy so real, that it will give you the chills. A hit “in the painful spot” of the whole society in its ambivalence. “A very tragic mirth”, as one of the characters would say.

Benjamin Britten’s musical choices on the setting of this famous play are an example for many musicians (both singers and players) and composers of our time. If Shakespeare would have been alive, I strongly believe – he would have liked and praised the ways in which Britten decided to set his masterpiece to music!

My name is Aleksan Chobanov, a counter-tenor – I am an exchange student coming from the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and I have been granted the honor to be cast as Oberon. So it is my duty to give you more information about my voice and role – both historically, socially and musically.

The first and most important question about Britten's idea concerning the character of Oberon will be why would he choose the counter-tenor voice for this concrete role? Why, if before he would write his central high male roles for his companion, the tenor Peter Pears?

Even though Alfred Deller (1912­–1979) was considered to be the pioneering counter-tenor – or maybe because of it, I believe the composer’s choice of voice might have been historically informed as well as driven by sense of something super-natural. Easily we can get our hands on the fact, that historically the counter-tenors (or so-called falsetto voices) were considered to be abominations and unnatural voices. Furthermore, the castrati were thought to be, against all odds, normal. Up to very late in the music history the falsetto voices (known today as counter-tenors) remained neglected and considered ugly and unexpressive. Then a long process of change went to a whole other level – a change with the “extinction” of the last castrati in the beginning of the 20th century. The cast of the professional high male voices was no more, besides the falsetti, which were still mostly banished in the church choirs or generally discouraged to continue their development because of the understandings of vocal music and the tastes of the whole era, involving the castrati as main high male voices. The act of “creation” of a castrato was already banished as barbaric. Thus, it was a correct moment for this long-neglected group of the high male falsetto voices to come in and take their rightful place. Some singers pioneered in daring to present their falsetto and be its ambassadors throughout the pre and post World War II era, amongst which Alfred Deller was one of the most famous.

Having mentioned this important historical note, it is necessary to explain its relevancy. Deller, as being rather unique with his voice and his bravery to present it, was the heir of this long-neglected tradition of male vocalization. He was interesting and indeed of super-natural kind in vocal expression. That was one of the main reasons Britten choosing Deller as Oberon for his opera. Even though criticized a lot for the role of Oberon, Deller remains a direct remnant of the idea with which Britten wrote the role, and a guide (with a pinch of salt) to its interpretation.

Given Deller's state of uniqueness I would say he was perfect for the role as Oberon is a spirit of unique kind and rather lonely in his being, just as Deller was. Oberon has many servants, but no friends and even his partner Tytania kicked him out of their marital bed. In rather the same way Deller was lonely – as unique and as praised as he was – a king in his "musical" forest. Yet Tytania sees Oberon as a king kicked out of the bed of the musical art. However, at this point the king, also vocally, reclaims his rightful place – so does Oberon with all of his psychical traits given by Shakespeare and perfectly transcribed in melodies and harmonies by Britten.

Even though I say that Oberon is rather a lonely being, he has one but important servant. His henchman Puck – the one who does his "dirty work". Puck, known as a troll or trickster, a being enjoying causing people to "lose their way through forests and vales" and doing other various knaveries, is very loyal to his master – so loyal, that it is quite suspicious if he isn't rather "too close"!

Shakespeare uses rather cheesy, for the acquired poetry style of his time, words in the way Oberon interacts with his henchman. Words used usually in the description of female characters, even though Puck is clearly male. Words like “gentle”, “sweet”, and “fair”, as a suggestion, which may lead even to the suggestion of a greater level of solitude. Words demonstrating that Oberon, in his relation with his henchman, might have crossed a border, classifying him in a cast of people, which were also outcasts of the normal society at that time – the society of people with a non-standard sexual orientation. Apparently, that gives a power of unspeakable magnitude in the hands of Britten. As he, himself, was a homosexual – he manages to color this idea in his music. The idea of a puritan society disliking these relations, yet, as long as they are public secrets hidden behind convenience such as a professional relation, is not aggressive towards them. A society of which Britten himself was a part because of his family and education. Thus, his way to express himself was through music, through his partner Peter Pears, for whom he wrote music and through the ideas he can imbue in the thing he can do best – compose!

Back in the opera this supposed relation might be one of the reasons for the main conflict between Tytania and Oberon along with the “real” reason in the face of the Indian boy Tytania has stolen. Both might as well be in the base for the following "mistake" Puck does with the lovers (even though not directly stated in the play). The subsequent conflict creates a love triangle potentially becoming a square – Oberon wants the little changeling boy from Tytania as his henchman. Henchman? Why? If Oberon already has Puck? This might be a good reason for Puck to get jealous and upset with his master and to turn his trickster powers against him, by screwing his plans ostensibly by a mistake. However, what Puck cannot fight in the end is that Oberon is a powerful spirit and Puck has to obey to his biddings.

Puck is granted a special and important role also as a performer – a spoken role. Britten, famous for his mocking of Italian opera does not forget the German invention of serialism and Arnold Schönberg's (1874–1951) Sprechgesang which is characterized by notes with "x" instead of a head. The techniques were invented as a tool to imbue the text with musical expressivity without locking it in a concrete pitch. Here is where Puck is getting his star moment –a fully spoken role shining with his further customized vocal expressivity, controlled only by rhythm and dynamic markings. Whilst Snout's Wall is a very sincere mock with Arnold Schönberg’s “Sprechgesang” expressivity technique, Puck brings the same technique transformed by Britten in a more artistic manner as opposition. The foundation of this fact is sought in the relation between Puck’s visible better character stability as opposed to Snout's stiff and forced artistic nature. Yet it is not only the technique that Britten jokes with – it is actually the whole idea of serialism coming with it.

In our rendition, Puck is presented as a female character and as you will notice, the whole world of Shakespeare's play is skillfully turned inside-out and reworked to more modern setting of which Victoria Newlyn and Yannis Thavoris are to be praised for as a director and designer! “FORESTIVAL” is the place where Oberon, a mighty music producer with a common (might be called professional) drug addiction meets undercover his famous star-singer wife Tytania. He tricks her into giving up the Indian boy with help of his "girl-for-everything" Puck in a drug-inspired set of mad events… events including a few more than just Tytania.

It is necessary to state that the relation between Oberon and Puck gets a totally different level of complexity in this setting, as opposed to the original Shakespeare play after which Britten builds his initial ideas.

(Who exactly is dreaming in the play? Mythologically, there is a rather important conflict with the Theseus myth and the whole meaning of the play. All the play is developing in a bit before Theseus' wedding with Hippolyta - the queen of the amazons. However, in the original myth Theseus kidnaps Hippolyta from her fellow amazons with the intention to marry her, but they never get married, because the Amazons are taking her back a night before the wedding. Thus, I am quite confident, that the dream of which we speak here is only of Theseus and everybody else is just a convenient participant in it.)


Text: Aleksan Chobanov