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John Adams Gives Antony and Cleopatra the Operatic Treatment

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 192

Celebrated American composer John Adams’s newest opera takes its inspiration from Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra is receiving its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera for its centennial season. Adams talks with host Barbara Bogaev about how he turned a five-act play into a two-act opera—which scenes got the hook, new lines written in the style of the Bard, and what Shakespeare may have thought of the play’s characters.

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Antony and Cleopatra, on stage at the San Francisco Opera from September 10 through October 5, 2022, was a co-commission and co-produced with the Liceu Opera Barcelona and the Metropolitan Opera New York.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published September 12, 2022. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: With her taste for the finer things and her unapologetic command of the stage, you might think that Cleopatra is something of a diva. Well, now Shakespeare’s larger-than-life Egyptian queen is getting the full operatic treatment in San Francisco.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger director.

John Adams is one of America’s most celebrated contemporary composers. When he was starting out in the 1980s, Adams was associated with minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But with operas such as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, Adams has proved a composer of exceptional range and emotional depth. And he’s become known for something else: championing recent American history as material worthy of the opera.

The subject of his most recent opera is a bit of a departure—Antony and Cleopatra, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera for its centennial season. Adams wrote the libretto himself, based largely on Shakespeare’s play. Of course, that involved a substantial amount of cutting—turning a five-act play into a two-act opera meant whole scenes and characters got the hook. But, as we’ll hear, it also required Adams to pick up his pen and write new lines in the style of Shakespeare.

John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra is currently running at the San Francisco Opera. Its matinee performance this Sunday, September 18, 2022, will be available for streaming live and on-demand for a limited period of time.

Adams joined us from his home in the Bay Area to talk about Antony and Cleopatra last month, when the opera was in the middle of rehearsals. Here’s John Adams as interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Let’s start with the music, as in the soundscape or the musical style of this opera. I wanted to ask you this because it’s such an epic story that you’re telling: it has multiple locations, Rome and Egypt, and on a ship.

I wondered how you conceived of how Rome sounds as opposed to Egypt. I mean, do different instruments signal the different locations and the opposing worlds, or how do you evoke that musically?

JOHN ADAMS: You know, I try to evoke the mood, not so much the location. And Rome, as we first encounter it, is in a frenzy. Caesar is terribly upset because of Pompey and the possibility of the civil war and the pirates that are taking advantage of the situation. Caesar is profoundly annoyed that Antony is off drinking Mai Tais in Alexandria and having a good time with Cleopatra.

So, I set up a very, kind of, nervous, musical sense there. And then, in that same scene, we have Antony and his staff arrive in Rome and a very chilly moment when Caesar and Antony say, “You sit,” “No, you sit,” “No, you.” It’s kind of funny.

So musically I am mostly concerned with the emotional interior of the characters. And of course, what drew me to this story was the fact that Cleopatra is, to my mind, the most thoroughly developed female character in all of Shakespeare. She is obviously a very intelligent woman. She had enormous political savvy just to stay alive in Ptolemaic Egypt. She’s a narcissist, but she’s also a deeply human and very vulnerable woman in love.

BOGAEV: Well, we’ve been talking a lot about the music, so let’s—why don’t we listen to a clip now. And this is an excerpt from the final scene. Spoilers, Cleopatra has learned of Antony’s death and she decides to commit suicide by serpent. This is of course Cleopatra’s famous speech. “Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me.”

[CLIP from the 2022 San Francisco Opera production of Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, scene 4, composed by John Adams.]

I dreamt there was an emp’ror Antony
O, that I might know another sleep,
and in it meet with such a man.
His legs bestrid the ocean,
his rear arm crested the world.
His face was as the heavens,
a sun and moon kept their course in his eyes
and lighted this little
O, the earth, this orb.

BOGAEV: Could you give us a sense, then, of your scoring process for this huge scene? How do you begin to translate these feelings inspired by this heightened, tragic, emotional moment into a musical feeling?

ADAMS: I’ve always been obsessed with literature. Neither of my parents were able to go to college because when they were in their twenties it was the worst part of the depression. And so, they valued the arts and particularly literature. When I grew up, they were always sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and reading.

And so, for me, poetry, literature, drama has been probably a principal inspiration for my music. I’ve set Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Latin American poets I’ve set in Spanish, and John Donne. And, of course, my two first operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, have, to my mind, some of the greatest libretti ever written by Alice Goodman.

So using a great text, which of course Shakespeare is, stimulates me. Not just in terms of the setting or the mood, but actually the words themselves: the shape of the phrase, where the accent is, what the sound of the word is. They all suggest musical gestures, melodic arcs, and I follow those through and create large-scale dramatic musical structures, sometimes as long as 20 minutes. The final scene of this opera is over 20 minutes long.

BOGAEV: Can you give me an example of a line that hit you and how it inspired you and what it inspired you to compose?

ADAMS: You know, an example of how the language just suggested the music was of course the famous barge scene when Enobarbus describes how Antony and Cleopatra first met. Of course, I had to compress it drastically because music moves so slowly compared to spoken drama. Anybody who loves this barge scene to death, as I do, will probably be offended at what was left out, but I’ll just read it and describe what I did with it. He says:

The barge she sat in like a burnished throne
Burned on the water. The poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were
Which the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion—cloth-of-gold, of tissue—
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy artwork of nature.

From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ th’ market-place, did sit alone.

She made great Caesar lay his sword to bed;
He ploughed her and she cropped.

You say Antony must leave her utterly.
But I say never, he will not.
He will, to his Egyptian dish again,
He’ll never leave her.

You know, it’s just a dream of the most glorious and sensuous, imagined vision of beauty and obviously a certain stage equality of this woman who was really pulling all the stops to get Antony’s attention. And so, I was just bedazzled by this language and by this image. That’s what’s so wonderful about Shakespeare: it’s the combination of the language, the emotional depth of it, and the actual imagery that it evokes in your head.

BOGAEV: And to come full circle, bring us into the music, your musical thoughts.

ADAMS: Well, in this case, I could have imagined something that was very grandiose, you know, with trumpets and flutes to imitate the suggestion of flutes. But I opted for something that was very different. There’s kind of a slinky groove going on. I wanted to get something that was actually very sexy.

BOGAEV: Because she’s seductive. She’s seducing.

ADAMS: She was doing that aspect of her personality. I mean, in the course of this opera, we see so many shades of Cleopatra. And I have to say that the great scholar, Janet Adelman, whose book, The Common Liar, was one of the most important ones for me when studying to prepare for this libretto and this opera. She revealed to me in such a wonderfully deep way, all of the subtleties and the complexities of Cleopatra’s personality.

BOGAEV: I can only imagine how much you read in your preparation for this. But I do want to know if you started with secondary sources, or do you go straight to the text when you start with Shakespeare? Do you watch any movies or other operas? What’s your process?

ADAMS: I read. And as you know, Shakespearean scholarship is just a Mount Everest and one has to decide who the most meaningful scholars are because you can get overwhelmed by it.

BOGAEV: By the fire hose…

ADAMS: Yeah. I can cite several writers that meant a great deal to me. Janet Adelman, she was a scholar who actually taught in the university of California right here in Berkeley where I live.

Harold Goddard, he was a professor for years, I think at Swarthmore college. And he issued two volumes of lectures on Shakespeare that were called to my attention by my longtime collaborator, Peter Sellars. And Northrop Frye, of course, just a delightful and wonderfully penetrating and very witty writer on Shakespeare

BOGAEV: And nonliterary sources? I’m asking because I know that The Met commissioned Samuel Barber to adapt Antony and Cleopatra, of course, in 1966. And that was such a big deal. It opened their new Lincoln Center venue. Did that figure in any way in your thoughts?

ADAMS: I was of course aware that Samuel Barber had his own opera on Antony and Cleopatra. I went out of my way to stay away from that. I did not listen to it, and I did not even look at the libretto because I just didn’t want to be influenced either negatively or positively. I had my own very special take on the opera. Maybe someday I’ll look at the Barber opera. And of course it was out of no disrespect for Barber. It was just simply, I had my own Antony and Cleopatra. I wanted to stay with it.

BOGAEV: Your previous operas have been mostly on American subjects: the LA earthquake in Ceiling and SkyNixon in ChinaDoctor Atomic about Robert Oppenheimer. You’ve also done mythical or biblical stories, but what brought you to Shakespeare then at this point in your career?

ADAMS: The opera that I composed before Antony and Cleopatra, which I wrote in 2016-17 was about the California gold rush. It was called Girls of the Golden West and it was based on true events—some of them really disturbing, having to do with racism and violence during the gold rush.

But one of the things that we discovered in research was that a popular form of entertainment during that period was reciting Shakespeare. And Lola Montez, the very provocative actress—I guess you could call her a performance artist, who started her career as a girlfriend of King Ludwig in Bavaria and was chased out of England—ended up performing in California during the gold rush.

I set, as part of that gold rush opera, a couple of scenes from Macbeth and I found that I loved working with Shakespeare.

[CLIP from the 2017 San Francisco Opera production of Girls of the Golden West, Act II, scene 1, music by John Adams and libretto by Peter Sellars.]

DAME SHIRLEY (as Lady Macbeth):
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements

When I was asked to compose an opera to celebrate the Centennial of the San Francisco Opera, I proposed Antony and Cleopatra, which has been a play that’s been especially dear to me, as long as I can remember.

BOGAEV: What did you love about setting Shakespeare?

ADAMS: I think that the combination of the psychological depth, the emotional power, and the beauty of the language all come together to stimulate my musical and creative imagination.

And of course, in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, this couple appeals to me because they both have backstories. They’re not Romeo and Juliet. Antony has already had a very long and distinguished career as a military commander, and he just wants to leave that behind him. I don’t think it’s generally known, but his relationship with Cleopatra went on for quite a while and they had children together. And as I also said earlier, Cleopatra is so rich a dramatic character. Well, they both are really.

I wrote the role of Antony for the great Canadian baritone, Gerald Finley. He is just on fire in the rehearsals that I’ve seen this month. He loves what I’ve done for him. The vicious moment when he suspects that Cleopatra has been betraying him and his paranoia and his anger takes over—I really have rarely seen anything like it on the operatic stage. I can’t believe I wrote it myself. It’s so powerful.

BOGAEV: Well, they do horrible things to each other.

ADAMS: Well, in the case of Cleopatra, she was a woman in love, but she was also a queen. She saw, especially after the battle of Actium, she saw the decline of Egypt and she knew that she had to surrender to Octavian. She was forced to negotiate as best she could. She wanted to save her children. And she wanted to save as much of Egypt as she could. And Rome was pretty brutal, as we know. Rome moved into any distant country with its enormous technology and its brutal armies. You know, I’ve been in those later stages of preparation of this opera while I’ve been watching what’s going on in the Ukraine now and the brutality of the Russians as they come in has reminded me very much of how Rome treated conquests.

BOGAEV: You’re anticipating a question I had for you, which is that when I talk to actors they often talk about the elaborate backstories that they create for their characters, which never show up in the actual production in the end product. Of course, you’re working with Shakespeare, so there’s a lot of story there already, but I did wonder if you work that way too?

For instance, one of the big questions in this story is why did Cleopatra turn her fleet around and abandon the battle? And no one can ever know why that happened. The historical record is silent on that. But did you feel that you had to answer it for yourself in order to write the scenes that a Antony and Cleopatra have after the battle?

ADAMS: You know, historical precision and dramatic necessity don’t always go together.

BOGAEV: That’s an understatement.

ADAMS: Shakespeare knew that. If you compare Plutarch to Shakespeare, you can see where Shakespeare needed to massage the story for, you know, very important, dramatic reasons.

Yeah, the question of why Cleopatra turned her ships around has puzzled people. But from my point of view what actually was the reason is less important than the fact she did that and that Antony completely destroyed himself by following her—as Shakespeare says, “Like a doting Mallard.” Just an unbelievable image, really just an utterly humiliated image.

BOGAEV: So pathetic.

ADAMS: Yes. And, you know, this is the very end of Act one. Because of the standards and the requirements of contemporary opera and the short attention spans of American audiences, I had to boil this enormous epic play down to two acts.

And, so act one ends with the Battle of Actium and this absolutely crushing humiliating defeat for Antony. And for the entire second act, he’s a man who can’t get anything right. Can’t even do his own suicide right. And I can identify with that, I can identify with that sense of being an older man who keeps misfiring and getting things wrong.

BOGAEV: Well, that does lead us right to this huge frustration that you were talking about, which is that you adapt Shakespeare to an opera, there are just so many words in so many scenes and so many characters, and that doesn’t translate well into the form. And singing takes longer than speaking—makes it even harder, I imagine.

So where do you start with cutting Shakespeare and writing the libretto? And I imagine there’s always these famous soliloquies and lines, and there’s tension between leaning into the crowd pleasers too much or leaving too many of them out. How did you think about that?

ADAMS: In terms of trying to find the essence of the story, it was a matter of strategy. You know, what is the story we’re going to tell, what are we going to focus on? And I think what meant the most to us was, obviously, the relation between the two titular characters. Not only their love affair, but also the relation of power, because each represents two different civilizations, one ascendant, Rome, and the other in decline, Egypt.

So, you know, there were hard things. There were things that had to end up on the cutting room floor that just broke my heart. The way that in the true drama, Enobarbus and Antony have their breakup is incredibly poignant. But there just wasn’t a great deal of time for that.

There was a wonderful party scene onboard Pompey’s ship where everybody gets drunk, except for, of course, Caesar who is just too serious and—

BOGAEV: Too uptight.

ADAMS: Too uptight. It’s wonderful how Shakespeare really didn’t like Caesar very much. I certainly enjoyed employing that.

But in the end, I’m very happy with what we came up with as a libretto. I know that there were some people concerned that audiences today would have difficulty with Shakespearean language. But, you know, the one thing that we can do with music that you can’t do in straight drama is that music can set the emotional tone instantly. I can, just through a change of harmony or the direction of a melodic line, I can tell a great deal that would take pages of text to say the same thing. And that’s where I have this power as a composer that a playwright doesn’t have.

BOGAEV: Yes. And you’re scoring, so I imagine your scoring dictates, in many cases, what text you do include or cut and lines you repeat. I’m thinking of what you’ve written about, how you often have to leave some of the best lines of text unset because the musical statement has already reached a closure, for instance. And you alluded earlier to the editing room floor. It reminds me of something your librettist Alice Goodman said, “that bleeding chunks of her lines end up there.”

ADAMS: Yes. Well, not only do I have to cut things, but—this would probably appall you—but I actually had to add things because sometimes, I’ll have, you know, a couplet of Shakespeare, but the music demands more. And so I found myself actually writing my own lines and having to fold them in with the Shakespeare. I think I did a pretty good job, and I would say only a Shakespeare scholar or somebody with a search engine would be able to tell them apart.

BOGAEV: So do you mean you’re writing a kind of Shakespeare-esque, John Adams, Shakespeare-esque line there? Or are you using other source material? I know that you use Plutarch and Virgil too.

ADAMS: I did. I’ll give you an example. I had to set up the fact that after Antony marries Octavia, that Caesar, to get rid of them, sends them off to Athens. Scene four opens with Antony very angry because he’s stuck in Athens and he’s away from Cleopatra and he’s getting bored with Octavia. And he says, “Nay, nay Octavia. Not only that your brother hath most subtly estranged me. Dispatched us here to drowsy Athens, disjoined from Rome, remote exiled apart, and uninstructed of his schemes while we here count the wasted hours and linger aimless, bereft of our capacity.” That is John Adams’ faux Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: I’m very impressed you’re owning up to it here on our podcast. Well, we’ll see what the comments say.

Switching gears, I have read your memoir and I’d love to go back to your first inklings of a desire to become a composer, because I was totally tickled to read about the first albums you were obsessed with and I thought, you were—how old, seven, seven or so?

One was Tchaikovsky doing the 1812 Overture. And that’s not such a surprise there. But the other is Bozo the Clown Conducts Favorite Circus Marches. This was a seminal recording for you. Did you model your conducting on Bozo?

ADAMS: Sure. Well, I think, you know, perhaps someone who knows my complete works could see some genetic hint there in my inspirations that, you know, I’m a composer who actually is not afraid of humor in my music.

And I have to say, you know, I came of age during the most, kind of dour, grim period in contemporary music when composers were very, sort of obliged to write dark, difficult, complex music. And if you had any humor, it had to be bitter irony.

And I have to say that after hearing what I did for Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra—you know, it was interesting, I needed to have a statement that Caesar would sing that expresses Rome’s complete, manifest destiny, its dominant culture, and how it’s taking over. And there really wasn’t anything extended in the Shakespeare.

So, I went to Virgil and I took some of book six and some of book 10, I believe it was, of the Aeneid. I used the somewhat antiquated translation by John Dryden because it was closer to the Shakespeare in tone. And I set it as almost as if it were a Donald Trump rally. You know, Caesar’s hailing the greatness of Rome and his own greatness, and there’s a crowd that I have, the chorus on the stage, and they’re yelling and screaming and applauding him. There’s something that’s both rather humorous and also very alarming about it.

BOGAEV: Well, there is so much emotion in your work. And you were just describing how you came of age in this modern period with atonal compositions and a lot of seriousness and a somewhat—you describe in your memoir, how often you were bored, actually, sitting through, some very great work then, because being bored was kind of part of the ethos.

But then you had this, what sounds like a big breakthrough, in defining what kind of work you want to do. And it happened while you were driving through the Sierras listening to Wagner back in 1976. Do you think you can take us back to that time and that moment and what it meant for you?

ADAMS: I came of age, as a composer, during, you know, an exceptionally difficult time in contemporary music. And I, like most young artists, creative artists, was trying to find my voice. I was very influenced by what was the au courant style of the time, which didn’t really appeal to me very much.

I did have this as a kind of a, I call it a ‘Saul on the road to Damascus’ moment, when I was driving through an exceptionally beautiful part of the California Sierras and listening to some of the music from the Götterdämmerung. What struck me about it was its emotional sincerity and it gave me great courage to, you know, believe in my own emotional sincerity.

For a while that became very controversial amongst music critics and my own colleagues who thought I was a sellout because I was, you know, composing music that really was about communication of emotions. And I think by now, 30, 40 years later, people understand what I was doing and maybe even appreciate it because—let’s face it, music is above and beyond all else about communicating emotion.

BOGAEV: It’s so intuitive how you had it too. You’re driving along there and you’re listening and all of a sudden, as you say, “I just said out loud, ‘He cares.’” Then you asked yourself, ”Who? Who? Who cares?”


BOGAEV: Is this coming straight out of your subconscious kind of? You’re having a conversation with yourself in the car?

ADAMS: Oh, yes, well, we artists tend to talk to ourselves a lot. You know, I wrote about that in my book, mostly, I guess maybe as an instructional paradigm, you know.

I’m talking to younger people. I’m talking to composers and artists and poets. Because when you’re very young, you’re very impressionable. Your worst critics and the ones that drive you crazy are not necessarily your teachers or journalists. Your worst critics are your colleagues. You know, those are the ones you care about the most, and they’re the ones that you want to impress. It’s very easy to get freaked out.

I’m always in touch with younger composers. And I think, actually, right now, it’s a pretty positive time to be a composer. It seems like everybody I know is writing an opera and that’s a good sign. It means people are optimistic about the chances of getting their music heard. And stylistically people are not as locked down and rigid as they were when I was starting out.

BOGAEV: Well, I think that’s really true. I’m here in Los Angeles, and I have to say that the most recent operas I’ve experienced were all by Yuval Sharon. And one in particular I loved took place all over Los Angeles as audience members were—we were driven around in these different cars. It’s called Hopscotch.

It does prompt me to ask you whether, given the money or the commission or the will or whatever, what experiments would you still like to do or new departures from the classical music format or the classic opera, do you dream of?

ADAMS: I think I’m most interested in doing something on a small scale. Antony and Cleopatra turned out to be pretty much a mega production—I mean, how can you not with this story which spans over three continents and has all these characters and all these very complex situations.

BOGAEV: It’s a Cecil B DeMille, yeah.

ADAMS: Yeah, it’s grand opera and I’m digging it. I’m enjoying watching it.

But I have one stage work that’s small. It’s a show that I wrote with lyrics by the great African American essayist and poet, June Jordan, called I was Looking at the Ceiling and I Saw the Sky. It actually takes place in Los Angeles right during the Northridge earthquake.

For that, I wrote about 20 pop songs, and boy, it was really hard writing pop songs because you have to get to the hook within the first couple of seconds. You know I’m a composer who usually gives myself, you know, 5, 10, 20 minutes to get off the ground, so it was a wonderful experience.

I think I would like to do something small, again. Not necessarily pop songs, but maybe a dramatic piece that’s portable, that doesn’t cost millions of dollars, and maybe could be done on the back of a truck. Who knows?

BOGAEV: I can’t wait to see the opera. I can’t wait to hear the opera and see it.

ADAMS: Me too.

BOGAEV: Thank you so much. I really, really enjoyed it.

ADAMS: Certainly, it was great pleasure. Take care. Bye-bye.


WITMORE: John Adams’s Antony and Cleopatra is running at the San Francisco Opera through October 5, 2022. A livestreamed performance will be available at 2pm Pacific Time this Sunday, September 18, 2022, and for streaming on-demand for 48 hours beginning Monday, September 19, 2022, at 10 am Pacific, 1pm Eastern Time. For more information, see

Audio from Girls of the Golden West and Antony and Cleopatra in this episode came courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.

The clip from Girls of the Golden West was performed by soprano Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley, with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Grant Gershon.

In clips from Antony and Cleopatra, the role of Cleopatra was sung by Amina Edris, and Antony by Gerald Finley. The conductor was Eun Sun Kim.

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Evan Marquardt at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on your podcast platform of choice.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website,

Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.