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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Shakespeare and Opera, with Colleen Fay

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 127

It’s not easy to turn a Shakespeare play into an opera, says Colleen Fay. They have too many words, too many characters, and too many plots. But sometimes, when it all comes together, a great opera can bring the essence of Shakespeare’s stories sharply into focus.

We talk to Colleen Fay about the history of Shakespearean operas… and find out which ones work and which ones don’t.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform.

Colleen Fay is a former Library of Congress music librarian and was the founding head of the Performing Arts Library at The Kennedy Center. She’s a regular on local public TV arts roundup Around Town and the local public radio magazine show Metro Connection. Fay is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published September 3, 2019. ©Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Come, Sing,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical helped from Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California. Image:

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MICHAEL WITMORE: Here are some characters you know from Shakespeare. First, Lady Macbeth …

[CLIP: “Mi Si Affccia Un Pugnal” from Verdi’s Macbeth.]

Regna il sonno su tutti.
Oh, qual lamento!
Risponde il gufo
al suo lugubre addio!

Chi v’ha?

Ch’ei fosse di letargo uscito
Pria del colpo mortal?

Sleep reigns over everyone.
Ah, that moaning!
The owl responds
To his mournful farewell.

Who’s there?

What if he was roused from his sleep
before the fatal blow?]

WITMORE: Then Romeo and Juliet.

[CLIP: “Nuit D’hyménée” from Gounod’s Romeo ed Juliette.]

Sous tes baisers de flame
Le ciel rayonne en moi!
Je t’ai donné mon âme,
À toi, toujours à toi!

[Under your flaming kisses
The sky shines in me!
I gave you my soul,
To you, always to you!]

WITMORE: And finally, everyone’s favorite: Here’s Falstaff.

[CLIP: “Als Büblein Klein an der Mutter” from Nicolai’s Die Lustige Weiber von Windsor.]

Lösch mir der Kehle Brand,
Trinken ist keine Schand’,
Bacchus trank auch,
ja, Bacchus trank auch.

[Extinguish the burning in my throat
Drink is no shame,
Bacchus drank too, yes,
Bacchus drank too.]

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. Shakespeare’s plays came late to the world of opera. But once they got there, librettists and composers tried – though not always successfully – to give them the operatic touch. In French, German, sometimes in English, and, most triumphantly in Italian, a handful of Shakespeare’s stories and characters have sung their way across the stages of European and American opera houses. We know that opera can be something of a mystery to many people, so consider this a kind of primer for the world of operas based on Shakespeare.

As our guide, we’ve asked Colleen Fay. Colleen was a music librarian at the Library of Congress, and she was the founding head of the Performing Arts Library at The Kennedy Center. But she’s best known here in the Folger’s hometown of Washington, DC, as a regular on the local public TV arts roundup, Around Town, and the local public radio magazine show, Metro Connection. That’s where we all came to know her wardrobe of fabulous caftans and her enthusiastic advocacy for opera, which some people might call quintessentially “operatic” itself, and that we all know and love for being as insightful as it is passionate.

We call this podcast episode “Come, Sing.” Colleen Fay is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: When did the first operas based on Shakespeare appear?

COLLEEN FAY: Well, you know, it’s interesting. They really don’t appear until Shakespeare’s been dead for 150 years. Now, there’s some little idea that you can say that Purcell wrote the Fairy Queen in 1695, and that’s sort of on Shakespeare, but that’s both stretching Shakespeare and stretching the definition of opera. If you really want to get technical, it’s really not ’til the end of the 18th century when you get to Shakespeare and opera. And to be absolutely on the firmest ground, it’s the beginning of the 19th century, believe it or not. Shakespeare’s dead 200 years before he crosses the opera stage.

BOGAEV: So, that’s pretty wild because opera started springing up in Italian cities in around 1600.

FAY: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Right, so, why didn’t opera become popular in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime?

FAY: Well, you know, there’s a whole bunch of cross currents that are going on. Number one, there’s this wacky thing called the English Channel. That means that, among other things, English culture is cut off, and a throwback to that is the way it was in the old Roman times. The Romans thought that every good cultural thing came from Greece and the English for hundreds of years thought that every good cultural thing came from Europe.

Number two, opera originates in Italy, and for the first 150, 200 years of opera, if it’s not in Italian, it’s not opera. And people are stubbing their toes. Handel loses his shirt because he’s producing these operas in Italian and by the middle of the 18th century, nobody wants to go to see them anymore.

BOGAEV: So, what changed? When does opera start in England? Sounds like… is it part of the Restoration?

FAY: Well, actually no. What happens is a little thing called the Beggar’s Opera.

[CLIP from John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera.]


[Peachum sings “An old Woman clothed in Gray”]

Thinks his Trade as honest as mine.
A Lawyer is an honest Employment, so is mine.
Like me too, he acts in a double Capacity,
Both against rogues and for ‘em.

FAY: Which is what we would call a musical. Its songs are basically like English folk songs; the dialogue is all spoken.

[CLIP continues]

Without dispute, she is a fine Woman!
‘Twas to her I was obliged for my Education.

[Filch sings “The Bonny Gray-Ey’d Morn”]

‘Tis Woman that seduces all Mankind,
By her we first were taught the wheedling Arts.

FAY: The jokes are bawdy, they’re ordinary, they’re things that anybody can understand. So you get ordinary people, as well as the aristocracy. And you have this convergence of music, popular culture, and all of a sudden, opera is looked as something for the very, very rich and famous. Not for the likes of you and me, Barbara. Uh-uh.


FAY: No, no, no, no, no.

BOGAEV: What do you mean? Is it like fine French wine or something? Is it about snobbishness?

FAY: Oh, it’s very foreign, it’s very foreign. You and I of course understand everything in Italian, don’t we?

BOGAEV: Right.

FAY: I don’t have to say that, do we? Of course, we don’t. That’s why, when you go to one of these Italian operas, you buy one of these little word books. That’s why they’re called librettos, little book, with all the translations from Italian into English.

BOGAEV: So this was kind of a mess as you say, you have all of these things going on. How then did you get these first operas based on Shakespeare?

FAY: Well, Shakespeare crosses the English Channel in the middle of the 18th century. Shakespeare with happy endings. Translate them into French, translate them into German, into Italian, and they start writing those. But there’s a problem with Shakespeare and opera. Shakespeare plays are talky.

BOGAEV: Oh, and talky is not good for opera.

FAY: No, no, no, no, no, girl. What we want is—we want action, action, action, action comes to a grinding, screeching halt, and then you sing for five minutes about your reaction to it. I want the big feelings. I want the big reaction. What’s in your heart? I want your best girlfriend to tell me.

Second thing about Shakespeare, besides the talk, talk, talk: too many people on the stage. Too many plots. Too many subplots. “Now wait a minute, Mercutio and Tybalt… now is Tybalt the cousin of the brother of the…?” Too complicated. Keep it simple: Mom, dad, boy, girl, one conflict, one other conflict. That’s an opera.

Plus, in order for opera to work, we gotta have love and dum-DUM! We have to have somebody going after somebody else with a big knife in act one, that doesn’t get resolved until act three. How many Shakespeare operas can—or, plays, rather, can you think of that have that kind of play device in them?

BOGAEV: Well, some great composers figured out how to work around this, and Rossini is one of them. He…

FAY: Yes, he does.

BOGAEV: His Otello is this great example of an opera that does owe a lot to Shakespeare. And we’re going to hear some of it in a moment, but first I want to ask you, how faithful is Rossini’s Otello to the plot of Othello?

FAY: Well, for the first couple of—first of all, that’s a great opera, by the way. But what makes it great is that he and his librettists knew what to cut. Because when you are, you and I, Barbara, when we’re writing our Shakespeare opera, we have to get out our red pencil and our scissors and we have to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. And, unfortunately, one of the people who’s going to end up on our kitchen floor is poor Cassio. But we gotta add somebody, because guess what? We never even get them out of Venice.

BOGAEV: There’s no Cyprus.

FAY: No, they don’t go to Cyprus. They stay in Venice the whole time. But, in order to stay in Venice, they gotta add something: a gondolier.

[CLIP: “Nessun maggior dolore from Rossini’s Otello. Barry Banks is A Gondolier.]

Nessun maggior dolore
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Nella miseria.

[There’s no greater sorrow
Than to recall happiness
In the midst of misery.]

FAY: The gondolier is singing a song about his family, about the love that he has for his wife, about after a long day of poling his way, he’s going back to his family. And oddly enough, the words come not from Shakespeare but from Dante. But Desdemona hears this, and it calls to mind a song that her own mother sang to her when she was a girl. It’s the perfect set up for something which does come straight out of Shakespeare: the willow song.

[CLIP: “Canzone del Salice” from Rossini’s Otello. Elizabeth Futral is Desdemona and Enkelejda Shkosa is Emilia.]

Assisa a’ piè d’un salice,
Immersa nel dolore,

[Seated at the foot of a willow tree immersed in pain]

BOGAEV: Tell us what we’re listening to.

FAY: Well she’s saying, “This song so evokes what sadness is.” It’s completely apart from anything we’ve heard anywhere in the opera, but it’s so poignant that it sets up something in us, the audience. We know something bad is about to happen.

[CLIP continues]

I ruscelletti limpidi
A’ caldi suoi sospiri,
Il mormorio mesceano
De’lor diversi giri.

[The clear streams
to his hot sighs,
the murmur mixed
of their different turns]

FAY: Now, she doesn’t know—Desdemona doesn’t know what he’s so angry about. She only knows that she’s lost his love, and so the song, which talks about losing love, is so perfect because of that very reason.

[CLIP continues.]

Parti, ricevi da’ labbri dell’amica
Il bacio estremo.

Oh che dici!
Oh come tremo!

You receive from the lips of the friend

the extreme kiss.

Oh, what you say!
I obey…
Oh how I tremble!]

BOGAEV: So, here we have some Shakespeare almost directly, but as you say, so much is different in Rossini’s opera. There’s another classic Shakespeare opera, Verdi’s Macbeth. How does that compare to the Rossini? Is it as faithful, or faithless, to the plot and Shakespearean language?

FAY: Well, it’s very, very different from Shakespeare. Again, most of the subplots are gone. Lady Macbeth is a lot more important in this play, in this opera, rather, and the witches just figure very briefly. The king is killed very quickly.

We do have a wonderful little scene, which I’d like to talk about for a second because, in the play, he has this moment where his wife is telling him, “You gotta go kill the king,” and he has this vision: “Is this a dagger I see before me?” And those are the very words he sings in Italian.

[CLIP from the Verdi’s Macbeth, directed by Claude d’Anna in 1987. Leo Nucci is Macbeth and Shirley Verrett is Lady Macbeth.]

Mi si affaccia un pugnal!
L’elsa a me volta?

[Is this a dagger I see before me?
The hilt turned to me?

FAY: It’s sort of faithful to what Shakespeare had in mind, without it being faithful to Shakespeare’s words.

[CLIP continues]

Se larva non dei tu, ch’io ti brandisca.
Mi sfuggi, eppur ti veggo!

[If you are not a dream, let me grasp you
You fly from me, and yet I can see you!]

FAY: Here’s a guy, early on in the opera, and early on in the play, who’s blinded by ambition and also his wife’s ambition. He’s both pumped up by ambition, and he’s also becoming unhinged. And that becoming unhinged, while it’s in Shakespeare’s play, it’s much more pronounced in the opera.

[CLIP continues]

Oh, potessi il mio delitto
Dalla mente cancellar!
Deh, sapessi, o Re trafitto,
L’alto sonno a te spezzar!

[Oh, if only I could wipe my crime from my mind!
O murdered King, if only I could rouse you from your deep sleep.]

Vieni altrove! Ogni sospetto
Rimoviam dall’uccisor;
Torna in te! fa cor, Macbetto!
Non ti vinca un vil timor.

[Come away! We must remove
all suspicion from the murderer.
Be yourself, Macbeth. Have courage!
Don’t be defeated by fear.]

BOGAEV: Verdi wrote his first operas in the late 1820’s, right? And he eventually wrote, I think, three Shakespeare related ones.

FAY: Yeah. Yeah.

BOGAEV: How well known were Shakespeare’s plays in Italy at that time?

FAY: Very little. But the interesting thing about Verdi is that he fell in love with Shakespeare. Now here’s a guy who doesn’t speak English. He could understand English, and he meets, in one of his first operas, this singer. She does speak English. She becomes his mistress and later his wife, and she and he become this great collaborative team. She reads Shakespeare to him, in English, in Italy. And, so you know when you’re learning a language you can’t speak it yet? But when somebody is speaking it to you, you can understand it. Well, that’s I think the way they were. Very…

BOGAEV: This sounds like an opera. This is such a love story. And you’re talking about… who eventually became his wife, what is it, Giuseppina Strepponi?

FAY: Yes, Giuseppina Strepponi. That’s his life mate, really. She’s a brilliant woman in her own right, and Verdi, a man who lived with tremendous success but was—we would say he was clinically depressed today. He needed somebody like that so close to him. But he takes these three operas, Macbeth, then Otello, and then the cream of his operas, is Falstaff, much, much later in life. He writes this in his 70s.

[CLIP from Verdi’s Falstaff. Bryn Terfel is Falstaff.]

Può l’onore riempirvi la pancia? No.
Può l’onor rimettervi uno stinco?
Non può.
Nè un piede? No. N’è un dito?
No. Nè un cappello? No!
L’onor non è chirurgo.
Che è dunque? Una parola.

[Can the honor fill your belly? No.
Can the honor set a broken shin? It cannot.
Or mend a foot? No. Nor a finger? Nor a hair? No.
Honor is not a surgeon.
What is it then? A word?]

BOGAEV: Let’s step back from the text. I have a kind of more general question, which is, does the popularity of Verdi’s Shakespearean opera have more to do with Shakespeare or with Verdi’s genius and reputation?

FAY: Well, you know, that’s a really hard question to answer. Let me tell you why it’s hard to answer. Verdi, by the time he comes to write this opera, he is the Stephen Sondheim, the Rogers and Hammerstein of Italy at this time.

BOGAEV: He was Lin-Manuel Miranda.

FAY: Yes, that too, only he was an old man by this time. And he said, “Oh, I’m too old to write any more operas. Oh, I just should sit back and let the young ones have it.” But their initial reaction—this is to get back to your question Barbara. Their initial reaction is, they go to see what Verdi’s going to do, but I’m sure that they come out of that opera house falling in love with Shakespeare.

[CLIP continues]

Olà! Lesti! lesti! al galoppo!
Al galoppo! Il capestro assai bene vi sta.
Lesti! lesti! al galoppo! ladri! ladri!
Via! via di qua! via di qua!

[Ho, there! Quick, quick! At the gallop!
At the gallop! The halter fits you well.c
Out, get out here! Thieves! Thieves!
Out of here!]

FAY: I mean, Verdi didn’t pick a play by Joe Schmo or Mary, you know, Mary Nobody.

BOGAEV: Right. Although there is this cliché that the best operas come from second rate playwrights.

FAY: Baloney.

BOGAEV: So, were other French and Italian and German playwrights also getting the opera treatment at the time?

FAY: Yeah, they were. I mean, you get somebody like Verdi also writing Don Carlo, which is based on a play by Schiller. Tchaikovsky writing Eugene Onegin, which is based on the great verse drama by Pushkin. They’re going for the best. Why do they go for the best? Because it’s the best material. And, yeah, some of the lesser lights will produce something that’s not half bad, but don’t ever fall into the trap of thinking that second best is going to produce first rate. No, it doesn’t. The best will produce the best.

BOGAEV: Let me ask you this, because you’ve pointed out all the ways that Shakespeare doesn’t work in opera. When does Shakespeare work, and when do you see that in Verdi? I mean, what scenes especially lend themselves to an operatic treatment?

FAY: Well, believe it or not, where Shakespeare really works best in opera is when the librettist finds that one line or two. Whether it’s actually written into Shakespeare’s text or whether it is implied in Shakespeare’s text, where situation, character and scene all come together in a very, very few words. All of a sudden, it’s like you’ve got that… your little camera, and all of a sudden, the autofocus brings it into utterly, totally sharp focus. And you say, “Yes, that’s what Shakespeare meant. I’ve read that play, I’ve watched productions, I’ve seen it in the tube, I’ve watched it in the movies, but it wasn’t until I heard him sing those words that I knew what Shakespeare meant.”

For me, it happens in Otello, and it happens with the character of Iago. You know, a guy who goes along, gets along, does what he has to do, but is really a louse underneath, and an emotional devil. And he says it when he finally admits…

[CLIP from Verdi’s Otello. Tito Gobbi is Iago.]

Credo in un Dio crudel che m’ha creato
simile a sè e che nell’ira io nomo.
simile a sè.

[I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his image
and who in fury I name.]

FAY: “I believe in a cruel God. Credo in un Dio crudele.”

[CLIP continues]

Son scellerato perchè son uomo;
e sento il fango originario in me.
Sì! Questa è la mia fè!

[I am evil because I am a man;
and I feel the primeval ooze in me.
Yes! This is my faith!

FAY: “If I’m evil, it’s because God is cruel, God is evil. You can’t blame me for being true to myself.” The brutality of his honesty goes through you like a knife, and Verdi’s music is so perfectly matched to it that it just—it’s a searing moment. Now, what’s interesting to me is that there’ve been more than 300 operas to plays by Shakespeare, but there’s only a handful that are worth talking about. Mozart tried to do one, couldn’t do it. Beethoven tried to do one, he couldn’t do it. Brahms tried, he failed, Stravinsky did, I’m just about—Debussy spent 20 years trying to write an opera on As You Like It. Gave up. The thing is…

BOGAEV: Well, but you have these wonderful characters.

FAY: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: You would think that they are custom made. Like, you have a love story in Hamlet. Why hasn’t Hamlet worked as an opera?

FAY: Well, Ophelia dies, and, you know, what are you going to do with Hamlet where, by the last scene, “Oh, we don’t know what to do with you, so we’ll kill everybody.” Now, there is one opera in the French repertoire by Ambroise Tomas called Hamlet. It’s an opera which, like a lot of French wines, does not travel well, and it’s for that reason I didn’t include it with today’s operas. Because, outside of France, it really isn’t performed very much, and these that I’ve chosen are ones that basically make the cut, as it were.

BOGAEV: What about English operas? Now, what’s in that category?

FAY: Well, English operas… you know, it’s very funny about the English. To a certain extent, we English speakers, we inherit this kind of prejudice that we’re afraid of operas in English, because it just couldn’t be that good, Barbara, you know what I’m saying?

BOGAEV: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I hear you.

FAY: This dirty little secret. Which is baloney, absolute baloney. Benjamin Britten in 1960, works with this collaborator, Peter Pears, and writes a very decent opera on Midsummer Night’s Dream. He does it—takes a few little liberties. He basically cuts off the first act and starts the whole thing in the woods. But it’s pretty faithful. It’s virtually verbatim out of Shakespeare. It’s the only opera that I know, only Shakespeare opera, which is verbatim Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: Let’s listen to something from Britten’s Midsummer, where you can really hear that it’s all from the Shakespeare, and this is the, “How now, mad spirit,” from Midsummer. It’s Act Three, scene two, and Robin is reporting back to Oberon that he bewitched Titania and she’s fallen in love with Bottom.

[CLIP from Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.]

How now, mad spirit!
What night-rule now about this haunted grove?

My mistress with a monster is in love.
My mistress with a monster is in love.

This falls out better than I could devise.

BOGAEV: This sounds much more like musical theater to me than opera. Is that off-base? I mean, maybe a little like Gilbert and Sullivan almost?

FAY: Well, you’re right. It has that kind of feel to it.

[CLIP continues]

There is no following her in this fierce vein:
Here therefore for a while I will remain.
So sorrow’s heaviness doth heavier grow.

What has thou done? Though hast mistaken quite
And laid the love-juice on some true-love’s sight:
About the wood go swifter than the wind,
And Helena of Athens look thou find.

I go, I go; look how I go,
Swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.

FAY: I love this play because, as with the best of the Shakespeare comedies, you’ve got levels of humor that are going on. You’ve got the kingly types up here, you’ve got the middle level types, the humans, you’ve got the lower levels, you’ve got the fairies going sideways, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And whose allegiance is owed to whom, and who’s going to interfere with whom? And then you have Puck, running sideways, and who does he answer to? To Oberon. And is Oberon really the good guy, or is he the bad guy? And, you know, does he really love Titania, or not? So, all of these things are at play, and I… when I think of this—I’m sorry, I have a terrible image in mind that goes back to thousands of years ago with The Ed Sullivan Show. Do you remember the guy would get out there with the plates on the spinning bamboo poles…?

BOGAEV: Of course. Right. That’s wonderful.

FAY: And that’s what I think of when I think of Midsummer Night’s Dream, is the guy with the spinning plates. He’s running across the stage, keeping these plates spinning at all times. And the genius of Benjamin Britten’s opera is, first of all, it’s light. Even though the—and one of the things that he does to keep it that way is that the role of Oberon was originated by one of the very first countertenors in modern times, Alfred Deller.

[CLIP from Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.]

But hast thou yet latched the Athenian’s eyes
With the love juice, as I did bid thee do?

FAY: Your point about it sounding more like musical comedy is dead on the money, and that’s one of the things about Shakespeare that sometimes we have a tendency to lose sight of. We put Shakespeare on the pedestal where Shakespeare belongs. You know, one of those little plastic pedestals, the little busts up in the corner of the classroom in the professor’s office. No, no, no, no, no. Shakespeare was for anybody who could afford a ticket to the Globe Theater. He didn’t care who you were. And we were down there in the middle of the Globe Theater, and it was that perfect, “Oh,” for us whether it was the battlefield at Agincourt or the Scottish moor or wherever it was. This play was for us and the same thing with these operas.

We have a tendency to put opera up on this pedestal. Oh, it’s just for Saturday afternoon for people who truly understand opera, Barbara, you know. I don’t have to tell you that, do I? No, no, it’s about entertainment. It’s about enjoyment. It’s about pleasure. It’s about people singing pretty songs that make you laugh; they make you cry. And if they ain’t making you laugh or making you cry, something’s wrong, and that’s why I love Shakespeare operas. They make me laugh. They make me cry. This is why I love ’em.

BOGAEV: Well, Colleen, I have been so thoroughly entertained talking with you. Thank you so much for joining us today.

FAY: Thank you for having me.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Colleen Fay was a music librarian at the Library of Congress, the founding head of the Performing Arts Library at the Kennedy Center, and a regular on Around Town on WETA TV and Metro Connection on WAMU-FM. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “Come, Sing,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical helped from Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.

My guess is that you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. If I’m right, please do us a favor. Leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts. That’s really the best way to let other people know what we’re doing. Thank you.

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, And, if you find yourself in Washington, DC, please come and visit us on Capitol Hill. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan theater and come face to face with a First Folio—the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays. We hope to see you here.

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