Everything you need to know about Britten’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy — right here!

What is the story?

Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows Shakespeare’s play closely.

Oberon and Tytania, King and Queen of the Fairies, are in the middle of a raging domestic row. So to get his own way, Oberon orders his loyal spirit Puck to sprinkle Tytania’s eyes with the juice of a magical flower while she sleeps — it will cause her to fall in love with the first creature she sees.

Meanwhile in the human realm, there is a ‘love square’. Hermia is wanted by both Lysander and Demetrius, and Helena by neither. So Oberon intervenes, ordering Puck to use the same magic potion, this time on Demetrius. But the fairy gets the wrong man — one tiny error, and total chaos ensues…

Caught up in all of this is poor Bottom — one of six craftsmen and amateur actors — who gets made an ass of!

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Jeni Bern as Tytania and Henry Waddington as Bottom with children's chorus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2013 © Tristram Kenton

Who are the characters?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream has an unusually massive cast for an opera — almost all of Shakespeare’s characters are there:

— King of the Fairies (countertenor)
Tytania — Queen of the Fairies (soprano)
Puck — Oberon’s servant (actor)
Cobweb, Mustardseed, Moth, Peaseblossom — Tytania’s servants (children)

— engaged to Demetrius but in love with Lysander (mezzo-soprano)
Helena — in love with Demetrius (soprano)
Lysander — in love with Hermia (tenor)
Demetrius — engaged to and in love with Hermia (baritone)
Theseus — Duke of Athens (bass-baritone)
Hippolyta — Queen of the Amazonians (mezzo-soprano)

— plays Pyramus (bass-baritone)
Flute — plays Thisbe (tenor)
Quince — director of the play (bass)
Snout — plays the wall (tenor)
Starveling — plays the moon (baritone)
Snug — plays the lion (bass)

Sky Ingram as Helena and Quirijn de Lang as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2013 © Tristram Kenton

What is this production like?

Director Martin Duncan’s production moves Shakespeare to the 1960s — closer to the time of the opera’s composition and ideal for a work that deals with mend-bending substances…

“It makes for clever, subtle musical theatre — perfectly aligned with the sexy-yet-sinister magic of Britten’s score”
★★★★ — The Guardian

The forest is cleverly constructed not from greenery but from translucent Perspex, with giant bubbles drifting around above the stage. The lovers are flower children while Oberon and Tytania dazzle in head-to-toe metallic silver. The fairies add a touch of creepiness. Britten wrote “I have always been struck by a kind of sharpness in Shakespeare’s fairies” — ours are black-winged, with identical blonde wigs reminiscent of the children in Village of the Damned (another 1960 reference).

And then there are the craftsmen with their “hysterically funny” ★★★★★ (The Arts Desk) scenes rehearsing and performing their play. “I don’t think I have ever laughed as much at the Pyramus and Thisbe yarn in the theatre or the opera house” (The Sunday Times)!

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Nicholas Sharratt as Flute, Joseph Shovelton as Snout, and Henry Waddington as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2013 © Tristram Kenton

What is the music like?

This score, written in 1960, is magical and strange from the off — it opens with psychedelic glissandi (sliding around!) in the lower strings, and the trip goes on…

Each group of characters inhabits a different sound world. The fairy music is ethereal: Britten chose the otherworldly sound of a countertenor for Oberon (especially unusual when the piece was written) while Tytania’s supernatural aura is created by a very high, florid vocal line — hear the high C# she floats up to in ‘Come now a roundel’. The other fairies are sung by the innocent yet eerie voices of children and there’s lots of twinkling celesta. The anarchic, acrobatic Puck, a spoken role, is always accompanied by the trumpet and snare drum. In contrast, the music for the four lovers is more romantic, but when squabbling breaks out, the vocal lines all overlap and they sing over each other — exactly like a real-life argument!

There’s sly humour too, with Britten satirising well-known classical works. During the craftsmen’s play in Act III, Thisbe’s lament, accompanied by a flute, parodies the famous ‘mad scene’ from Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

Who was the composer?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) — a central figure in 20th Century classical music. He produced everything from vast choral works to intimate settings of folk songs, but devoted the largest part of his career to opera, composing 16 in total.

Benjamin Britten in the 1960s © Clive Strutt

Did you know?

— Britten chose the play partly because he needed something in a hurry. A new opera had to be ready in time for the re-opening of the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh in the summer of 1960: “There was no time to get a libretto written, so we took one that was ready to hand. I have always loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, he wrote. In the end, the piece was ready in well under a year, and Britten himself conducted the premiere on 11 June.

— Oberon’s beautiful aria ‘I know a bank‘ is an homage to 17th Century composer Henry Purcell’s song ‘Sweeter than roses’. Britten loved and was influenced by Purcell throughout his career.

— Britten and his partner Peter Pears only added one line of their own to the libretto (the rest is Shakespeare): Lysander’s “compelling thee to marry with Demetrius”, to explain the story in lieu of the parts of the play they had cut!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sung in English with English titles and lasts approximately three hours.

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