Shakespeare’s plays certainly get a lot of exposure, either on stages or in films. And while the Bard’s plays have influenced operas too, at least one such opera rarely gets performed: Béatrice et Bénédict by Hector Berlioz.
In fact, two performers in Opera Nuova’s upcoming presentation of Béatrice et Bénédict haven’t even been able to find any video clips or DVDs of a production of the piece, which is based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Still, for Sebastian Haboczki (Bénédict), this lack of precedent isn’t a bad thing.
“It’s a blessing in disguise—we don’t have preconceptions about what we’re supposed to do onstage … at certain moments,” says Haboczki.
Still, he has found some recordings to listen to, as has Michaela Dickey, one of the two performers playing Béatrice. While Dickey agrees that not having preconceptions can be a good thing, she has also been watching film versions of Much Ado About Nothing, just to see how other people have portrayed the characters.
“It’s always interesting to be able to see other people’s interpretations of these characters, especially if you’re struggling with grasping a character,” Dickey says. “Once you get the music, it doesn’t become anything until you’ve figured that out.”
The characters themselves were one thing that really drew Berlioz to Shakespeare’s works, Dickey explains, adding that Berlioz particularly liked the “extreme characters.”
“Berlioz actually had almost a fascination with Shakespeare. He was an avid supporter of Shakespeare’s works. He does a lot of memoirs, and he speaks of that in a lot of his writings,” she continues.
The two explain that Shakespeare’s play focuses on the relationship between Hero and Claudio; the fiery relationship between Beatrice and Benedick is a supporting theme in the play. Berlioz’s opera takes this latter relationship and expands upon it.
Berlioz himself is known better for orchestral than for vocal works; still Haboczki observes the influence of Berlioz’s orchestral techniques in this opera.
“It’s really neat, though, because if you look at his orchestral work, you can see elements of that orchestral work in this opera that he is doing,” Haboczki remarks. “You can hint at the little things that he does in his orchestras and in his symphonies, and pulls them into his operas, which is really neat, to sort of embody Berlioz in a vocal sense.”
Still, he also observes that the work is written very strangely. Dickey agrees, adding, to Haboczki’s agreement, that while Berlioz writes beautiful orchestral music, he might not necessarily be the best singers’ composer. And these could be some of the reasons why this opera isn’t put on very often.
“It’s almost like sometimes you wonder if he wrote the music before he wrote the words. We both found ways to make it work. Once you kind of embody it, you figure it out,” she says, as both express the challenges of learning their parts.
“I have a 10-minute aria which was a huge undertaking, goes through transitions that not a lot of arias even …” Dickey trails off. “It’s almost like a tone poem that takes you through an entire journey. It’s been a really interesting experience.”
Haboczki adds that the orchestra itself has very difficult music to play; however, the orchestral score is one of the things that director Robert Herriot adapted from Berlioz’s original. Herriot also adapted other aspects of the opera, such as taking out a few parts, and cutting it down from two acts to one. And then there’s the text.
“We’ve got English, more accessible text, versus the Shakesperean translation into French,” Dickey explains, a translation that these two laughingly describe as “atrocious.”
Regardless, this particular work holds many benefits for young singers, which is why Opera Nuova decided to put it on.
“It’s a really good, small opera to introduce young singers into the opera world. It is shorter, and although it is really physically demanding to sing, it’s not a four-hour opera, which is extremely demanding to sing,” explains Haboczki, who graduated from the University of Western Ontario. Dickey is a student at the University of British Columbia.
With a cast of six people, this opera also allows the duo to work in a close environment with the others.
“This gives us a chance to work in a little more of a private setting—more of a private cast,” Haboczki continues. “Us getting to see those people every single day, I think we get to develop really special relationships with each other, and we make it a really personal experience to be on stage. We’re really working on making the characters ourselves—not playing a character, but playing ourselves in that situation.”