Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet briefly graced the Met stage during the late 19th century, vanishing after only nine performances. The grand French adaptation of Shakespeare finally returned during the 2009–10 season, starring baritone Simon Keenlyside as the brooding title character. In anticipation of the premiere of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leise’s stark staging, Keenlyside spoke about portraying one of theater’s most complex characters.
Hamlet may be the single most familiar—and challenging—character in all of theater. What attracts you?
He’s human. The reason Shakespeare’s characters resonate with all of us is because the great masters hook into something that pertains to our common humanity. Think of that bit when Henry V is walking around at night, discussing what it is to be an ordinary person. It’s the business of living, surviving, the business of rage or jealousy, the human condition that’s interesting and makes these works accessible.
When you were preparing your roles, did you go back to the play?
I did. I’d encountered Shakespeare’s characters in opera when I played Ford in Falstaff, and through my love of Otello. I also did a great piece, The Tempest, a modern masterpiece by Thomas Adès. Sometimes with Shakespeare, the issues themselves are so weighty that they transfer well to opera. And sometimes when a play is translated, it’s no longer Shakespeare. The language is too rich, too powerful, too overwhelming. The opera Hamlet was composed in a very different age. It’s sentimental music, and it needs to be handled with commitment. It’s high melodrama—you can’t compare Ambroise Thomas to Verdi—but it’s eminently accessible music, and there’s fantastic stuff in it.
Hamlet may be the best-known character in all of literature. What’s it like to play the role in Ambroise Thomas’s opera version?
There’s a visceral pleasure in singing 19th-century opera. The tessitura is quite high. Many 19th-century composers, like Verdi or Tchaikovsky, created wonderful vehicles for higher baritones to sing, and Thomas’s Hamlet is also one such role. Hamlet is a joy for a modern baritone to sing. And because the opera is a 19th-century melodrama, there’s a small window of opportunity for swashbuckling that’s not in the play!
What are the vocal challenges?
Hamlet has a host of moods and colors, and you better have a nice big elastic voice to encompass those things. You want as wide a palette as possible. Color is everything. In the end, it’s the little things that you’re trying to highlight, the nuance of it all.
Tell me about collaborating with your directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser.
I love working with them. They’re passionate about why you’re doing something. What is a motivation? Why are you talking to somebody? When I did their Iphigénie en Tauride in Wales with [conductor Sir Charles] Mackerras, we spent a full three weeks around the piano. Moshe said to me, “What’s the point of schlepping around the stage if you don’t know why? It’s a play, and the play is in the music, and in acting with your voice. So before we get onstage, we need to be in agreement about it.” I’ve always worked like that. If you make your frame of reference clear, then you can go where you like.
What are their different roles when preparing a production?
Patrice knows so much, and does so much work behind the scenes. He doesn’t take much of an active part in the actual rehearsal process, but he’s watching, and he’ll come to you with direction—always quietly. Moshe is sleeves rolled up, charging around, getting you to do what he wants. I admire them both hugely. They never get in the way of the vocal process—they don’t try to pretend, as many directors do, that they know a lot about singing.
Tell me about the visual side of this production.
It’s spare and a little scary, of course—it’s supposed to be oppressive. And it focuses attention on the characters. I hope we can to some extent fill in some of the gaps with the voice.