Storm of the Century

In anticipation of the 2012 company premiere of his operatic version of The Tempest, which also marked his Met conducting debut, composer Thomas Adès discussed his creative process and what it takes to be faithful to Shakespeare.

What inspired you to create an opera based on this Shakespeare play?
I’d been toying with several different subjects, none of which had quite come to fruition. And then, in the middle of the night, I woke up and thought, perhaps I could do The Tempest. Then I immediately thought, “No you couldn’t,” but it was already too late. The idea was there, and there was no going back. The play is famously full of references to music, and the intangibility of some of its characters has always inspired music.

Tell us about your collaboration with librettist Meredith Oakes.
Meredith’s text is a translation of Shakespeare into modern English, but in a way that is all the more faithful and concentrates the drama. It’s a sort of extreme concision, a precise version of what Shakespeare writes. We’re not trying to replace the play—that would be ridiculous. I want it to be The Tempest. I want it to be Shakespeare and to bring that vision into the opera house as faithfully as possible. In order to do that, in order to be faithful to the play, one has to be a little unfaithful, if you like, to the text. We actually started further away from the play than we ended up and found ourselves going back to Shakespeare’s structure more and more. But truly to release the spirit of the play into music, one had to climb, as it were, a little way out of the original text.

You wrote the role of Prospero for Simon Keenlyside. How did that influence your vision of the character?

As well as his sublime vocal gifts, Simon’s a terrifically physical performer who projects youth and vitality. In a way, it’s that characterization as much as the extraordinary voice that was on my mind. I don’t think of Prospero as an old man. This is the only play of Shakespeare that observes the classical unities of one place, in one day. When Prospero meditates on the evanescence of life, my feeling is actually it’s not that he does that every day and has been doing it for years and he’s an old bore. It’s that he’s just realizing it at that exact moment. That’s the first time he’s thought this.

How does his magic relate to this emotional state?
In a way, all of his music represents aspects of one unity. The storm at the beginning is his interior torture and pain, his twistedness and anger about having his life stolen from him, projected into nature and into the music. Once those emotions have played out and he sees the effect they have had on these people, the music is almost like the sea or a surface of water—it becomes calmer, not just in the activity, but also in the way the harmony works. The magic I think of as more to do with the way positive or negative emotions can act on the elements around one, and also on other people, not as an “abracadabra” kind of magic.

You’ve made some unusual vocal choices, especially with the two characters that have been enslaved by Prospero—Ariel as a high soprano and Caliban as a lyric tenor.
Ariel tends to be blown around by the emotions of the other characters. All those high pitches—Ds, Es, and Fs, and a G at one point—aren’t a way of expressing high emotion and shouldn’t feel like the top of the singer’s range. That’s simply where the character lives. In the case of Caliban, I thought very hard about this, and there were two options really. He could be a kind of great, earthy brute, perhaps a bass. That was at one stage the conventional view. But he’s more often described in the play as being like an eel or a fish, and I suddenly thought he could be more like one of those high male voices from the east, with a weird elegance. And of course he is an aristocrat, and not only in his own mind. In the first act, he’s sort of a mirror of Prospero because he’s saying, “You took my island from me.” And that is also Prospero’s complaint: “You took my country from me.” Caliban’s natural state is to be at one with nature, at one with the island.

Why do you describe this as a symphonic opera?
The music has its own internal logic of relationships that doesn’t just do what it wants to do because the characters suddenly decide to go somewhere. It’s a little bit hard to explain. It’s a tissue that’s woven in. Everything is related in the music, and it does create a sort of whole. And I think that’s what symphonic thinking is. All the elements create a view of the world that’s a sphere.

What other operas are symphonic?
I’d like to say Pelléas et Mélisande. I think Lulu is another example where everything in the piece is articulated in the music, and in a very jointed way. The opera is like a body, with limbs and arms and bone structure and all this sort of thing. It’s not just a story with music. It’s something that exists above and around the through the story. The music is not just an accompaniment, I hope, more an embodiment.

Robert Lepage has directed the play many times. What does he bring to your opera?
He’s very clear on what you’d call the human drama of it and the way he articulates it. And of course he has that mastery of theatrical illusion. I love that he’s set it in an opera house. It seems to me a very appropriate response to the opera—and so beautiful. It makes you aware of the theatricality that an opera unpacks from a play like this. Particularly when the chorus enters in their wonderful gilded gowns. You’re aware that they should be all wet and torn and disheveled from the storm, but here they are magically perfected. So the storm was only in the music, in the audience’s minds. It’s a metaphor for opera itself. That’s the most exciting part for me—to see the physical characters doing what you’ve tried to compose into music. It adds a whole fourth dimension to the experience.