Walking into a deserted Wadham first quad on a Monday evening, you’d have no idea that somewhere, squirrelled away in the bowels of a crammed performance space, 57 performers and various other crew members were deeply engaged in drawing together Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Purcell’s musical score to create the semi-opera ‘The Fairy Queen’.
Some context is useful at this stage, if, like me, you have never come across the notion of a ‘semi-opera’ before. After Shakespeare’s death, the 17th century audiences of his works began to find the lengthy soliloquies and dialogues packed with intricate linguistic devices a little hard on the brain for ‘light entertainment’, so engineered a way to enjoy Shakespeare with a little more variety. This involves a slightly edited version of Shakespeare’s original play-script performed with additional musical interludes, called masques, interspersed between the acts. During these masques, related thematically but not directly based on the action that precedes them, there are dance movements, arias, and lyrical musical movements, offering a broad range of entertainment alongside the words themselves. To me, the term ‘semi-opera’ is perhaps a little heavy-going for the nature of what I witnessed – as one of the cast members said, “at first I thought that it might seem inaccessible – I mean, Shakespeare and opera combined…but in reality, there’s something for everyone”.
The ‘something for everyone’ line really could not be more applicable than in this situation. Purcell’s music is intelligently written for his audience and for the work itself, ranging from fun, light-hearted musical ditties as an accompaniment to the more comedic elements of the masques, to beautiful, lyrical arias pitched to perfection for the solos, duets, and dances, and grandiose movements for the formal sequences requiring a little more gravitas. As for the performers themselves, the range and sheer scale of talent on offer is astounding. The play itself is acted with intensity and passion, with an emphasis on the light and comedic elements of Shakespeare’s original script, while the brilliant dancers, soloists and musical chorus kept me captivated during the masques. And that’s not all – as I arrived, I was greeted by Jasmine White, the producer, with the words ‘you’ve just missed the gymnasts’: all manner of talent and performance is going to be showcased during this incredible feat of theatre and musical performance.
After being astounded by the scale of the performance that was going on around me, I turned to incredulity: how on earth does one even attempt to create a production of such magnitude? Talking to the director, Dionysios Kyropoulos, a DPhil student at New College and an experienced professional director of opera, was illuminating. Having put on operas in Cambridge and performed widely in various other venues, Dionysios started in Oxford and quickly realised that there are very few spaces big enough or willing enough to take on the production of large-scale opera, despite the prevalence of extremely successful smaller-scale student operas in the university, displaying both the talent and the enthusiasm for this art form. For this reason he founded ‘Theatron Novum’, aiming to bring opera to the fore in Oxford life, performing Purcell’s ‘the Prophetess’ at the Keble O’Reilly in Michaelmas this year. The Fairy Queen, however, reaches far beyond his previous production in terms of scale, as well as chartering new waters, as it will be the first student opera to be seen at the Oxford Playhouse for nearly 15 years.
His dedication to the cause is remarkable: he informs me that he has spent over 120 hours rehearsing only with the cast of the play, as well as working with the other performers separately for a similar amount of time. He has used his studies in Historical Theatre to great effect, putting on workshops specifically for the actors in historical theatre, as well as training them in the art of reading and acting Shakespeare, a worthwhile cause too often overlooked in the theatre. I get the impression that this is so much more than simply directing a performance, this is about nurturing talent in the field of opera and semi-opera in order to take over the mantle of theatron novum’s aims further down the line.
The passion and commitment of Dionysios to his production and to his cast seeps through into all parts of the performance – everyone I was introduced to from the cast and crew was overwhelmingly excited about what they are achieving, and, when asked about the challenges that still lay ahead, were equally enthusiastic about embracing those too. A matter of days before curtain up and you could forgive them for feeling nervous, fraught or stressed out, especially as the rehearsal I sat in on was the first time that all of the performers, until then having rehearsed separately, came together for the first time. And yet, the atmosphere was instead one of teamwork – a collective, collaborative effort, from a cast that is clearly proud of itself, its achievements, and each other, all led by the energy and enthusiasm of their director, dancing along with them, springing into action and injecting a good dose of fun and lightheartedness into the proceedings, as is only fitting for the nature of what he is directing.
If putting on such a huge production weren’t challenging enough, to have created a cast that is so passionate about what they are doing is even more impressive, and something that will shine through on the performance nights. If you might be intimidated by the thought of Shakespeare and opera combined, then think again: if lighthearted comedy and diverse entertainment mixed with a healthy dose of Shakespeare and a fantastic musical score appeals to you, then this really is your show.