115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Hamlet's Madness on the Operatic Stage

William Germano, Cooper Union

This paper will consider the function of madness in operatic Hamlets from the early eighteenth century to the present, the musical-dramatic choices made by composers and their poet-librettists, and the extent to which operatic syntax and texture may expand the nature of our response not only to these operatic works but to the play itself.

Proposal: 

As Shakespeareans well know, the Scandinavian name Amleth or Amleði means “not sane,” and madness is at the heart of the Hamlet plot. Like other literary characters whose names tell us everything we need to know – Beatrice, Clarissa -- Hamlet’s name becomes the lens through which others see him or, in opera, as others hear him.  

One of the pleasures of Shakespeare’s tragedy is watching the text work out the relation of Hamlet’s name to his identity. If he really is mad he is true to his name but unable to enact rationally the deliberative vengeance his oath requires; if he is only playing at madness his action in the world is at odds with his name and risks being inauthentic. “What’s in a name?” asks Indiana Elliot in the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera The Mother of Us All, riffing on Shakespeare’s Juliet. “Everything,” replies Susan B. Anthony, the mother in the opera’s title.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet’s observably irrational actions, his invisible hauntedness, and his melancholy converge to be “that within which passes show” (1.2) so that the core of Hamlet is the layering of murder mystery and the porousness of the border between the rational and irrational action. These are complicated theatrical facts for a librettist to reduce to musicalizable text.

Beginning with Francesco Gasparini's 1705 Ambleto, to a libretto by Apostolo Zeno, Hamlet feigns madness to protect his life. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Romantic sensibilities shifted operatic interest in the story's madness to Ophelia, most elaborately in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet.  In Hamlet operas from Mercadante to Faccio to the most recent by the Australian composer Brett Dean, the occasion of Hamlet's madness establishes in musical terms another means of entering the Prince's character.  

This paper will consider the function of madness in operatic Hamlets from the early eighteenth century on, the musical-dramatic choices made by composers and their poet-librettists, and the extent to which operatic syntax and texture may expand the nature of our response not only to these operatic works but to the play itself.