A Feast of Foolishness

October 17, 2019

Erich Burnett

lovers meet in the woods accompanied by fairies and other creatures
Photo credit: Arthur Rackham / Alamy Stock Photo

Oberlin Opera Theater presents the Britten comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream Nov. 6-10.

Our understanding of the world has come a long way since the days when Shakespeare wrote of fairies and other fanciful creatures in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But a similar guiding principle endures today—one that keeps the story as relevant as ever, according to Jonathon Field, director of Oberlin Opera Theater’s forthcoming production.

“When A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written by Shakespeare so many hundreds of years ago, we had people who were considered learned who told us what was true about things we couldn’t see,” Field says. “And people simply believed it.

“Even today, there are still unseen forces controlling our lives. But today the learned people are talking about neutrinos and quarks and Higgs bosen.”

But since astrophysical concepts don’t fill theaters like fairies and love triangles do, Oberlin Opera Theater will stick with Britten’s 1960 adaptation of Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be presented in four performances at Hall Auditorium (67 N. Main St.) beginning at 8 p.m. Wednesday, November 6.

Additional performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, November 8 and 9; the production concludes with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, November 10.

One of the most beloved operas of the 20th century, A Midsummer Night’s Dream follows Shakespeare’s original concept of a play within a play, all centered around the planned nuptials of Theseus, the duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, as well as the arranged marriage of the duke’s daughter Hermia to Demetrius—each of whom pines for a different partner.

When these misaligned passions lead Hermia and her lover Lysander to flee Athens, they wind up lost in the woods, where they encounter a population of fairies. In an attempt to restore order to the various relationships and teach a lesson along the way, the fairy king Oberon instructs his mischievous servant Puck to administer a substance to the eyelids of a sleeping Titania, thus causing her to fall in love with the first being she sees upon awakening. Further mischief—and misaligned passions—ensue when Puck administers the same substance to a member of a troupe of actors preparing a play for the upcoming wedding.

It is from the mouth of Puck that we hear the phrase What fools these mortals be, one of the most enduring lines in all of stage history—and an apt summation of the story’s central theme.

The libretto, supplied by Britten and Peter Pears (who portrayed one of the actors in the opera’s premiere production), condenses the story and emphasizes the woodland fairy world.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream enjoys enduring popularity largely for its wildly varied score. It serves up distinct musical sound worlds for each of the three main character groups—the noble lovers, the ethereal fairies, and the rustic actors—and evokes styles and derives inspiration from folk-like music and the Baroque era to 12-tone writing. It will be performed by the Oberlin Orchestra, under the direction of Christopher Larkin.

Joining the standout cast of Oberlin Conservatory singers is countertenor Andrew Lipian, a 2012 graduate of Oberlin College. Lipian will sing the role of the fairy king, in what is known as Britten’s most startling innovation in opera: He composed the lead male role for the male soprano voice. The cast of fairies also includes members of Oberlin Choristers, a community-based choral program for children.

“The thing I like about fairies is that with all the magic that happens, we as audience members become OK with the fact that we don’t have control over every aspect of what we’re doing in our lives,” says Field.

“Plus, the fairies get all the best music.”

Tickets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Oberlin are $10 ($8 for students), available by calling 800-371-0178, online at oberlin.edu/artsguide, or by visiting Central Ticket Service (Nord Annex, next to Hall Auditorium) Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m.

In conjunction with the opera, the discussion “Midautumn Perspectives on A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will take place at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, November 9, in Stull Recital Hall (77 W. College St.). Part of Oberlin Conservatory’s Richard Murphy Musicology Colloquium series, it will feature Imani Mosley, a visiting assistant professor of musicology at Wichita State University; Oberlin College theater professor Paul Moser; and Jonathon Field. The talk will be moderated by musicology professor Charles McGuire.

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