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Michael Ching, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – opera a cappella, libretto by William Shakespeare; soloists, DeltaCappella, and Riva, Curtis Tucker, cond. Opera Memphis and Playhouse on the Square, production, Jay A. Mednikow (dedicatee of the work, who also played the role of Philostrate), exec. producer; Albany Records, Troy 1507/08, © 2014, TT 119:39 (55:08 + 64:31), $33.98.
Numerous other composers, Felix Mendelssohn the best known, have set this Shakespearean text or parts thereof to music; some of the songs have been set numerous times. Benjamin Britten turned it into an opera, writing the libretto himself together with his partner Peter Pears (who uncharacteristically played a minor rather than a major role), premièred under the composer’s baton on June 11 at the 1960 Aldeburgh Festival. The story has enchanted and entertained readers and theater-goers continuously since it was written around 1595.
The approach of Michael Ching, a Duke University graduate and student of Robert Ward who later studied with Carlisle Floyd, is, however, quite different, perhaps unique, for musical versions, since no musical instruments whatsoever are used: the orchestra is replaced by a “voicestra” singing entirely a cappella in the pit. The Memphis, TN-based 12-member all-male-voice (5 tenors, 3 baritones, 2 basses, 1 “additional vocals,” and 1 “vocal percussion”) DeltaCappella, a “contemporary a cappella” group founded in 2007, was recruited. But an equivalent female-voice group was needed, so the 8-member (4 each altos and sopranos) Riva was created; it appears not to have continued. They sing vowels and monosyllables, repeat parts of words, single words, or phrases from previous or upcoming lines that were or will be sung by the soloists, forming a sort of (Greek) chorus, sunken below rather than flanking or lining the rear of the stage. At times, they make sounds appropriate as background for the action, for example like hunting horns in Act II, s. 2 (CD 2, Trs 16-17) to accompany Theseus’ ride up the mountain, and trumpet fanfares in Act II, s. 3 (CD 2, Tr. 22) to precede Quince’s reading of the Prologue for the mechanicals’ play. The voicestra also recalls for me, and I am dating myself here, the 1960s-era wordless jazz-like vocalizations of the Swingle Singers of some of classical music’s Top 100 melodies.
This treatment creates a work that hovers between Broadway musical comedy and traditional comic opera, where the humor is generally more in the action rather than in the music itself. The form of the singing of the dialogue has more than a little similarity to some of the works of Stephen Sondheim, many of which to my mind hover in the same realm. Some of the lines of the principals are spoken or half sung rather than sung, which is in the tradition of opéra comique rather than opera seria where virtually everything is sung as aria or recitative, again not inappropriate for this text. Of course, modern opera in general is less lyrical than earlier forms, more imitative of ordinary speech, so the lack of lyricism here is not at all out of sync with that trend. While none of the principals here are internationally famous singers, all are of excellent quality.
The libretto does not use the entire play from beginning to end, but instead selects the major scenes that advance the narratives of the different groups of characters. The story is told in two acts (Shakespeare’s play has five.), the first with four scenes, the second with three. The accompanying booklet clearly indicates beneath each heading to which scene of the original play those of the libretto correspond. I did not attempt to determine if any internal cuts were made, but these are primarily Shakespeare’s words, not another writer’s reworking of them or retelling of the tale, and I sense that Ching has remained closer to the original than most adapters.
There are as well, throughout, but more frequently as the opera draws to its close, short clips or quotes from music by other composers, some from the aforementioned Mendelssohn work, as well as from well-known works that are not related to this story, such as the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, which has a Shakespeare connection, and Mozart’s Magic Flute, which does not. They, too, are clearly indicated by the references in parentheses in the libretto at the point of the quotation, since the text does not necessarily bring them to mind, nor does the vocalization of the instrumental works, at least for me, but I have never been good at “name that tune.” Some establish clever associations and relationships; a few, such as the “Wimoweh” from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” add a touch of humor, not inappropriate in the context of this play either.
The 40 un-numbered page booklet features color photos on its covers from the world première performance in January 2011 at Memphis’ Playhouse on the Square; other color photos appear, mostly in bands across the tops of pages 2, 3, 5, 6-7, and 38-39, and mostly without identification of the subjects. While many are small, they offer a good glimpse into the costumes and set as well as the dramatization by the singer-actors. Production credits, cast, and voicestra member listings are found on page 2. Track listings with timings are found on pages 3 and 4, one act per page, a well-conceived layout. Quotes from Heidi Waleson’s review of the performance in The Wall Street Journal occupies the bottom half of page 5. A note by an unidentified author about the genesis of the work occupies pages 6-7 beneath the photos; brief bios of the composer (former artistic director of Opera Memphis, who was involved in North Carolina’s Triangle Opera Theater prior to that) and the conductor fill page 8. The libretto fills pages 9-37, with descriptions of Opera Memphis and DeltaCappella below the photos on page 38; URLs for the websites of the principals (some of which are no longer active) and recording acknowledgements are below those on page 39. The work was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis from February through April 2011.
This is a captivating, charming, enchanting, and entertaining rendering of the story and the text; even if it strips out quite a bit of Shakespeare, it retains the original late-Renaissance language, which for me also pushes it closer to a classical composition than to a Broadway show. After all, no one would call the works created by those numerous earlier composers from parts of the play popular rather than classical art songs. The music is available from the composer (MrBillow@gmail.com), and I hope other companies will take a chance with it, recruit the necessary forces, and present it in their regions, for it is certainly worthy. I suspect it would be a big draw: the well-known story would entice people to come hear the new treatment and they’d quickly be drawn in.