Aria Code S3 Ep 17
“To Be or Not To Be”
from Brett Dean’s Hamlet
Just a heads up: This episode includes a discussion of suicide and a suicide attempt, so if you want to skip this one, we totally understand.
And if you struggle with suicidal thoughts, please call 911 or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
WILSON: He’s in so much pain that he thinks that death, nothingness, would be better than what he currently feels.
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
WEST: You know, you can’t sit back and go, “This bit doesn’t apply to me.” Yes mate, it does. It’s about death.”
GIDDENS: Every episode, we ask big questions about a single aria so that we can understand it better. Today, it’s “To Be or Not To Be” from Hamlet, in the opera by Brett Dean.
CLAYTON: You know, it’s an existential howl into the void. And that’s why it’s relevant, and that’s why it’s all-consuming: because it makes you question life and death, and that’s the biggest thing of all.
“To Be or Not To Be.” That's gotta be one of the most recognizable lines in English literature. And somehow, everybody knows that it's from Hamlet,
Shakespeare’s longest play. 400 years and still going strong.
And even if you know just that one line, chances are, you’ve picked up bits of the story by osmosis: something’s rotten, it’s in Denmark, Prince Hamlet wants to kill his uncle, Claudius, because Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father and then married his mother.
Hamlet stalls, plays detective, contemplates suicide, breaks up with his girlfriend, and then dies along with pretty much everyone else.
It’s such an unhappy story. But people freakin’ love it. It’s been played by some of the greatest actors of stage and screen, and it’s been adapted into a few operas. Most recently by composer Brett Dean and librettist Matthew Jocelyn.
Now these two boil down the whole tragedy into just twelve scenes -- the absolute essence.
And of course, among the twelve scenes is Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To Be or Not To Be.” It’s the speech where Hamlet thinks out loud about the hardships people face and wonders: is it really worth it, this whole life thing? Is it actually better to exist -- to be -- or not to be?
For Hamlet, that is the question. But for us here today, there are a few more.
Like, why do you and I and most random strangers on the street know the opening lines of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy from hundreds of years ago? How does adding music change this text that we know so well? And what can it possibly mean to us today?
Well, let me introduce you to the crack team of guests who are going to help us get to the bottom of it.
First, tenor Allan Clayton. He premiered the role of Hamlet at the Glyndebourne Festival in England back in 2017. And unlike the title character, he had no questions about taking on this role.
CLAYTON: I’d never sung a role that big before, and of course I said “yes” straight away. I'd actually met Brett at a festival in Slovenia, bizarrely, and his first act when we first met was to put a can of beer in my hand. So I knew we were going to be very good friends.
Next, Cori Ellison, an opera dramaturg who’s on the vocal arts faculty at Juilliard. Cori worked closely with Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn to develop this opera.
ELLISON: It was great fun reconfiguring it into operatic form. And in a way, trying to catch the spirit of it without necessarily the letter of it. And it was a real love-fest too, everybody got along, which is kind of amazing in the scheme of things.
Third, Jeffrey Wilson. He’s a preceptor of expository writing at Harvard.
WILSON: What the hell is a preceptor? [laughter] Basically, I’m a lecturer. I teach a course called “Why Shakespeare?” And lo and behold, every semester Hamlet just teaches itself. Hamlet doesn't need Jeff Wilson in order for it to be a successful text, much to my devastation.
And finally, actor and director Samuel West, who knows the Danish prince very, very well.
WEST: I played Hamlet for a year and three days for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford on Avon. And our version was very long, it was four hours. And we actually advertised it in the program as three hours and 55 minutes, and it was a bit like selling something at $9.99.
It’s Sam’s performance of the original Shakespeare soliloquy that you’ll hear in this episode.
Alright, off we go to Denmark and straight into the heart of Elsinore, the castle where all of the drama unfolds in Brett Dean’s Hamlet.
WILSON: Hamlet is a story about a Danish prince that is weirdly resonant to a lot of people who aren't Danish princes. It's a story about love and death and about what happens when the people that we love die. And it's a story about international politics in medieval Europe.
WEST: I would say this is the story of a man who thinks too much.
ELLISON: He lives a very examined life, if not an active one sometimes.
ELLISON: So, Hamlet is the young prince of Denmark. His father was the previous king of Denmark who died under mysterious circumstances. And, the present king is his father's brother, Hamlet's uncle Claudius.
CLAYTON: Hamlet has witnessed the wedding of his mother to his uncle.
ELLISON: Which is quite upsetting to him for good reason.
WILSON: So when, when we first meet Hamlet, he is suicidally depressed
CLAYTON: He's been visited by the ghost of his dad.
WEST: A famous warrior, who may be a devil.
CLAYTON: Who's told him that he was murdered by his, his brother, the new king.
ELLISON: And, urges Hamlet onto revenge.
WEST: And Hamlet, a famous worrier, who's studied philosophy at Wittenberg goes - “Revenge? We don't do that sort of thing anymore.” I've always thought of it as Gladiator with Woody Allen playing Russell Crowe, he's miscast.
ELLISON: And then, we meet, his love interest, Ophelia, who is the daughter of Polonius, who's this sort of pompous court official.
WILSON: She's smart. She's confident, she's courteous, she's kind. She's in love with Hamlet or, or she thinks she was in love with Hamlet or they were in love and, and they don't quite know what the relationship is anymore.
ELLISON: Because through Hamlet's obsessive pursuing of revenge, he alienates and ignores Ophelia rather badly.
CLAYTON: There's been a conversation between Ophelia, Polonius, her dad, and the king and queen all saying, you know, that Hamlet's lost his mind. He's gone mad. We see him walking around the palace with this sort of vacant stare. And Polonius has then told Ophelia that she will basically become a spy for them, to understand what's really going on with Hamlet.
WILSON: So Ophelia’s, you know, now acting as an agent of Polonius, she's pretending, she's just doing her studies while Claudius and Polonius then go and hide. So they exit at the very moment that Hamlet enters and Ophelia is there reading her book, and that's the moment that he launches into “to be, or not to be.”
ELLISON: It's Hamlet's meditation on mortality.
CLAYTON: You know, do I, or don't I exist, live, it's the question at the heart of humanity.
WEST: “To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them,”
WILSON: So, uh, when I was about 16 years old, I tried to commit suicide and, and it's still pretty tough for me to talk about 20 years later. Um, I was kind of struggling with really bad self-esteem and depression and alcoholism. And, you know, uh, I worked through it. I had an amazing family that was extremely supportive. Uh, got me connected up with some medical resources you know, uh, went on to graduate from, from college, got my doctorate, Shakespeare scholar, college professor, a couple of kids, life is good. But as I kind of look back on that now, it's interesting that I don't think I fully processed that experience for 20 years until I thought about it by way of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
CLAYTON: The aria starts, with this sort of very low bass chord almost like thunder going off to repeated, is very low and the double bass and the piano and then Hamlet enters and he says, “or not to be, or not to be, or not to be.”
You've also got a recorded noise, which is something you'd expect from a horror film, directly before finally, “to be.”
And it’s weird.
ELLISON: It starts very low in the tenor’s range, kind of hushed, very inward, it's very sparsely accompanied at that point.
CLAYTON: Brett said, everybody will be waiting for how you set “To be or not to be.” And he said, “well, you know, what on earth do I do? What the hell do I do,” you know, “to be or not to be,” right, or, “to be or not to be,” you know, just how would you set and go home? “Oh, that was a bit disappointing,” but if you, if you sort of drip fed it, you drip fed elements of it. Then the fact that I say it “or not,” a billion times and the piece I say “to be” once that then makes it an event, separate of the text that everyone already knows and understands.
So, for Hamlet, it's very much the, I think it's the end of a conversation that he's been having with himself since he was 15. There is this choice between life and death. And it's all tied up with, with the death of his dad and whether he's going to kill his uncle, the king.
WEST: It starts with a paradox, “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Well, that's not really a question, is it? Where do you put the question mark in that? “To be, or not to be.” It could be to die or not to die, to kill or not to kill, to act or not to act. but it's not, it's something bigger and more general.
He seems to be saying, “I don't know, what's the point?” and although it's an essentially felt personal thing, it doesn't really seem to be just about Hamlet's personal circumstance, it's about all of our circumstance.
WILSON: Hamlet is formulating the soliloquy very much like, you know, an academic investigation, “here's the question I'm going to answer -- to be or not to be.” And it feels very formal. He's drawing upon these sort of formal logical devices that were used in 16th century education to investigate big questions. Like, should I kill myself or should I not kill myself?
WEST: You know, you can't sit back and go, “ah, this bit doesn't apply to me.” Yes, mate, it does. It's about death. You know, you're born. The only thing you know, is nobody gets out of here alive. You're going to die. Listen up.
ELLISON: And what's really interesting here is that it is in Sprechstimme, which means that it's half sung and half spoken. and what you see notated in the score, it's actually Brett's notation of how Allan spoke these lines. So, um, that's really an interesting feature of this.
The tradition of composers writing roles for specific singers goes back way into the sands of time, to the very beginnings of opera. It's not a new thing, but it is new in the sense that so much of our operatic repertory has been for so long, a museum repertory where we're constantly reviving older pieces, so that singers are used to, opening up a score and that's it, you know, maybe in a Handel aria or a bel canto aria, they can ornament it. But, other than that, they are stuck with what Mozart wrote for his sister-in-law with the freaky high voice, and they have to sort of fit into a role like, uh, Cinderella into the glass slipper. However, there's a great luxury and a great opportunity to be part of a creative process when a singer gets to collaborate with a composer and particularly a composer who is as collaborative as Brett Dean is.
CLAYTON: When you're in a rehearsal studio for any opera there comes a point, no matter what show it is, however well it's known, where the director says, “oh, for God sake, if only Mozart were in the room, what the hell did he mean by the end of Don Giovanni? Like, what the hell am I supposed to do,” and for this process, you can do that. Brett Dean was sitting three meters away with a score, chewing a pencil, and you could say “Brett, what on earth are you thinking when you wrote this music” and he went, “oh, I thought this and this and this,” and you go, “oh, okay, fine.” And sometimes he would say, “Look, I've written this, but actually having seen what you want to do with the role, or having seen the staging or having, you know, just things like balance, you know, this doesn't work. I can't hear you. So let's put it up an octave, or let's, you know, let's rewrite it.”
And so the day of the first night, I was emailed a new setting of this sort of page of music. I was like, “oh good, I’ll learn that then in the interval,” I mean, thankfully Glyndebourne has an hour and a half interval. So I was, but that was quite, you know, that was quite interesting. And, and it's a, it's a perfect example of what happens when you have the composer living and in the room. They can change things as late as first night.
ELLISON: The vocal and dramatic demands of the role of Hamlet are really quite formidable. And a lot of that has to do with Allan Clayton, his capacities as an artist. and all of that is written into this role.
CLAYTON: I had a sort of mini breakdown, not long afterwards. I got home and I was supposed to go straight to, um, to Frankfurt to do [Eugene] Onegin. And I got on the, I got in the cab to the airport and, uh, I, I’d just split up with my girlfriend during the process of Hamlet. I moved house straight afterwards. My dad is dead. I don't have a relationship with my mum. So there's all these sort of things I think should just sort of, I was in the camp to the airport. I said, “I don't think I can go to Frankfurt tomorrow. I don't think I can start rehearsals.” And so I went to terminal five at Heathrow. I went to the bar before security and I just watched my flight go up the departures until it said “left--departed.” And I got in a cab, went straight home. And um, I said to my agent, “I'm really sorry. I'm not going to rehearsals. And can you please apologize to Frankfurt for me?” This is awful. I've never done anything so unprofessional in my life, but it was just those few months of everything going on with the turmoil of everything and it was what that was the reaction my, my mind and body took.
WEST: So Brett brilliantly uses a version of the speech that people know less well, which is from Q1, the Bad Quarto, which is basically a pirated copy of the play. This is what we call a memorial reconstruction of Hamlet. In other words, it's the play as remembered by somebody who was in it.
WILSON: It makes a deliberate decision to say not “to be or not to be that is the question,” but “to be, or not to be, ay there’s the point.”
WEST: And you think, “um, yeah, kind of, have another go, you’re nearly there.”
So yes, Brett has very cleverly taken something that we think we know and set it doubly in ways that wake us up. First of all using a version of the speech, which was the first ever published version of it, and secondly, by setting it to music.
ELLISON: The accompaniment continues in a very sparse way, very delicate, pianississimo, as quiet as can be. And the vocal line gradually, gradually ramps up a little higher, a little higher, it's set in a very fragmentary way. A lot of rests between these sort of halting phrases.
WEST: “To die, to sleep no more and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished to die, to sleep, to sleep perchance to dream. Aye, there's the rub for, in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.”
WILSON: He's in so much pain that he thinks that death, nothingness, would be better than the pain that he currently feels.
CLAYTON: Then you have these tuned gongs all hanging around this sort of same chord that started a piece that will end the piece that you keep hearing. It's like a Hamlet theme, and it's a sort of really abstract chord. And you have stones being clicked and clacked as well. “Is that all to be, or not to be? No, to sleep, to dream.” There's another click. “Ay there's the point to sleep to dream.” And when you repeat during the second time you suddenly have, the strings, these really high floaty, ethereal, violin sound stopped to come in and it's like a sort of, um, I don't know, like a brain soup, you know, he sort of swimming around in this, this sort of otherworldly noise.
ELLISON: And also the other thing that Brett loves to do is, write for really strange instruments and non-instruments. Sometimes you were thinking he was, you know, rating the rubbish bins at Glyndebourne, cause he would come in with, you know, various crockery and tin foil, and rocks and scrapey things. And he would just try stuff at rehearsal. And so there are in this opera, some sounds that at first will seem almost unidentifiable. And some of them remain unidentifiable, but such a sonic imagination.
WEST: “There's the respect that makes calamity of so long life, for who would bear the whips and scorns of time. The oppressor's wrong. The proud man's contumely. The pangs of disprized love. The law’s delay the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin. Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life? But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills, we have then fly to others that we know not of,”
WILSON: But then he pauses and considers, “but what if death might not be the end of being?” There might be a state of being after death that is even more painful than the one he's experiencing in life.
CLAYTON: He talks about the undiscovered country, which is so famous that Star Trek used it. He's talking about going places that we don't know about. He's talking about the afterlife, he's talking about heaven and hell.
And then you get this really low, dirty, cello noise coming in.
ELLISON: It becomes this tremendously expansive line.
CLAYTON: And that's when you first hear Ophelia,
ELLISON: “But for this, but for the joyful hope of this.”
WEST: Ophelia is generally on stage during the speech reading or pretending to read.
ELLISON: Sometimes in the play, it seems as if she's just so peripheral to him. But Matthew and Brett bring her into the scene of Hamlet's “To be, or not to be” monologue, to show how much she is weighing on his conscience.
All in all, in this opera the character of Ophelia is given a lot more agency and a lot more substance.
WILSON: It's so easy to forget that Ophelia is onstage while Hamlet is delivering “to be, or not to be.” So often Ophelia, if she's even remained on stage is way off on one of the sides and it's sort of spotlight down on Hamlet and his existential angst. And I think what Brett Dean really captures is the way that we need to remember that Ophelia is there with Hamlet. And not only are we hearing these words, but she is hearing these words.
She hears Hamlet who she's been in a romantic relationship with. And they're having a tough time. They're going through a breakup. Now he's being an asshole and it's not really clear to her why she sees her former lover expressing these suicidal thoughts. And that kind of plants an idea in her mind. And then you see Ophelia enter into the realm of Hamlet’s melancholy and suicidal depression in the second half of the play. And to me, there's a moment of suicide contagion that happens there.
Suicide contagion is a term social psychologists use to talk about the ways that when suicide or suicidal ideas are kind of in the air, if there's a case or there's media reports on a case that that can increase the prevalence of suicide or suicide ideas.
So this is why there are media guidelines related to discussing suicide that, you know, don't describe in detail, don't romanticize the manner of death, make sure that you provide resources. So it kind of rattles me a little bit that the most famous soliloquy and the most famous play by the most famous English playwright is all about suicide. And we assign that in high schools every year. You know, what are the chances that every student is mentally in a place where it's going to be productive and healthy for them to engage with those kinds of thoughts and ideas. But I also think that it can be, you know, an opportunity for us to talk about the concept of suicide contagion a kind of mechanism by which we might start some conversations.
CLAYTON: Hamlet carries on, “Who would bear the scorns of flattery of the world, the taste of hunger or a tyrant's reign and the spurns, the whips, the scorns, the pangs of disprized love.” And when he gets here, he starts to repeat these words, “the spurns, the spurns, the whips, the scorns,” and Brett sets it up to a, up to big G-sharp. And you've had this big pedal note going in the basses. And suddenly there's a big change and a big explosion in the orchestra. And Hamlet says, “who would this endure.” You know, who'd put up with this, with this shit, because it's just too much.
WEST: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. And that's the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises have great pitch and moment with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.”
CLAYTON: And then the biggest climax of the piece comes when Hamlet sings, “oh, thus conscience makes cowards of us all.”
Because he realizes that he can't kill himself. He would take that route out. But he can't because these nagging doubts persist.
WILSON: According to the version of Christianity that Hamlet was committed to, it's a sin to commit suicide. He would end up in everlasting hell if he were to do so And that's why Hamlet can't do it.
CLAYTON: And you're left them with the tuned gongs that you started this aria with, and they come back and he sees Ophelia. And he sees that he is not alone, that Ophelia has been listening to everything. And, so then begins, you know, the sort of the heartbreaking duet where it's the last time they talk really. And he says “lady in my orisons, be all my sins remembered.”
So he's, you know, he's asking her when she prays, to remember him and to pray for his forgiveness as well. And, uh, she then says, “Good my Lord, I have remembrances of yours that I've longed to redeliver.” And she hands him back. These, these love letters, these tokens of their love, and he takes them. And then just throw them to the floor and says, “Not I, um, I never gave you aught.” I didn't give you anything at all. I didn't love you.
WILSON: And he suddenly becomes wise to the fact that he's being spied upon. He becomes aggressive and violent and hostile toward Ophelia.
ELLISON: And here we have the, the sort of the, the breakdown, not only of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, but the beginning of her mental breakdown where, you know, she just simply doesn't understand why he's become so unhinged and why he doesn't seem to love her anymore. And this is where he very famously says to her, “Get thee to a nunnery.” And it’s thought by Shakespearean scholars that a nunnery meant, actually, a whorehouse. So it's not that he's saying you're so pure that you should go be a nun, but that you're damaged goods. So I'm not interested anymore. Ophelia is just beyond words, she just can't handle it. So she starts making all these high skittery sounds when Hamlet is sort of cursing her out.
CLAYTON: I mean, I guess you could call it, you could call it ghosting, but it goes through the sort of nth degree. It's, it's absolutely horrendous. He denies their love was ever real when it was, and it's, it's, it's such self-sabotage and self-hurt, but ultimately it's because he knows the journey he's taking and he knows he can do only that alone. And certainly not with her at his side.
ELLISON: You know, Hamlet is always marked out as the guy who just can’t quite get himself to take the revenge. And when he finally does it sort of backfires spectacularly.
WEST: And as soon as he does the deed, you know, there's another 200 lines of the greatest thing Shakespeare ever wrote And then you sit down at 10 o'clock for an hour of fighting and corpses.
CLAYTON: Laertes and Claudius have planned to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword. Hamlet knows exactly what’s going on and he grabs a sword and basically kills everyone.
He dies as well.
ELLISON: And that's Hamlet in a nutshell.
WEST: And if you wanted a précis of it, which is very hard to put in any other words, they're pretty simple words “to be, or not to be.” Life is terrible. I've lost my father. I can't trust my mother. My girlfriend is a woman and therefore tainted with the same brush. Why don't I kill myself? Because I'm a coward because the afterlife is unknown. Why don't you kill yourself, sir? You're going to die anyway. Why don't you do the brave thing? Because you’re a coward. Thank you very much. Yes. Okay. Now we can carry on with the play. You know, things are absolutely as bad as they can absolutely be. Let's go on. And that's it, that's the epitome of Western drama!
CLAYTON: It's a heartbreaking place to be at the end of the show. And I just feel heartbroken for him. I feel really sad and it it's, it sort of stays with you the next day and the next day, and then you do another show and then you're like, “oh, Christ, I've got through it again.” You know, and it consumes you because it doesn't matter where you are in the world or who you are, or what you do for a living, what age you are. We've all asked ourselves these same questions that he does.
And it's basically, an existential howl into the, into the hole, into the void, which is what we all do. And we will, we all question ourselves and some people maybe don't think about it as much as others, but it's all, it's always in the background and that's why it's relevant. And that's why it's all consuming because, it makes you question life and death, and that's the biggest thing of all.
WILSON: At the end of the play, Hamlet says “draw thy breath and pain to tell my story.” And I think about storytelling as, as one way in which we can cope with the intensity and the pain and the pressure of, of, you know, bad things that happen in life. And that as audience members, we know that, We can go see a play and we see pity and fear represented on stage. And we kind of cathartically release those emotions from our life.
WEST: You asked me who Hamlet is. I mean, he's all of us in difficulty. The question is how do we live truthfully in a world, which doesn't require us to.
The speech certainly is much better at asking questions than answering them. But perhaps that uncertainty is part of the reason for its fame. If it was a more straightforward speech, if it was more personal to Hamlet, if it made more sense, I suspect we wouldn't still be talking about it.
END OF DECODE
Actor Samuel West, professor Jeffrey Wilson, dramaturg Cori Ellison, and tenor Allan Clayton...
...decoding “To Be or Not To Be” from Brett Dean’s Hamlet. Allan will be back to sing it for you after the break.
Hamlet’s had a really rough couple of months. Plus, he’s a philosopher by nature, so his mind turns to the biggest question there is: what is the point of being alive? Here’s tenor Allan Clayton as the Danish prince, singing “To Be or Not To Be” onstage at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
To Be or Not To Be
No matter how many times you’ve heard the words “To Be or Not To Be,” there’s something shockingly new about them in the music of Brett Dean. That was tenor Allan Clayton joining the ranks of the many great performers to play the role of Hamlet.
I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but the next episode will be our last for the season! And we’re going out with another incredible, dramatic moment in opera: it’s the letter scene from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, starring Renée Fleming.
If you’ve enjoyed the season, please leave us a rating or review! What was your favorite episode? What new aria did you fall in love with? What arias would you like us to decode next season? We’d love to know.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Max Fine is our assistant producer, Helena de Groot is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannis Brown. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. On the web at arts.gov.
I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time.