No one could accuse Brett Dean of being predictable. His first opera, an adaptation of Peter Carey’s 1981, award-winning novel Bliss, couldn’t have been a more up-to-date affair. A darkly comic tale of modern families, midlife crisis and the pointlessness of the rat race, it told its tale over a leisurely three hours and was roundly applauded at its 2010 Sydney premiere and subsequent transfers to Hamburg and Edinburgh. It’s perhaps surprising then that for an intended two-hour follow up, Australia’s apostle of the new should turn to perhaps Shakespeare’s wordiest challenge: Hamlet.

“I was daunted by the idea at first,” admits Dean, chatting at length over the phone from his home in Germany where he’s lived since he left Brisbane in 1984 to join the viola desks of Herbert von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic. But in fact, the idea to do a Hamlet opera wasn’t Dean’s at all.

Brett Dean at rehearsals for HamletBrett Dean at rehearsals for Hamlet. Photos © Richard Hubert Smith

Glyndebourne, Britain’s musical powerhouse set on the Sussex Downs, had already sounded him out, but despite drawing up a long list of options, nothing seemed to fit. It was Danish tenor, Gert Henning-Jensen who offered the idea – or rather it was his elderly vocal coach, whose opinion was casually sought at a concert an hour out of Copenhagen where Magdalena Kožená was singing some of Dean’s songs. “Gert asked what, in her opinion, is the opera that most needs to be written,” says Dean, “and she, without a moment’s hesitation, said although there have been many attempts, there still isn’t a Hamlet opera.”

Actually, Hamlet is only topped by Romeo and Juliet as the Shakespeare play to have inspired the most operatic adaptations, yet none of them hold the stage today. Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Respighi, Bizet and even Verdi contemplated the attempt but never followed through. The closest anyone came to cracking the code was Ambroise Thomas whose 1868 grand opera occasionally sees the light of day. But people can be sniffy about it: “Poor Shakespeare! How they have mistreated him!” said Verdi on reading the score. The road to operatic hell, it would seem, is paved with well-intentioned Hamlets.

“When I first outed myself as a potential Hamlet composer writing an opera for Glyndebourne, the initial responses I got were ‘Ooh, Hamlet, eh? That’s big!’ And that didn’t help,” says Dean.

It was his wife, the painter Heather Betts who picked up on the idea and ran with it. “Heather started on a formidable cycle of paintings based on Hamlet, which is still going on,” he explains. “She started poring over the text, and it was Heather who said: ‘Put aside the whole, Oh my God, Hamlet thing, and think what Will would say? He’d say, yes, go for it.’”

Going to see Lars Eidinger’s Hamlet at the Shaubühne Theatre in Berlin three times clinched it. Dean found Thomas Ostermeier’s edited down version “absolutely mesmeric and unforgettable” and revelled in its  “Young Ones” sense of humour. “It brought it to life in a way that wasn’t mothballs, and it wasn’t daunting,” he says.

Allan Clayton as Hamlet English tenor Allan Clayton will sing Hamlet in Brett Dean’s new opera.

The final ingredient was the arrival on the scene of Canadian director and adaptor Matthew Jocelyn as a potential librettist, a colleague from whom Dean admits he’s learnt a great deal. Jocelyn had worked as assistant to the great director Patrice Chereau on a French production of Hamlet 28 years previously, and has been intimate with the text ever since.

“Look, what is Hamlet?” Jocelyn said to Dean. “There are three versions published in his lifetime or shortly thereafter, one of which is extremely contentious, and the play is not original anyway. The only character of Shakespeare’s own invention was Fortinbras. Otherwise it was just one of the well-known revenge plays of the time. Everyone had a crack at it.” For Dean, that took away some of the mystique and it made the whole thing more approachable.

“The operatic potential of Hamlet is huge,” says a now evangelical Dean. “The themes of life and death, love and betrayal have opera written all over them. Even the fact that Hamlet is a thinker, a man given to self-awareness and self-appraisal, lends itself well to opera.”

As a violist turned composer, Dean was exposed to opera as a teenager playing under John Curro in the Queensland  Youth Orchestra. Curro also directed the North Queensland Opera Festival and young Brett went three years running to play Donizetti, Verdi and, best of all, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. “Soloists were from the Elizabethan Trust, precursor of Opera Australia, the chorus were local enthusiasts, and it was all run by the local General Motors dealer,” he recalls. “It was the most bizarre and yet wonderful experience. The town hall was converted into a sort of regional opera theatre to cater for the large Italian migrant population who’d come over perhaps before the war and were part of the local cane cutting industry.”

A few years later, at the Queensland Con, he played in Britten’s Albert Herring with Georg Tintner conducting.But joining the Berlin Phil, it was Karajan’s Salzburg Easter Festival outings that really made an operatic man out of Dean who played in five or six different operas under his leadership, including Tosca, Don Giovanni and Don Carlo.

“Then, in Abbado’s time, the fascination with opera took a hold on the burgeoning, ambitious composer within,” Dean recalls. “Things like Boris Godunov, Wozzeck and Elektra were thoroughly mind blowing experiences. In Salzburg it’s a relatively wide and open pit, so with the violas in typical Berlin Philharmonic style opposite the first violins we had a good view of the stage as well. That made the experience as complete as it could be, whilst concentrating on not coming in in the wrong place.”

Brett Dean's HamletAllan Clayton (Hamlet) and David Butt Philip (Laertes)

Sitting down with Jocelyn in Toronto, Dean and his wife read through one of the standard Hamlet texts – a conflation of the Second Quarto and the First Folio. It took them five and a half hours… “Every single Hamlet you see is a decision-making process in the first instance, because to do the whole thing is just so enormous,” was Jocelyn’s first observation. Dean descibes the first decision-making process as involving each of them writing down their five or six most important moments and comparing them. “Let’s view the page as a tabula rasa,” was Dean’s suggestion. “We only bring to it what we feel we absolutely need in order to tell the story. That way we chip away at this massive block of granite until hopefully we reveal the sculpture.”

Although the finished libretto uses as little as 20 per cent of Shakespeare’s text, perhaps their most radical decision was to paddle in the murky waters of the First Quarto – known colloquially as ‘the bad quarto’ – an imperfect text thought to have been dredged from the memory bank of the actor first assigned to the tiny role of Marcellus.

“It has proved very useful for our needs,” says Dean. “It’s familiar and yet different. It is poetic, but it is a lot pithier. It’s a lot shorter, it offers a different view on certain moments, and it cuts to the chase in some ways, which has been really important. Interestingly, ‘To be or not to be’ comes earlier in the bad quarto, which helped me get over a block I had with respect to that speech.”

Jocelyn’s libretto abridges and reconfigures, with motifs chosen to highlight dramatic themes: madness, death, the impossibility of certainty and the complexities of action. In other words, it’s Shakespeare, Jim, but not as we know it.

As was the case with Bliss, where Dean snuck off to Philadelphia with his lead singer Peter Coleman-Wright and conductor Simon Rattle to test preliminary ideas in the cycle Songs of Joy, so too he’s tried out ideas with Hamlet, but if anything even more so. His Second String Quartet, subtitled ‘And once I played Ophelia’, riffs with various texts from the play.  “That was our first communal putting of toes in the water, as it were,” he explains. “I had this commission for a quartet, and I quickly got in touch with all the partners for the piece and said, ‘Look, would it be okay if it were a quartet with soprano, like the Schoenberg Second?’ “

“The obvious thing [with the quartet] was to examine Ophelia, but it gave Matthew an opportunity to explore something that has been part of the whole writing process: taking text from different characters and putting it into other peoples’ mouths. Every word is either from, but also about or said to Ophelia. Importantly, we get quite a feisty and strong character who is then broken, rather than being wafty and uber-feminine as she’s often portrayed.”

Fight Director Nicholas Hall, Director Neil Armfield and Jacques Imbrailo (Horatio)Fight Director Nicholas Hall, Director Neil Armfield and Jacques Imbrailo (Horatio)

Gertrude Fragments – a gift for his daughter, mezzo soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and guitarist Andrey Lebedev – involved stripping back the music in the operatic sketches to return it to the world of Elizabethan lute song. Rooms of Elsinore, for the composer as violist and pianist Juho Pohjonen, uses the idea of sonic snapshots of Elsinore Castle, describing what happens in each various location.

A more substantial tryout was From Melodious Lay, a 20-minute scena focussing on Hamlet and Ophelia, composed after the opera itself was largely written. “It gave me a chance to try out some of the orchestration ideas, including the size of the orchestra itself, which is slightly smaller than a standard symphony orchestra,” explains Dean. “Different tunings too. In the opera we will have two distant groups placed just below the roof of the theatre. There’s a clarinet player that has two instruments, one tuned a quarter tone lower. It gave us an important first bite at that particular fruit. We also looked specifically at the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Was there love there? What was the nature of that love? And how did it come about that it soured so badly?”

Once they were comfortable transferring lines from character to character, incorporating the 40-strong Glyndebourne chorus was the next step. “Matthew has cannily peopled the piece and given them some very chunky stuff to sing. Only 32 of them are onstage, eight are actually in the pit using extended vocal techniques and adding to the soundworld of the piece. In one instance, in the final suicide scene, they sing words (it’s the only bit not from Shakespeare) taken from a treatise on the art of self-defence, by a guy called Joseph Swetnam from about 1612.”

Dean attended every rehearsal for Bliss, which he described as a crash course on the art form and a crucial appreciation of what a singer brings into the rehearsal room everyday of their professional lives. “The great joy of working with somebody like Peter Coleman-Wright, who aside from sheer vocal skill brought the character of Harry to life with such panache and humour, was a very important learning curve for me creating Hamlet,” he says.

Glyndebourne has an enviable track record for operatic premieres. Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring opened there in 1946 and 1947, while more recent commissions have included Jonathan Dove’s Flight (1998), Birtwistle’s The Last Supper (2000) and Péter Eötvös’s Love and Other Demons (2008). For Dean’s opening they’ve recruited an all-Australian creative team headed by Neil Armfield as director with set by Ralph Myers and costumes by Alice Babidge. Armfield, of course, is an old hand whose 1995 Sydney Hamlet starred Richard Roxburgh with Cate Blanchett as Ophelia and Geoffrey Rush as Horatio.

“Once Neil was in the mix, Matthew and I had several three-way conversations,” says Dean. “I was wary of the very male dominant colouring of the cast, because there are only two female characters in the play. I’d been toying with Rosencrantz and Guildernsten being a female/male couple of old ‘uni friends’, but it was Neil’s suggestion, I think, that we use two countertenors for what he described as ‘the syncopated sycophants of Claudius’ realm’.”

Brett Dean's Hamlet OperaAllan Clayton (Hamlet) and Sarah Connolly (Gertrude)

They’ve also assembled a cast of some of the world’s finest singing actors, headed by British tenor Allan Clayton in the title role. The distinguished British mezzo Sarah Connolly will play Gertrude while contemporary music’s golden girl, Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan, will sing Ophelia. Rod Gilfry sings Claudius, Kim Begley is Polonius and Christopher Lowrey as Guildenstern will be one of the two countertenors. They even have legendary bass Sir John Tomlinson playing the Ghost of Old Hamlet.

Writing for familiar voices is always a pleasure for Dean. His oratorio, The Last Days of Socrates, was written for Tomlinson, so that was a voice he knew well, but the collaboration with Clayton who attended both sets of workshops has been a special treat. “Getting to know Allan really well was an incredible stepping stone,” he says, “and it was important for him too, I think, to get to grips with the bulk of the material early on.” Clayton returns the compliment, observing somewhat ruefully that “Brett likes to use every part of the human voice, ugly or not.”

The orchestra will be in the secure musical hands of Vladimir Jurowski, Chief Conductor of the London Philharmonic, who returns to Glyndebourne after stepping down as Music Director four seasons ago. “[Vladimir] has brought not only an immense level of insight to conversations we’ve shared about Shakespeare in general, and specifically about Hamlet, but also his inside knowledge of the house itself, including its acoustic and technical possibilities, has been invaluable; hence the use of spatial effects in the orchestration,” says Dean.

The gifted Scottish accordionist James Crabb will also be a member of the cast, functioning as onstage band for the famous play within a play. And although he says that his Hamlet demands few other unusual instruments, in some cases Dean admits to calling for instruments to be played unusually. “Some of the string players have plectrums,” he says, “and there are some midi sounds – not as extensive a sound design as with Bliss, but still some electronically produced resonances. There are cases where I take certain sounds out of their original realm and play around with them in order to create more atmosphere here and there.”

Dean put the finishing touches to the score in Melbourne last Christmas Day and is now in that no-man’s land between completion and execution. Come opening night, he may be hoping for (if you’ll forgive the pun) a palpable hit, but for now he’ll settle for serving the playwright and engaging an audience. “I hope they get a thrilling night in the theatre. I hope it’s chilling and funny and heartbreaking,” he says.

Read Limelight’s review of Hamlet at the Glyndebourne Festival.

Read Limelight’s review of Hamlet at the Adelaide Festival.