Composer Brett Dean will conduct his suite From Melodious Lay (A Hamlet Diffractionwith soprano Lorina Gore and tenor Topi Lehtipuu and the ANAM Orchestra next month, on a concert alongside Richard Meale’s Clouds now and then, Lisa Illean’s Land’s End and George Lentz’s Jerusalem (after Blake). We spoke to Dean about the other music that has come out of his wildly successful opera Hamlet, as well as life after Shakespeare.

Brett Dean. Photo © Bettina Stoess

Hamlet has been a roaring success, and continues to make the news (including the recent Metropolitan Opera announcement), but how much have you engaged with the work yourself since it premiered? Is it something you return to, or does it feel like something finished up a while ago, now that it’s out in the world?

Hamlet the Dane has still been very much a part of the family over the past year since Glyndebourne. Being present at the Adelaide Festival performances of the opera last March was a real thrill. I also conducted the Hamlet Suite (From Melodious Lay) a few months ago as part of a recent residency with the wonderful Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich. There have also been many discussions about future performances of the opera, questions of casting, negotiating an all-new production in Germany, etc. which is all very exciting. However after five intense ‘Shakespeare’ years, it’s also been refreshing for me more recently to move on to other projects including my new Cello Concerto.

How did you decide what Hamlet material had the potential for life outside the opera (whether from initial sketches, rescued from the cutting-room floor or adapted from the final work itself)?

My various Hamlet-related works came about at different stages of the process and therefore performed different developmental functions. And once I played Ophelia, Gertrude Fragments and From Melodious Lay were all conceived and premiered before the opera was completed and all fed significantly into the final work in different ways; all vital ‘stepping stones’ along the way that focussed on specific yet different aspects of the larger work.

As the titles imply, the Ophelia and Gertrude pieces gave me opportunities to hone in on one character in particular and thereby get to know them better, one of them as a string quartet with soprano, the other as a duo for mezzo-soprano and guitar, itself a reflection on the ‘Dowland lute song’ tradition from Shakespearean times. These works allowed me to examine the word-setting process in greater detail so it might better reflect differences between the contrasting characters. From Melodious Lay was premiered only a few months before the opera went into production and gave me an important first chance to try out the full orchestral scoring. The two solo voices (a soprano and a tenor, though not specifically signifying ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Hamlet’) sing text taken from three different scenes of the final version of the opera – and representing six different characters.

On the other hand, Rooms of Elsinore for viola and piano is a more genuine ‘spin-off’ piece. It was completed after the opera score was finished (though it was also premiered just prior to the opera premiere in Glyndebourne, at the Library of Congress in Washington DC) and was a chance to get to reflect on the project as a player, turning it into a sonic ‘guided tour’ of Elsinore castle in a work that is custom-built for my own viola playing. I am planning one more Hamlet-related piece before signing off on the subject altogether – a work for accordionist James Crabb that turns his solo material from Act One of the opera into a short but dramatic concerto-type piece for accordion and chamber orchestra.

Why did you choose the subtitle ‘A Hamlet Diffraction’ for From Melodious Lay?

Diffraction refers to the slight bending of light as it passes around an object. Librettist Matthew Jocelyn chose this description as the subtitle for From Melodious Lay in order to describe the ways in which the conflating of Shakespeare’s words, and above all Matthew’s reassigning of some lines to different characters, shines a different light on a character and gives us a different view of that person at a particular moment.

What have been your most important non-Hamlet projects recently?

My Cello Concerto, written for German cellist Alban Gerhardt, has been my closest compositional companion in recent months; not only composing it but also being involved with its first two outings. The first was in Sydney with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and David Robertson last August, and then just a couple of weeks ago with the Berlin Philharmonic under Sakari Oramo. Also conducting my Last Days of Socrates in Sydney with the SSO, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and soloist Peter Coleman-Wright recently kept me very busy but was a great experience!

Are there any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about?

I’m very excited to be writing a new string quartet for the wonderful Doric Quartet from the UK. It’ll be premiered here in Australia next June as part of the Doric’s first national Musica Viva tour.

The Australian National Academy of Music presents Celebrating Brett Dean at Melbourne Recital Centre on November 9