Tom Glenn speaks with the author of Verdi's Shakespeare.
In Verdi’s Shakespeare, the Pulitzer Prize winner and lifelong opera devotee Garry Wills explores the writing and staging of Verdi’s three triumphant Shakespearean operas: Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff. An Italian composer who couldn’t read a word of English but adored Shakespeare, Verdi devoted himself to operatic productions that authentically incorporated the playwright’s texts. Wills delves into the fast‑paced worlds of these men of the theater, focusing on the fervent working relationships both Shakespeare and Verdi had with the performers and producers of their work. We see Verdi study the Shakespearean dramaturgy as he obsessively corresponds with his chosen librettists, handpicks the singers he feels are best suited to the roles, and coaches them intensely.
Reviewer Tom Glenn, who reviewed Verdi’s Shakespeare for the Independent, quizzes Wills about Shakespeare and Verdi, and their similarities and differences.
Your knowledge of Shakespeare and opera is impressive. Are you formally trained in dramaturgy and music?
No, just a lifelong listener and attender of theaters.
What are your favorite composers and operas and why?
Mozart and Verdi, for the blend of lyrical music and dramatic economy.
Do you believe that any of Shakespeare’s plays or Verdi’s operas are poor enough that they should not be performed? Which ones and why?
All deserve a hearing (seeing), for the light they throw on works by the composer/dramatist himself, and on his contemporaries.
Who are (or were) your favorite Otello and Falstaff? Why?
Otello, Giovanni Martinelli 1938, under Panizza. Falstaff, Giuseppe Taddei 1950 under Rossi (not the later Karajan, when Taddei was over the hill).
You spoke very little in Verdi’s Shakespeare about the differences between Shakespeare and Verdi—beyond the disparity in the medium each operated in. What are the important differences?
The difference is in their eras — the intellectual Renaissance background for Shakespeare, the spooky Romantic era for Verdi.
In act 1, scene 7 of Macbeth, Macbeth says, “If we should fail?” and Lady Macbeth answers, “We fail!”—a line that Verdi didn’t use, by the way. That moment in the play has always intrigued me. I’ve seen the word “fail” in her speech sometimes followed by a question mark, sometimes by an exclamation point. Which do you think is correct? How should she deliver those two words?
Judith Anderson gave it the perfect incredulous reading, as if it were absurd even to think of their failing.
How do you feel about the current tendency among directors to stage operas and Shakespeare’s plays in a different time or place than that specified in the score or play?
Sometimes it works. I saw Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto in London (1982), which worked perfectly in New York’s Little Italy. Sometimes, as in Peter Sellars’s Mozart, it just distracts.
You hint several times in the book about the lessons that plays and operas have for people living today. What do you see as the most relevant?
I don’t much believe in “lessons” as the product of art.
I’d love to hear your take on Mozart’s opera and on works like Massenet’s Manon. Do you plan to write more books about opera?
I should have said earlier that I put Rossini up there with Mozart and Verdi. Guillaume Tell could hardly be better. I would like to write a book on Verdi’s more political works (Don Carlos et al.) — most Romantic period operas are implicitly political, but Verdi was closer to the Risorgimento than other composers have been to their political milieu.
What play of Shakespeare would you like to have seen turned into a successful opera? Would Verdi be the right composer? Would Verdi have composed, for example, a successful King Lear?
Verdi’s Lear was almost written several times. Opportunity, performers, age and other obstacles intervened. Verdi’s operas return often and hauntingly to the father-daughter relationship (though we do not know of any daughter in his life). Lear would have been the culminating expression of that theme. What a finale for Lear and Cordelia!
Opera mesmerized Tom Glenn as a boy of six. He went on to take a BA in Music from the University of California and has been writing and speaking about opera ever since.