I’m about to open in yet another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for Opera Zuid in the Netherlands. The production was supposed to happen two years ago, and when it was postponed by the pandemic, Waut Koeken – Opera Zuid’s artistic director – asked me to write a short piece for his subscribers. Having just turned 64 it seems like a good time to share it here.
When I was invited by Waut Koeken to sing Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I was pretty surprised. Not because it’s a role I’ve never been asked to sing before. Far from it. I first sang flute 36 years ago, in 1984 at Covent Garden and I’ve sung him over a hundred times since, in many, many different productions, some of them excellent and some of them very bad. I was surprised because I just assumed that my days with him – Flute that is, not Waut – were over. I’ll be sixty-two soon, and I had always thought of Flute as a young man.
In 1984, I really was a young man, twenty-five in fact. Looking back, I’m pretty impressed by how young I was to be singing at Covent Garden at all, and I’m frankly staggered that I was even given the opportunity.
When I was twenty five, I played Flute as a callow, gormless youth, which wasn’t hard because callow and gormless were pretty-much all I had in my acting armoury at the time. In the play scene, when Flute becomes Thisbe, I was told to impersonate Joan Sutherland as the heroine of Lucia di Lammermoor. Which was all very well, but I had never seen Sutherland perform, and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t seen Lucia di Lammermoor either. So, the director John Copley demonstrated his impersonation of Sutherland, I copied Copley, and everyone was happy.
Seven years later, in 1991, I was back being callow and gormless as Flute, this time for Robert Carsen in a production at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence that became very famous, and which is still being revived in different opera houses around the world. I last sang Flute in this production at La Scala, Milan, no less. I was 51, which was pushing the boundaries of credibility in the callow youth department. I discovered that you can try to do exactly the same moves and actions that you have been doing for eighteen years (or so you think), but somehow they don’t come out the same. What once used to be a youthful, energetic, carefree leap from a bed, at 51 comes accompanied with inadvertent grunts and a degree of gingerly caution. Indeed, when that production was last revived at Aix-en-Provence five years ago, I was the only remaining member of the original cast, but Robert Carsen had decided my days of playing the youthful Flute were done and I was asked to play Snout instead.
Still the question hangs in the air: why does Flute have to be young? There’s absolutely nothing in the libretto that says he is. The nearest we get is Flute’s reason why he thinks he shouldn’t play the female role of Thisbe – “I have a beard coming!” I think Robert Carsen (and many others) take this to mean that Flute is barely pubescent. But if Flute is pubescent, what’s he doing in this company of craftsmen – weaver, tailor, joiner…? And if he’s a “bellows mender” that would make him a fully qualified tradesman too; mature, not some spotty apprentice. Besides, Quince is very quick to point out that, as far as he’s concerned, facial hair isn’t a problem. (To test this idea, this spring, I had grown a beard for Flute, before the Opera Zuid production was cancelled.)
The only other evidence of youth is the presumption that for Peter Quince to cast Flute as Thisbe, we must assume that Flute is the most feminine of the company, or at least the one who will be most convincing as a young woman. That’s all very well, but I like to think Quince casts Flute as Thisbe because he recoginses something in Flute, something that makes him believe he will deliver his/her suicide aria in a way that will be deeply moving, and that’s all Quince is worried about. Though, I could be wildly overestimating Quince’s perspicacity.
On a side note, it is too easy to overlook Shakespeare’s genius in the writing of the Rustics’ scenes. First, let’s applaud his thinly-veiled satire on theatrical life. We have the dodgy script, the diva actor, the dozy actors, the grumpy director who doesn’t really know how to control his actors… all this could be any rehearsal room today. Then we have the joke of the actor protesting that he doesn’t want to play a woman, when of course in Shakespeare’s time, every single woman on the stage (Tytania, Hermia, Helena and Hippolyta) would have been played by a man. The final touch of brilliance – one that took me decades to appreciate – was having Snout the tinker play the part of the wall. Living in a post-Disney world, we have become completely conditioned to the idea of inanimate objects coming to life and speaking. So much so that we almost take it for granted. But in Elizabethan England, having a wall deliver a speech was a stroke of comic genius. It’s funny enough now – especially when Britten uses it as a parody on Schoenbergian sprechstimme – but back then it must have been mind-boggling.
As an actor, the first questions you ask yourself are: “what does my character want and how does he go about getting it?” Often, in opera, it’s a difficult question to answer. And when it is difficult to answer, it makes the character very difficult to play. Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni would be the perfect example.
Flute, on the other hand, is a treat to play. Presented with the novel and intriguing challenge of playing a title role in a play, Flute has to overcome his initial disappointment of not playing a “wandering knight” (the romantic hero) and deal with every catastrophe that comes his way, on stage and off, to prove that during his big moment he has what it takes; that he too can grasp that opportunity and move an audience to cry and to laugh.
Now tell me that that isn’t the journey every performing artist takes! It certainly sounds a lot like my life as a singer. To me, that sounds like the perfect story for a sixty-two year-old man nearing the end of his career to tell.