'Much Ado About Nothing' : The Production
I think we’ve all seen enough operas, plays, musicals, etc., where the setting of the original has been needlessly updated. Not to say that this isn’t always successful – indeed most of the time directors are able to find new and interesting ways of approaching works we love and know well through transporting the action to a different time. The greatest works of art keep resonating through the generations which is why we can have brilliant Poppeas set in mid-20th century mafia land, or Cosi’s set on Coney Island.
Opera North, The Coronation of Poppea
But the ‘update’ can also be a trap! What you gain in familiarity you can lose in trying to shoehorn every character, scene and line into a new time period. My approach has always been to find settings which resonate with both the opera and with audiences, and if there’s the odd anomalous reference to swords, Counts, or feudal rights, then I think we can all agree to move past these and concentrate on the overall impression we’re taking from the production!
There were some obvious questions to answer as I began preparations for this production of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ – notably which war is the production centred around, and in which places would we find such a close-knit and hierarchical community? The more I sat with the opera, and the more I thought about times and places that would resonate with audiences, the more I was drawn to the idea of moving the action to 1950’s small town USA.
Coming out of the Korean War in 1953 were a generation of kids who hadn’t perhaps fought before, but who were brought up on heroic military exploits from World War Two. They were part of an extremely hierarchical society, where the pillars of the community found in ‘Much Ado’ – the Priest, the Chief of Police, the Mayor (Leonato) – rule supreme.
They were of a generation taught to respect their elders, to fall into clear societal positions, where the man was head of the house, where Scouts and Little League Baseball kept young boys rooted in the expectations of maintaining a certain way of life, and certain social structures.
There are some fantastic – and slightly unsettling – videos on YouTube I found which perfectly sum-up this way of life. Children in school and on television were indoctrinated into certain ways of thinking and behaving in order to maintain these social structures. This is the world that our characters have grown up in, and return to.
We have Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro who return from War heroes in their small town. Clearly the popular kids at high school, they are part of a fraternity which knows its place in the world is to graduate to take on those future positions of responsibility and maintain the status quo. Don Pedro, in particular, with his courtship of the high society Hero, and his smooth dealings with the town’s most important person, Leonato, has the makings of a young JFK.
But amongst this inflexible way of life there is the early rumblings of a cultural revolution emerging. Claudio and Hero may be the archetypal young lovers who are the bastions of rural small town life, but in Benedick and, in particular, Beatrice we see a new generation emerging. A generation that won’t simply nod along with how society expects them to behave. Beatrice – in my eyes a young Katharine Hepburn – can go toe to toe with the boys, and this contrast between our leading couples of Beatrice/Benedick and Hero/Claudio perfectly exemplifies this emerging clash of cultures.
As much as I would have loved swanky New York 1950’s aesthetic, this idea of small town USA is central to the opera. The community is extremely tight-knit; everyone knows everyone and, returning from a War when they were simply three of many, Claudio, Benedick and Don Pedro return back to the bosom of their town as notable personalities – big fishes in small ponds. There’s also something about the confusion, deception and hot-headedness of the opera that lends itself to the sweltering South (there’s a reason why Tennesse Williams’ Deep South settings work so well with his characters).
The biggest compliment you can have when updating the setting of an opera is for audiences to not really notice! Whilst doing works outside of the mainstream often means that it’s easier for Northern Opera Group to take liberties with such things – as audiences aren’t often familiar with the original settings, or they don’t have previous productions to compare it to – ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ by Stanford may not be familiar, but the original play certainly is. I certainly hope we’ve done Stanford (and Shakespeare) justice …
Production designs, Tiffany Dawson