Singing Penguins – Composer Allen Shearer & Librettist Claudia Stevens on the Inspiration for ‘Prospero’s Island’By Lois Silverstein
“O brave new world that has such creativity in’t!’
“Prospero’s Island,” the forthcoming chamber opera by composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens, tells the tale. Ninth Planet, in co-production with InTandem, will present the world premiere at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater on March 25, 2023.
It is to be performed by a cadre of young and exceptionally talented musical artists, conducted by well-known musician Nathaniel Berman, and directed by Philip Lowery. While based on Shakespeare’s last theatrical masterpiece, “The Tempest,” the opera centers on contemporary issues of power and privilege and the challenges of forgiveness and redemption. Mark your calendars now.
I interviewed the artistic team of Shearer and Stevens about this newest collaboration. Their excitement was palpable throughout the conversation. They spoke lovingly of this production, which promises to be the 10th opera of their partnership.
12 Years & Singing Penguins
“This one had been gestating for about 12 years,” Claudia Stevens said.
The genesis of the idea came from a witty remark of Stevens’, when she suggested they write an opera with singing penguins. I could not help but wonder. Singing penguins? How could the creators of “Middlemarch in Spring” (2015) and “Howards’ End” (2019), productions with nary a sign of animal life other than the Homo sapiens who trod the boards, transform the seed of singing penguins into a human drama?
First of all, they set “Prospero’s Island” at the bottom of the globe, in the Falklands, where Prospero runs a school. The title, “Prospero’s Island,” shifts the focus of the opera from the storm—Shakespeare’s “Tempest”—to the 21st century and the conflicts which a society living in isolation face and survive in their struggle to get along.
The backdrop is the late 1950s, with all its superfluous post-World-War II evils. Immediately this adds a powerful dimension to the mix and deepens the drama. “Prospero is not simply a not-so-nice person,” Stevens says, “Not only a manipulator as well as a protector: he is an ex-Nazi scientist who took refuge in South America after the war. Furthermore, his ‘slaves,’ Caliban and Ariel, doing all his bidding, now teenagers, were former subjects of his scientific experiments, [and who have] experienced directly his breach of medical ethics.”
While the opera itself does not focus on that past, this legacy challenges how Prospero has been masterminding his power all this time and what he continues to do throughout the narrative.
“Prospero has engineered his own capture at the end.” Stevens emphasized, “In fact, he aims to leave the island under Caliban’s charge.” In other words, Stevens and Shearer have their Prospero embody the full weight of his guilt. No doubt a different take in this adaptation than that of the Bard.
“And then there’s Miranda, now Mandi,” Stevens added with a twinkle in her eye, no question that she and Shearer enjoy their adaptation and their novel takes on the characters, “whose admiration for her father today undergoes a primary shift.”
At the opera’s conclusion, for example, she does not forgive her father. Such crimes do not get white-washed in this “Tempest” adaptation, Stevens points out. Overall, Mandi sounds like she has far more grit and gumption than her ancestral-theatrical sister Miranda. Perhaps there’s a bit of the first Queen Elizabeth in there? She is, undeniably, a natural representative of today’s woman. Andy too—her husband-to-be, partner, and descendant of Shakespeare’s Ferdinand, who was always a somewhat colorless character—here becomes Andy, a paramilitary man and a lynchpin in the action. He brings the whole story to its resolution. Ariel, like Mandi, does not forgive the maestro. For Ariel, a so-called magician cannot just change their clothes and transform themselves. Actions have more than justified consequences, and in a time like today, ribbons of redemption do not so easily adorn the guilty.
“Our characters have a lot to them,” Stevens noted.
That is always a highlight in a Shearer/Stevens opera: they are “round characters,” as E.M. Forster called them – multi-sided beings, full of texture, and psychologically complex. They do more than stand like a piece of furniture and let fly with glorious sound. We must listen and see with stereophonic ears and eyes.
Regarding the upcoming cast (which includes Andrew Dwan as Prospero, Shawnette Sulker as Ariel, Bradley Kynard as Caliban, Amy Foote as Mandi, Sergio Gonzalez as Andy, Julia Hathaway as Steffi, and Candace Johnson as Trish), Shearer waxed poetic. “They will be fantastic, youthful, highly talented and full of depths, more than welcome after our two-year COVID-inspired drought in musical performance.”
As Shearer and Stevens describe the mood they have been aiming to create, particularly with its combination of earthly and fantastical elements, it made me wonder if a new “Magic Flute” is about to emerge. A father who does what he does, for better and often for worse, and then repents, is commonly-plumbed literary and musical subject, but when it comes to understanding the humanity of a character, these acts are more than simply items on a CV. Actions have a terrible weight. Prospero has always been a kind of Faust, “or maybe another Wotan,” Stevens suggests. We will, in fact, be able to hear her talk more about these connections in characters at a Wagner Society of Northern California talk on February 25th, 2023.
The pastoral and comedic elements of the Shakespearean play flourish throughout, and remain a vital part of the opera, elevating the entire story into a positive and hopeful vein. Comedy and happiness among tragedy was a cornerstone of Shakespeare’s works, even his most devastatingly sad ones, and were an acute reflection of the world in which he lived and the world as he saw it.
He lived, after all, in a time of burgeoning Enlightenment hope and thriving Renaissance aspiration despite the threat of the Spanish Armada, the plagues, and the rumblings of puritanical rebellion. Human beings, in the eyes of painters and playwrights, have forever been excited by a sense of expansion, and a striving desire for more enables beauty to be always seen even within the depths of tragedy. While those of us who live in the 21st century, not the 17th, may well not feel the same as Shakespeare, our technological visions, even if they can be destructive and poisonous, have still facilitated vast strides in human creativity: we have not lost our irrepressible hope for the best despite our capacity to create the worst. These nuanced, yet optimistic, allusions pleasantly color the narrative and provide a source for introspection as well, so that people who do not know the play may yet find delight in the story without deeper study. Homages to the Shakespearean work is only one level to enjoy in a multifaceted production.
With the use of projections, the natural splendor of the Falklands creates an atmosphere that serves as an antidote to the dark forces of Prospero’s past and the sinister potential of modern technology. A further balm to the darker elements of the story are the ‘singing penguins’ who, mimicking human speech, will be sung by the Grammy Award-Winning San Francisco Girls’ Chorus and will certainly provide a level of fun and entertaining fantasy. As students in Prospero’s school—currently learning Algebra—these creatures bring an easy playfulness to the narrative. As Bernard Shaw once remarked, “You don’t have to be sad to be serious.”
The singing penguins are, however, only one of the many layers of fun and frolic which thread the story. The efforts of the “clown-characters,” going by Stefano and Trinculo in the original play and here known as Steffi and Trish, in seeking an ‘abandoned’ box of gold, result in multiple moments of gaiety and fun. So too do the duets and interactions between Caliban and Ariel. Shakespeare’s unique cast of characters become people who walk the ground of our daily lives, enabling us to identify with them and through them seek answers to questions we may ask of ourselves.
I asked Shearer and Stevens what stands out about their collaborations.
“We work side by side,” Shearer replied. “Claudia brings me her text, which I read, then we discuss. After this, and adjustments we make, I go to work on the music. She follows with the text now set to music, and we do this see-saw motion, line by line, scene by scene, until we feel done.”
Stevens, herself classically trained as a pianist as well as dramatic performer, is closely involved with Shearer’s musical inventions throughout the process.
“Over our 10 operas,” Shearer noted, “we have fine-tuned our rapport, allowing critique and revisioning as we go, of themes and motifs and musical range.”
“We try new things all the time,” Stevens added, tipping her hat to Shearer’s rich score, which ranges from Elizabethan, contrapuntal and madrigal style through to modern American music and ribald 50s jazz. “It is rich and full of fun and energy for both of us.”
“Herbst Theater will be a wonderfully large venue for the work,” Shearer stated, “Since it has an orchestra pit, and it is acoustically a wonderful place to perform. Conductor Nathaniel Berman, well-known performer and music educator in the San Francisco Bay Area, and co-artistic director of Ninth Planet, will be leading the 12 piece-plus orchestra to accompany the young singers. We will include additional instruments to the orchestra as needed.”
Since Herbst Theater was the venue for Shearer/Stevens’ first opera—“The Dawn Makers” (2009)—Claudia added, “Performing there is like coming home.”
Philip Lowery will direct the opera, as he has for other of Shearer/Stevens works, notably their recent works “Howard’s End” and “Middlemarch in Spring.” The two artists extol Lowery’s gifts in interpreting Shearer’s innovative music. He will also double as stage designer, considering his extensive credits with Berkeley Opera, North Bay Opera, and the Lamplighters, among others.