Glyndebourne, October 21 to December 1

The world famous opera house hosts a daring adaptation of the classic play. David Butt Philip, who plays Hamlet, tells EDWIN GILSON about it

You appeared as Laertes in Hamlet at Glyndebourne in the summer, didn’t you?

Yeah, and I was also understudying Hamlet. So I was learning both roles at the same time. That was the most stressful thing. It knackered me out completely. But I was much better prepared for the role I’m about to play. I kept telling myself every ounce of energy I put in then would save me work now.

The composer of the opera, Brett Dean, called this play a “huge mountain” to take on in terms of its stature and depth. Do you have to break it down scene by scene?

No, actually. I don’t think that’s very helpful in tackling it. You start with the big picture and then go from there. It’s good to start by absorbing the atmosphere and understanding the relationships between the characters. Then, after that, you get into the meaning of each scene, line and word. The level of depth in the text...I mean, you could spend hours just talking about one speech. But that’s where the secret is in getting into the character – understanding the words. Shakespeare basically rewrote the English language.

How do you even start to go about translating a play to opera?

Well, the vast majority of operas were written to be for an opera. They are much shorter and written with music in mind. Hamlet isn’t. It’s not meant to be sung. The vast majority of the time when we sing opera we’re singing texts that were written at the time of the opera. Whereas here, we’re dealing with a text that was written over 400 years ago. You can’t set the whole of Hamlet to music. The play is four hours long, and this piece is just under three hours long. We had to dramatically cut the depth. Huge swathes are cut, including whole characters and subplots. When you make War and Peace into a film, for example, you have to cut massive amounts of the text.

What have you cut from the original play, and how?

The text is fragmented into much shorter phrases and lines and then interspersed into scenes that they don’t belong to in the play. You might have two or three different scenes of the play happening at the same time. A lot of Hamlet’s lines are spoken by other characters. Brett is always asked about setting the “to be or not to be” speech. Brett doesn’t present that speech at all, at least in a traditional way. The first line Hamlet sings is “or not to be”. You get bits of that speech appearing throughout the play. It’s very daring and controversial, but also clever.

Can that be a shock to audiences?

Yes, and that’s why he does it at the beginning. Brett says, “Here are the rules, this is how it is going to work”. When you say you’re doing an opera of Hamlet, people come with certain expectations. Right from the start of the opera, though, you are told to throw out all your preconceptions. The opera keeps the atmosphere of the play but also distills it.

Do you not run the risk of distilling the essence of Hamlet himself by doing that?

You could argue that elements of his character are actually accentuated. The psychology is laid bare by the fact he speaks in fragments. He doesn’t sound as eloquent in the opera as he does in the play. There’s always been discussion about Hamlet’s mental illness, and we’ve had a lot of conversations about how to portray that. The opera helps with that, because he sounds much more disturbed.

Yes, there’s a lot of anguished deliberation in Hamlet. How do you manage to include all of that in the opera while keeping a quick pace?

It is difficult. Psychological journeys that would last an hour in the play have to take place in 15 minutes in the opera. The team spent years playing with the structure of the piece and deciding which scenes to keep, which to reject entirely, and which to keep but change a little bit. You still get all the landmarks; the play within the play, the ghost visiting Hamlet, and “alas poor Yorrick”.

Brett has talked about how he wanted to portray Ophelia in a more bold way than the frail person she is often depicted as.

From the very start we knew we didn’t want Ophelia to be a weepy character. We wanted her to have some personality, which is in the text, but often gets lost. Jennie France is playing Ophelia and we’ve talked a lot about how to play up Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship as being genuine and affecting. If all you say of Ophelia is her being mad, you’re not invested so much in the relationship. And when it goes wrong, it’s not as dramatic. We’ve been working hard to bring some affection into the early stages of their relationship.

You’re using unconventional musical instruments like aluminium foil. How does that work?

Brett uses instruments that you don’t recognise. It’s very clever the way he uses everyday objects. There’s also sandpaper, stones, and a crumpled plastic bottle. The audience aren’t always prepared for things like that. The way that they are used in the context of the piece is very clear.

Glyndebourne audiences are pretty well-versed in opera. Do they roll with those kind of changes?

Glyndebourne audiences are curious. On the one hand, they are extremely knowledgeable about opera. On the other hand they are, by reputation at least, notoriously conservative and expect certain things. This is a feature of many opera audiences. It’s similar at the Royal Opera House. This piece treads the line very carefully between reverence for opera and pushing boundaries and changing the paradigm in the way we experience it.

Do you think opera still has an elitist reputation?

I’ve never met anyone who thinks opera is elitist or not for them. I don’t know where that comes from. I see a lot of stories in the press saying “is opera elitist?” but ordinary people I’ve met are willing to give anything a try. Some of the people who have seen this piece without knowing opera have responded the best to it. It is very dense and intellectual, and I was slightly apprehensive about people who don’t know opera not getting it. But in most cases, those people actually got it more. It was a huge hit with non opera-savvy audiences. You know you’re doing something right when that is the case.

Would Glyndebourne put on any more new operas based on classic stories?

Oh gosh, I don’t know about that. Putting on a full-scale new opera is incredibly expensive and takes ten years of planning. You have to take enormous risks, because the fact is that the vast majority of new operas are not a success. It’s very difficult to get it right. Very few composers get to write two new operas.

How did you get into opera?

I got into it through singing. I was in a lot of rock bands when I was at school but none of my family were musical. It took me a lot longer to get into opera. My parents took me to my first opera at Glyndebourne when I was 16. Nowadays I listen to non-opera as a way of relaxing. I’ll listen to almost anything.

For more information and tickets for Hamlet at Glyndebourne, visit glyndebourne.com