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Team Shakespeare Vs. Team Verdi

A new class embraces the operatic in Shakespeare
March 11, 2016

Image of production of Verdi's Falstaff at Milan

Image of production of Verdi's Falstaff at Milan
Image of production of Verdi's Falstaff at Milan

As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death approaches April 23, commemorations of all sorts are afoot. The 1623 First Folio, which collected 36 of his plays, is touring all 50 states throughout 2016: Minnesota's stop is October 3-26 at the University of Minnesota Duluth. (Professor of English Katherine Scheil contributes an essay to the First Folio Tour website here.) In addition, the Department of Theatre Arts presents the infrequently staged Henry VI history plays March 30-April 4. Another opportunity this spring may be even more unique: a Department of English class offered for the first time on Shakespeare and Verdi.

Professor Geoffrey Sirc has been teaching versions of Literature and Music classes for years. As part of the class they often studied Othello and looked at Otello, the Verdi opera. "That always went great," Sirc says. "Then [Director of Undergraduate Studies] Dan Philippon assigned me another section of Literature and Music, and I thought, I'm going to do straight up the three Shakespeare plays and Verdi operas."

He shakes his head. "Students don't listen to opera. I know this. On the first day of class, I was sort of amazed at all the students there. I have students in music, international students; it's a rich group."

Image of Professor Geoff Sirc
Professor Geoffrey Sirc teaching Shakespeare and Verdi

About 20 percent of his 27 students had experience with opera before the class, Sirc estimates. "One student was just singing the St. Matthew Passion last weekend. The music majors are really helping to school the students on the revolutionary things Verdi was doing, even on a relatively early opera like Macbeth."

For each pairing, Sirc first leads the class through a close reading of the play. A scholar in Rhetoric and Composition, Sirc opens up Shakespeare for students by focusing on the classic rhetorical figures he employs to empower the language. "With Macbeth what we find is opposites: 'Fair is foul, and foul is fair,' and 'Lesser than Macbeth, and greater,'" Sirc points out. "Antithesis is the master [rhetorical] figure for the play, and it's perfect because the play is all about equivocation. Knowledge of the rhetorical figures becomes a way in for students."

With the help of an English-Italian libretto, they then focus on adaptation, analyzing how the operas alter Shakespeare's text. Sirc offers an example: "With the sleepwalking scene, Verdi's done something different with Lady Macbeth. She's not the kind of falling apart, fragmented character that she is in Shakespeare. It's almost as if it's her last major evil declaration. She's heading out into the 'unknown country' in a different sort of way.

"My students were shocked that Verdi and [his librettist] Boito abandoned the whole first act of Othello, the stuff in Venice," Sirc reports. "But the key information, the back story of their love, will be worked in, in interesting ways."

The students take a stab at adaptation themselves (from a sample titled "Straight Outta Scotland": "Just murdered a Norwegian/Now I'm Thane of the Cawdor region"). They spend one class period watching a production of the play, and two classes listening to the opera in full. At the conclusion of each play-opera unit, the students hold a mock trial: Team Shakespeare against Team Verdi—who did it best?

"The Shakespeare group, it always happens, is like: 'That Verdi guy is changing Shakespeare—how can you change the Bard??!'" Sirc laughs. "But Shakespeare changed all his stuff, why can't someone change Shakespeare? 'Duncan’s hardly in it!' Well, okay, but was Duncan really what you were reading the play for?"

Sirc hopes the students will be inspired to continue to explore opera. He picked it up as a teenager and found himself diving deep later when he began listening to less popular music. "For me the class is a chance to get to know these operas that I've listened to a lot but never systematically," he says. "It's going to be interesting when we get to the third one, Merry Wives of Windsor [Verdi's Falstaff], which is such a kooky thing."

But the professor is not arguing for high over popular culture. He regularly teaches an English class on hip hop, where he again shows students the writers' fluent grasp of rhetorical figures such as antanaclasis (repeating a word while shifting meaning), epistrophe (same word ending a sequence of clauses), and antimetabole (two or more words repeated in inverse order).

"Last fall," Sirc recalls, "one of my [hip hop] students found this TED talk from a young British actor. He said, 'Okay I'm going to read some lyrics, and it's either going to be from hip hop or from Shakespeare. And you have to tell me which.' The audience was stumped, and dumbfounded. We had a blast watching it."

Concludes Sirc: "For me, as a person involved in rhetoric, to see it applied not in a political speech, advertisement or whatever, but as a kind of infrastructure for great art, it's just too fascinating."