Social Media

Frederick Waxman - A Midsummer Night’s Dream Interview

This summer, sensational historical performance ensemble Figure return to London’s Opera Holland Park after the success of their ‘fantastically detailed’ (The Guardian) 2022 performance of Handel’s Serse with a fresh staging of Shakespeare’s classic comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unbridled desire meets magic as Figure stages Shakespeare’s celebrated play, accompanied by Mendelssohn’s enchanting orchestral score.

Figure’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream will feature Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music. After reading the play as a teenager, Mendelssohn wrote the extended ‘Overture’, followed by numbers such as the ‘Wedding March’ which have now become synonymous with Shakespeare’s classic and are known worldwide. In the late-nineteenth century, performances in England and Germany that didn’t use some or all of Mendelssohn’s music became the exception rather than the rule. Reuniting the play with this glorious music, Figure’s musicians will be playing instruments modelled on those from Mendelssohn’s time, including the rarely heard ophicleide.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at Opera Holland Park from Thursday 29th June until Saturday 1st July. Ahead of the run I sat down with Figure’s Musical Director Frederick Waxman to discuss the production.

The production features Mendelssohn's score, how thrilling has it been to work with? 
Mendelssohn’s music has such an expressive range, from joyous outbursts to cheeky interjections, as well as moments of heart-aching beauty and chilling suspense. The score, written for orchestra and upper voices, is in a constant conversation with the play, both responding to and driving the drama – you cannot help but be literally moved by it, as our actors have found in the rehearsal room. The bulk of the music is designed to connect various scenes and the cast have thoroughly enjoyed devising choreography for these passages, for instance as they venture into the forest for the first time, hurrying with glee and trepidation as the flutes and violins scamper and scurry. Where Mendelssohn writes music to underscore the dialogue, Shakespeare’s words are enhanced and their meaning deepened, like in a film – I think our audiences will be surprised by how modern and cinematic these sections feel.

What inspired you to take on A Midsummer Night's Dream?

We’ve long wanted to perform Mendelssohn’s music and to hear it in the context of the play. Heard without the play, it feels like watching a film with your eyes closed – this music needs to serve the drama. We also knew that Opera Holland Park, a semi-outdoor venue surrounded by trees and gardens, at midsummerwould be the perfect setting for this show – as the sun sets and night falls, so the lovers and mechanicals venture further into the woods and the magical realm.

You've made sure to include instruments from Mendelssohn's time, how key a decision was that in the process?

Using instruments from Mendelssohn's time was a must for us. We’re a historical performance ensemble, which meanthat we’re fascinated with how different music sounded when it was first performed – we always searching for that original sound. We engage with research and tradition to learn what instruments the composer had in mind when they were writingand, importantly, how they were played by contemporary musicians. With this knowledge we can attempt to perform the music as the composer imagined it. Most of the instruments in our Mendelssohn-era orchestra will look the same as their modern-day counterparts, but if you look closer, you’ll see that the string instruments have been strung with gut (yes, animal guts!) instead of modern, metal strings. You’ll also see a very rare instrument called the ophicleide, a low brass instrument which resembles a bassoon. Very few composers wrote for this nineteenth-century instrument before it was replaced by the tuba, but since this was the sound that Mendelssohn had in mind, we’re bringing it back to life for this production

The cast in rehearsals. Photo by Freddie Waxman

How does this production fit into the ethos of Figure?

Figure is about three things: presenting historically-informed performances (searching for that authentic sound)widening access to Classical music, and creating immersive musical experiences – three aims that are very connected and that underpin this production. I founded Figure in the wake of the pandemic, a time when performances could only be viewedthrough screens, and so our vision has been shaped by a burning desire to bring music back to live audiences – to offer more than be consumed at home, and to break free from traditional formalities. We want to create experiences that stay with audiences long beyond the final chord and this is central to our work as a ‘historical performance’ ensemble because, beyond recreating a historical sound, it’s all about immersing our audiences in the context, atmosphere, and original passion of the musicMendelssohn’s music was written to serve Shakespeare’s play and so we couldn’t entertain the idea of performing the music without it (albeit with a few cuts!). In doing so, the production offers a slice of cultural history, showing how Shakespeare’s comedy was experienced by late-nineteenth-century audiences. The design also incorporates a nineteenth-century aesthetic, in sympathy with Mendelssohn’s Romantic music. By remaining true to the music’s original context, we’re also widening access to this music by presenting ias a show, rather than a concert, something which even many culture lovers don’t see as ‘for them’. You may say that performing at Opera Holland Park only reinforces this, but by staging a play in this venue, we’re bringing in a non-Classical audience as we ask the music to play second fiddle to the dramaWithout wings and with a stage that reaches out towards the audience, Opera Holland Park also allows us to connect with our audiences more directly as we bring them within touching distance of the production. So, with Figure as group and in this show, all our aims are connected. We believe that through this historical, yet creative and immersive approach, any music of the past can be rendered more engaging, more accessible, and more meaningful. 

You've made sure the ticket prices are accessible particularly for younger audiences, how important was that to attract younger audience members?
We’re a young company and we represent the rising generation of performers. We want to perform to anyone and everyone and so we would hate to see our contemporaries excluded from our productions, many of whom might be coming to Classical music, Shakespeare, or an opera venue for the first time. People do make decisions on what they’ll go to see based on price and so by offering a special Under 30s discount (nearly 50% off selected tickets), we hope that many more younger people will feel able to attend. Like most organisations in the Classical music sphere, we recognise that building the audiences of tomorrow starts today.  

What do you want an audience member to take away from seeing this production of A Midsummer Night's Dream?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is arguably Shakespeare’s most loved comedy but – like a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm – the aspects of the play that seem sweet and gentle conceal the diabolical perversity at its heart. Beneath the japes, Dreamexplores patriarchal power and violence, restrictions on sexual freedom, and frequently questions our perception of reality.
The Athenian court is a world of rigidity but, in the woods, characters are liberated from the court’s rule; it is a space where desire reigns, where conscious and unconscious experience is probed and laid bare, and where the imagination abounds.
So much of our lives lies beneath the surface and theatre is a space in which imagination and internal world reigns supreme, no more so than in this play. Our production’s fairy-tale aesthetic seeks to pose questions about our perception of reality. By using an interactive and malleable set design, where we repeatedly create and reimagine the space, we will also allow the surreal and the real to move side by side. We hope that audiences will leave reflecting on the reality of their internal worlds and ponder how the conscious and subconscious are rarely far apart.

Could you describe the production in 3 words?

Physical. Joyful. Life-affirming.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream runs at Opera Holland Park from Thursday 29th June until Saturday 1st July. Tickets are available from dream/

The cast in rehearsals. Photo by Freddie Waxman

Post a Comment


Theme by STS