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Interview: Composer Elliot Goldenthal Talks A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

By: Nov. 06, 2013
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Elliot Goldenthal has an impressive stage biography; has created music for the stage, orchestra, ballet, opera, and the big screen. His most recent work can be found in the Julie Taymor directed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opened November 2 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. I had the opportunity to speak with is an Academy Award and Golden Globe winning composer and here's what he had to say about Midsummer, Julie Taymor, and his upcoming work.

You've done Shakespeare before with works like Titus and The Tempest-

Well more than that, I've done Titus and The Tempest. This year I had a big show 4,000 people a night, coming to my ballet, Othello, in Chicago, played by the Joffrey Ballet. And there's a ballet that was performed at Metropolitan Opera House in New York, as well as California, Paris, etc. And my Othello Symphony album is coming out this winter. So there's a lot of activity with Shakespeare this year. So Titus, Tempest, Midsummer, and Othello.

Is composing for Shakespeare different than composing for other productions?

Yes, for two reasons: Shakespeare is in meter, so therefore it has, depending on the actors, has a rhythm built in. So you're dealing with basically a genius hip-hop artist in the Seventeenth Century in the late Sixteenth Century. And the language is so exquisite, you don't want to mask it in any way. So other than the ballet, which is done completely to a narrative, three-act-ballet situation, when I write for the stage or the screen, I'm very careful to support the performance and not to pull any focus away from the power of the word and the performances of the artists.

There's something about the dreamy, fantasy landscape of A Midsummer Night's Dream that calls out to be put to music. Did you have that reaction when first reading the play?

Yeah, well, it has various highly contrasted aspects to it. There's the dreamy fairie world where Shakespeare indicated singing and other types of music, and then you have the lovers and you have the mechanicals which is, you know, more contemporary, more robust kind of, less ephemeral, mysterious world. And then you have Oberon and Titiana, which is also closer to the ephemeral world but not as delicate as the children, the fairies, or as Puck. So you have all sorts of different contrasting elements, including the Athenian Kings and the Dukes and all the marriage speeches, and that's more, you know, a reality feeling and a more civilized approach to music as apposed to mysterious.

You mentioned the differed contrasts in musical styles in the show. What or who did you draw inspiration from this production? Musical or otherwise.

Well, when it came to the mechanicals, I just thought about two things-the music from the Balkans, all the way to Greece, through Macedonia, Turkey, that sort of Eastern European sound that sounds very ancient. And I mixed it with a very circus-y, very gypsy feeling. It's contemporary yet it has ancient modes of music in it that could have been heard 2,000 years ago, in the Hellenic world. And, the other, for the fairies, I took advantage of the children's voices, and taking the text and sort of treating it in a kind of contrapuntal way, so that the words are floating all around, almost took the words and flip it up in the sky and then just falling down like snowflakes, you know. Like rain drops. They're not in the strict order, and yet you understand the intent. And uh, finally, for Oberon and Titiana, I wanted to also heighten the mysterious fairie world, almost awesome and engendering feelings of rich and dark music that they both have. And Titiana, I have an Indian flute that is very, very, very sensual. It's also very longing when she's speaking about the Indian boy that she loves so much. Those are the elements. Finally, the big dance at the end was a culmination of the, you know, sort of celebratory music that I talked about in the beginning, without the circus. Now it's sort of like the mechanical's music turned around to a country dance. One thing I tried to stay away from was Elizabethan or sort of Renaissance type music. It's often interpreted that way because it's specific to Shakespeare's time but I went back even further to the type of modes and type of scales that would play 2,000 years ago. By the Greeks, by the Macedonians, etc. And also looking at the contemporary-to Rock and Roll music and to electric guitar and drums, to things that you can relate to as a contemporary vehicle, reflecting the costume design of Constance Hoffman and the way Julie (Taymor) directed the mechanicals, as contemporary accents, you know, almost New York range of ethnic accents. So I didn't want that to sound very ancient, I wanted it to be accompanied by a guitar, rock n' roll style, but still playing those ancient, ancient modes.

Obviously, you've collaborated with Julie Taymor many times in the past. She is coming at this production from a directorial point of view and you from a composer's but do you two still approach works together? Or do you come at them from very different places? And what is that collaboration process like?

No, we work extremely close on these things and I do a sort of a scratch version on my computer, on the synthesizer, on the piano, and uh, then we discuss in great length the interrelationship between the words and her motivation and the motivation of Shakespeare, and it's a very involved and very, very close process.

You originally worked on another production of A Midsummer Night's Dream with Julie (Taymor) and Jeffrey Horowitz

Yes, way back.

Right, almost 30 years ago. Besides having expanded the runtime of the show, what else has changed from that previous production?

Everything has changed. There was a fragment of some melody that was in the original production but everything, 99% is absolutely new. That Elliot Goldenthal is dead and buried in a parking lot somewhere under three feet of asphalt [Laughs]. That Elliot Goldenthal doesn't exist anymore.

If you had to pick something, what aspect of this project would you say excites you the most?

Did I enjoy listening to the most? Or hearing it or watching it?

Any of those!

I think Puck's performance is so unusual, so otherworldly, I don't know if another human being could put all those arts together, working with a director. But her physicality, her sense of Puck-ishness, if you will, and the clarity of the language, her fearlessness, and the way she can, you know, put the whole audience in the palm of her hands, you know? Although, I can go down the list. I don't have any-I'm awestruck by the whole cast, you know.

You mentioned you are releasing a CD of your Othello symphony soon. What was the process like for recording that?

Well, it was-you try to get the right size of the shoe you love to fit the foot. So it was just making adjustments along the way, of things that Julie and I agreed upon musically and mixing it in my studio and then having it translate to the big house. Even though it's only 290 seats, the actual theater is quite big, so you have to make an adjustment, you know, constantly. You have to fight every inch of the way for rehearsal time and making changes and making sure that the actors are heard and the musicians are heard and everything is in balance.

And finally, aside from the upcoming CD, any other projects on the horizon?

Yeah, I have a CD of my other Shakespeare work that we talked about, my Othello symphony that I recorded in Krakow, Poland. And my string quartet and chamber music album is also coming out, all for 2014.

Photo Credit: Alia Mohsenin


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