The Tempest

Rembrandt - (Site copyright Ralph Middenway)In 1980, Ralph Middenway was invited by conductor Patrick Thomas to write an orchestral piece for an ASO New Music Workshop. For nearly ten years, he had had in mind writing (one day) a full-length opera based on The Tempest (an ambitious project - many composers have had a go at it, but few have done it real justice).

The result was Dreams - Caliban's aria Be not afear'd, an orchestral dance, and Prospero's Our revels now are ended. It was dedicated to Marcel and Cecily Aurousseau. The studio concert and subsequent stereo recording session took place in 1981. Rob Dawe sang, Pat Thomas conducted.

While the pilot worked well enough in concert, he wasn't ready for the real thing.

In 2001, two operas later, he transcribed and revised Dreams, then wrote Act 1 Scene 1.

For dramatic reasons, the Shakespeare play is treated as a contemporary account of 'an historical event', a time-warp, a collision between the Spanish-dominated Mediterranean of around 1600 CE and the Cretan-dominated one of around 1400 BCE. (Michael Tippett used an analogous device, two colliding universes, in his Midsummer Marriage).

In the Bronze Age, Isola di Ústica, over the horizon from what is now Palermo (and fortuitously between Algiers and Naples) was an outpost of the vast Cretan Empire, which collapsed after the unimaginably huge eruption of Thera, a super-volcano in the Cyclades (these days known as Santorini, everyone’s favourite Greek island paradise). What isn’t generally ‘known’ (but The Tempest now ‘reveals’) is that the eruption translated the predominantly Cretan cosmology of Ústica 3000 years into the future. So while Shakespeare’s nobles are real Rinascimento nobles, the goddesses are real Bronze Age goddesses, the monsters are real Bronze-Age monsters, the naiads and rustics are real, the magic is real, and Caliban is fishy and Ariel a spirit of air and light, fire and ice.

The singers, the Bronze-Age dancers and the lowlife clowns wear colourful costumes (some wear animal heads in one scene), and the spirits appear and disappear as if by magic (as you might expect), setting up a field day/night for set, costume and lighting designers.

On the basis of the work already completed, in 2005 the composer was commissioned to write a long concert piece, The Enchanted Island, (pace Jean Sibelius) for soprano, baritone and orchestra, comprising the Storm Scene, Prospero’s Narration, Ariel’s Narration, the Banquet Scene (primarily ballet music) and Prospero’s Dream. The composer's international sponsors expected to put together a new orchestra and (as part of an ambitious long-term programme) perform The Enchanted Island in 2007, but a funding shortfall stymied all that, and the commissioners asked him to rescore it in ways he found unacceptable.

(The sponsors had also sought additional funding to commission him to finish the opera: that didn’t happen either.)

The new piece was to be reworked from the 1980 pilot. As it turned out the composer wasn’t satisfied with various aspects of the piece and recently (early 2012) began to revise it, but the work remains in draft form, although he knows where it’s going and has set aside time to finish it by the spring of 2012.

Marcel and Cecily Aurousseau died, full of years, and this new piece is to be dedicated to their memory.

Now, every professional composer knows you have to be a fool to write an opera on spec, but there’s no fool like an old fool: he picked the work up again in late 2006, and practically completed the opera in June 2007 and a reformatted full score in December 2007. He later reformatted and revoiced it, ‘completing’ the project in late January 2010. (It ain’t complete until opening night.)

About one-third of the text is used, as a rule without amendment.  The story line is retained. Some small parts are left out. There are comprehensive stage directions. A storm dance (instead of a shipwreck), leads into the first expository scene (Act 1 Scene 2 in the original).

He thinks it’s his best work, not just for the music, but as an integrated, broad-spectrum theatre piece, fusing opera, ballet, mime, pageant and, of course, farce. The music itself is also broad-spectrum, by turn barbaric, formal, jokey, dramatic and lyrical: his aims were for the music to serve the extraordinary text, to reflect the kaleidoscopic range of the characters and their moods, and (at least some of the time) to emulate Caliban’s ‘sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’.

If asked, his first impossible wish would be for a concert performance in 2012 of The Enchanted Island.
His second wish, of course, would be for an opera production somewhere, preferably while he’s still alive and kicking—although like everyone else in the trade he is aware that many are called but few are chosen.

Design costs would need to cover a few elaborate costumes and properties, but the single set need not be extravagant.

Prospero, a Verdi baritone, is a big part; Ariel, a miked-up ‘Emma Kirkby’ soprano, is elfin; Caliban, a bass who often speaks, is young, big, tough and vulnerable; there are four other principal singers (lyric soprano, two tenors and bass-baritone), two others with supporting roles, six more (SSMATB) who form a chorus (and three of them, SMA, also have significant solo parts); there are two comic actors and four walk-ons.

The modern orchestra uses triple wind and brass, four horns, tuned and some un-tuned percussion, harp and strings. The celeste player doubles on-stage harpsichord in the Masque. Brass instruments could be wide-bore, or narrow-bore (easier for the singers), if they were available. A version with reduced orchestra (e.g. double wind) is possible.

There is a third concert piece derived from the opera: Brave New World consists of most of the last scene and is scored for a chamber ensemble of SSTTBarB plus six instrumentalists (flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, flugelhorn/trumpet, violin, cello, piano). Its greatly reduced texture is, of course, very different from and less varied than that of the opera, but it can stand on its own. It could be a workshop piece for Ariel, Miranda, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, Prospero and Alonso.

The Tempest is dedicated to Aina, his wife, who has smiled on the project since that phone call in 1980.

Further information

Full scores are available from or for perusal at the Australian Music Centre, as also CDs of a virtual performance using Sibelius 6.2, Garritan Personal Orchestra and Sibelius Sounds Choral. Interested people could contact him at middenway@netspace.net.au.

A piano score and orchestral parts are progressing slowly. A score of the opera is available also in the Library of the Tasmanian Conservatorium.

The Enchanted Island will be catologued there in spring, 2012 as part of his PhD composition folio.