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A Midsummer Night's Dream is an opera with music by Benjamin Britten and set to a libretto adapted by the composer and Peter Pears from William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream. It was premiered on 11 June 1960 at the Aldeburgh Festivalmarker, conducted by the composer and with set and costume designs by Carl Toms.

Stylistically, the work is typical of Britten, with a highly individual sound-world - not strikingly dissonant or atonal, but replete with subtly atmospheric harmonies and tone painting. Atypically for Britten, the opera did not include a leading role for his partner Pears - it is the only one of his stage works that did not, other than the early operetta Paul Bunyan. Instead, Pears had the comic drag role of Flute/Thisbe.

In 2005, the Royal Opera Housemarker, Covent Gardenmarker produced a version of this at the Linbury Theatre with the Tiffin Boys' Choir and numerous well-known singers.


Role Voice type Premiere cast,
11 June 1960
(Conductor: Benjamin Britten
Director: John Gielgud)

Oberon, king of the fairies countertenor Alfred Deller
Tytania, queen of the fairies soprano Jennifer Vyvyan
Puck speaking role Leonide Massine II
Cobweb treble Kevin Platts
Mustardseed treble Robert McCutcheon
Moth treble Barry Ferguson
Peaseblossom treble Michael Bauer
Lysander tenor George Maran
Demetrius baritone Thomas Hemsley
Hermia, in love with Lysander mezzo-soprano Marjorie Thomas
Helena, in love with Demetrius soprano April Cantelo
Theseus, Duke of Athens bass Forbes Robinson
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons contralto Johanna Peters
Bottom, a weaver bass baritone Owen Brannigan
Quince, a carpenter bass Norman Lumsden
Flute, a bellows-mender tenor Peter Pears
Snug, a joiner bass David Kelly
Snout, a tinker tenor Edward Byles
Starveling, a tailor baritone Joseph Ward



Britten delineated the three tiers of characters, the rustics being given folk-like "simple" music, the lovers a more romantic sound-world and the fairies being represented in a very ethereal way. Almost all of the action now takes place in the woods around Athensmarker, and the fairies inhabit a much more prominent place in the drama. The comic performance by the rustics of Pyramus and Thisbe at the final wedding takes on an added dimension as a parody of nineteenth century Italian opera. Thisbe's lament, accompanied by obbligato flute, is a parody of a Donizetti "mad scene".

The opera contains several innovations: it is extremely rare in opera that the lead male role is written for the countertenor voice to sing. The part of Oberon was created by Alfred Deller. Britten wrote specifically for his voice, which was weak in the high notes; the result being that Oberon's music almost never requires the countertenor to sing both at the top of the alto range and forte.

The plot of the opera follows that of the play, with several alterations. Most of Shakespeare's Act 1 is cut, compensated for by the opera's only added line: "Compelling thee to marry with Demetrius." Therefore much greater precedence is given to the wood, and to the fairies. This is also indicated by the opening portamenti strings, and by the ethereal countertenor voice that is Oberon, the male lead, who throughout is accompanied by a characteristic texture of harp and celeste, in the same way that Puck's appearance is heralded by the combination of trumpet and snare-drum.

The opera opens with a chorus, "Over hill, over dale" from Tytania's attendant fairies, played by boy sopranos. Other highlights include Oberon's florid – the exotic celeste is especially notable – aria,"I know a bank" (inspired by Purcell's "Sweeter than roses", which Britten had previously arranged for Pears to sing), Tytania's equally florid "Come now, a roundel", the chorus's energetic "You spotted snakes", the hilarious comedy of "Pyramus and Thisbe", and the final trio for Oberon, Tytania and the chorus.

The original play is an anomaly among Shakespeare's works, in that it is very little concerned with character, and very largely concerned with psychology. Britten follows this to a large extent, but subtly alters the psychological focus of the work. The introduction of a chorus of boy-fairies means that the opera becomes greatly concerned with the theme of purity. It is these juvenile fairies who eventually quell the libidinous activities of the quartet of lovers, as they sing a beautiful melody on the three "motto chords" (also on the four "magic" chords) of the second act: "Jack shall have Jill/Naught shall go ill/The man shall have his mare again/And all shall be well." Sung by boys, it could be considered that this goes beyond irony, and represents an idealized vision of a paradise of innocence and purity that Britten seems to have been captivated by throughout his life.

Britten also pays attention to the play's central motif: the madness of love. Curiously he took the one relationship in the play that is grotesque (that of Tytania and Bottom) and placed in the centre of his opera (in the middle of Act 2). Women in Britten operas tend to run to extremes, being either predators or vulnerable prey, but Tytania is an amalgam; she dominates Bottom, but is herself completely dominated by Oberon and Puck, the couple that are usually considered to really hold power in The Dream. Their cruel pranks eventually quell her coloratura, which until she is freed from the power of the love-juice is fiendishly difficult to sing.

Britten also parodied operatic convention in less obvious ways than "Pyramus and Thisbe". Like many other operas, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens with a chorus, but it is a chorus of unbroken boys' voices, singing in unison. After this comes the entrance of the prima donna and the male lead, who is as far away as possible from Wagner's heldentenors, and as close as it is possible to get to Handel's castrati of the 18th century. Britten's treatment of Puck also suggests parody. In opera, the hero's assistant is traditionally sung by baritones, yet here we have an adolescent youth who speaks, rather than sings.

The opera originally received a mixed critical assessment. Britten's estranged collaborator W. H. Auden dismissed it as "dreadful – pure Kensingtonmarker," while many others praised it highly. It is fairly regularly performed, though one difficulty in performing the opera is the large forces required.


There are many different recordings available, including one conducted by the composer with some of the original cast, including Deller as Oberon, Owen Brannigan as Bottom, and Peter Pears elevated from Flute to Lysander. Unfortunately this recording omits some very beautiful music from the lovers' awakening early in Act 3.


  • Arnold Whittall: "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Grove Music Online ed L. Macy (Accessed 3 January 2007),, subscription access.
  • Philip Brett: Britten's Dream (1990). Published by Decca as a brief essay to accompany the Britten recording.

External links


  1. Grove
  2. Brett
  3. Grove: "There is an air of baroque fantasy in the music."
  4. The opera's discography

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