“Shakespeare and Music” prof talks jigs, lute songs, the Bard

Judith Malafronte, professor at the Institute of Sacred Music and a mezzo-soprano soloist in opera, oratorio and recital, is teaching Shakespeare and Music this semester, a new course in the Freshman Seminar program. Malafronte talked to the News about how she shaped the course and her favorite Shakespearean works.

Q. What was the impetus for this course on Shakespeare and music?

A. I designed the course myself and took the idea to the freshman seminar committee and the Department of Music. It includes material very dear to me, such as Elizabethan music, Restoration theatre and grand opera, all within the context of five of Shakespeare plays. It seemed a perfect fit with the semester-long Shakespeare at Yale celebration.

Q. What material is covered in the course?

A. We’re examining the earliest song settings along with stage directions that call for music. Then we’re seeing what the Restoration theatre producers did to these plays — basically they turned them into blockbuster musicals with expensive sets, singing and dancing witches, and flying fairies. And finally we’ll study some operatic versions from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. [Students are] also getting a basic introduction to music history and to opera and developing listening skills, such as the way composers use orchestral instruments and different voice types for specific effects. But there’s also text study. Those Restoration adapters worked over Shakespeare’s syntax pretty heavily, and opera librettists shaped the stories significantly — not to mention putting Italian words into [“Henry IV” and “V” character] Falstaff’s mouth.

Q. What are some unique aspects of the course?

A. Later on we’ll be visiting the Historical Sound Archive here at Yale in order to listen to recordings of singers who actually worked with Verdi on his Shakespeare operas, and we’ll be taking a trip to New York City to see the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” with [baritone] Thomas Hampson.

Q. What experiences do you personally have with Shakespeare and music?

A. I’ve been watching Shakespeare plays since I was little, hanging around the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford, Conn., where I grew up. It probably started with June Havoc sprinkling Titania’s fairy dust on me backstage, and watching my little brother as one of the apparitions in Macbeth! As a professional singer I’ve performed a lot of Elizabethan music, lute songs, madrigals, ballads, jigs, sacred music — you name it, in costume or out. I’ve worked at the Ashland, Ore. Shakespeare Festival as a strolling musician. Here at Yale I’ve organized many student concerts of Elizabethan and Jacobean music, Shakespeare song settings and even a fully staged reconstruction of the 1638 Stuart court masque “Britannia Triumphans.” The resources at Yale are amazing, and I love collaborating with colleagues in other departments.

Q. What is your favorite Shakespearean play?

A. I generally answer “The Tempest,” but I love “Twelfth Night,” “Othello,” “Macbeth” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” all of which we’re studying. I also have a soft spot for “Henry VI, Part I” with Joan of Arc, “Richard II” and “Richard III,” but with virtually no musical issues, it would have been a stretch to include them in the syllabus!

Q. What is an average class like?

A. The actual class time involves several different learning modalities. I like to throw a lot of material into the mix, because you never know what will light the spark in students who come from such varied backgrounds. We’ve learned a few songs by rote, we read aloud from facsimiles of 17th century prints — the students are no longer stumbling over those Ss that look like Fs — and we visited the Beinecke Library to see some early printed musical material. We also had a fantastic mini-tour of the “Remembering Shakespeare” exhibit [led] by its co-curator Kathryn James.

Q. Why teach this class as a freshman seminar?

A. Grading is the only part of teaching that I really hate. It’s so obvious when students are engaged, and so thrilling when you see their curiosity leading them into exploration. I love it when students write to me three or four years later about something we did in class that emerged in a new context. We do have some short assignments, plus a mid-term paper looking at the instrumental and vocal requirements for one specific play, and assessing the music choices in a production viewed live or on video. The final project is going to be student-driven, and with the high level of creativity and energy, I’m counting on these projects to expose me to new material as well. Part of why I designed the course is to learn more!

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