At long last, “Hamlet” opera will get its premiere

Arts / Article

It’s taken more than 20 years, but at last Carson Kievman is going to get his premiere.

The founder of the SoBe Institute of the Arts spent four years writing an opera based on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for the legendary director Joe Papp, only to have Papp’s untimely death from cancer in 1991 leave the work in limbo.

But when the Miami Beach arts company, having mounted a version of “Twelfth Night,” received a grant to produce Shakespeare-related musical events, the long-shelved operatic treatment of the Bard’s most personal play found its time had come.

“I was talking to a couple board members about it, thinking about it, and actually one of the board members said, ‘We should do ‘Hamlet.’ It’s perfect,’” Kievman said. “And I thought about it, and I was partially convinced by this board member that I really have to do it, and I have to do it now. Let’s launch it on its way, because if something happened to me, it’d probably be buried forever.”

“And so I decided I would do it, in spite of the fact that it’s really just way beyond our capacity. But I thought, I’ll get it up and running in the best format I can, given our limitations not only with personnel but budget. And I proposed it to the rest of the board along with the rest of the season, and nobody said ‘No,’” he said, laughing.

“Hamlet” will get its world premiere on Friday at the Little Stage Theater on the SoBe Arts campus on Washington Avenue. It will have be repeated Saturday and Sunday night and get three more performances March 9, 10 and 11. The premiere was postponed a week from its original date of Feb. 24.

The cast of 13 includes baritone Kenneth Mattice as Hamlet, soprano Meagan Brus as Ophelia, bass Michael Douglas Jones as King Claudius, soprano Danielle Krause as Gertrude and bass-baritone Richard Cassell as Polonius. The show will be presented in semi-staged concert format, with costumes and lighting, and accompanied by pianist Yueh-Yin Liao and MIDI realizations by Mark Schubert. John Yaffe is the music director, and Kievman himself directs the stage action.

Kievman’s association with Papp goes back to the late 1970s, after Papp had made his mark as the founder of the Public Theatre in New York, and as producer of such Broadway classics as “Hair” and “A Chorus Line.” But Papp’s first big entrance onto the scene was as creator of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and “Hamlet” was his favorite play.

Kievman said Papp had produced the play with actors as varied as Sam Waterston, Kevin Kline and Martin Sheen, and wanted to see whether it would work on the operatic stage (perhaps the most notable setting in the past was by the French Romantic composer Ambroise Thomas, whose version premiered in 1868). He had worked with Kievman on the composer’s “Wake Up, It’s Time to Go to Bed,” and was an admirer of his approach to the stage, which Papp called “soundtheater.”

“He called me into his office and he said, ‘I want you to take your theater ideas and apply them to ‘Hamlet,’” he said. But Kievman turned him down, telling Papp he didn’t think he was ready to write it.

“We came to a parting of the ways, unfortunately,” Kievman said, and he went off to work on other projects. “And 10 years later, I suddenly came to the realization that I had lived enough life that I was ready to deal with ‘Hamlet’ … And so I went back to him, out of the blue, 10 years later, and said: ‘I’m ready.’ And without hesitation, he immediately commissioned it.”

For the next four years, Kievman worked on the opera, spending the entire first year recasting the play into a workable libretto — without changing any of Shakespeare’s language. He consulted with Papp every couple months on his progress and decided to construct the opera around the play’s great soliloquies, using them as “pillars,” he said.

He submitted his work, act by act, to Papp, and also sent him tapes of the music, singing every role himself. Ultimately, he was able to produce an hour of the finished work in a reading for Papp at the Public Theatre (an excerpt is available here).

“He didn’t really think [‘Hamlet’] could be enhanced by setting it to music, because the words are so musical to begin with. And so that was one of the great pleasures of my life, when I finally finished the whole thing, and [we did the reading]. And he was thrilled,” Kievman said.

But Papp died not long after, and the planned production — an already retired Jerome Robbins and Britain’s Trevor Nunn had been approached about helming it, but declined — for the Public Theater never materialized. More than that, Kievman lost a friend as well as mentor.

“He was amazing. He was so rare. That’s why his death was also such a blow to me, not just personally but professionally. He was like a father, and like the best kind of father, not the tough-love father,” he said. “The kind of father who doesn’t ask anybody else what they think. He decides for himself what he thinks is good or not good, and he does it.”

For the inaugural production, Kievman has found himself living with his creation on multiple levels. “It’s a thing unto itself. It’s almost like a different composer. I have to kind of let it be what it was,” he said.

And as the stage director, he’s also had to jettison things are making the piece too long. Originally, it was a four-hour opera, and it’s been cut to less than three.

“It’s been very painful, as you can imagine. We’re talking about things that I’ve lived with for 20 years, and now I’m having to cut them,” he said. “I’m trying to get it down until it’s a reasonable running time.”

But despite the scaled-down approach he’s had to take, Kievman is happy about the impact of his opera.

“I couldn’t be happier, ultimately, with what I have here,” he said.

“Hamlet” opens at 8 p.m. Friday in the Little Stage Theater, SoBe Institute of the Arts, Miami Beach. Tickets are $25, and $12.50 for students and seniors. Call 305-674-9220 or visit