The Opheliad

2016 | for soprano and piano | 10’

Poor Ophelia! The doomed girl from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is beloved as a symbol in works from artists across many mediums and centuries, yet so often neglected as a character in her own right. Shakespeare himself is largely to blame for this phenomenon—though the circumstances of Ophelia’s life and death are as complex and tragic as those of any other subplot in the play, his portrayal of the character is ambiguous and passive, almost as if she’s more a plot device than a person. We watch her story unfold in discontinuous fragments, often relayed by other characters, and her descent into madness is examined only insofar as it affects the other characters.

The Opheliad is the result of my long-held impulse to piece together these fragments of Ophelia’s tale into a coherent work centered on her and her alone. The first song in this cycle is a lament for her father Polonius, whose death at the hand of her beloved Hamlet causes Ophelia’s famous breakdown. The second song sets Gertrude’s hauntingly beautiful description of Ophelia’s offstage death; the “snatches of old tunes” Ophelia sings as she drowns appear in the third song, whose text is taken from Ophelia’s rantings in the royal court in an earlier scene. The styling of the title is a play on both classical epic naming tropes (as in “the Iliad”) and the “Schubertiade” chamber music gatherings that celebrate the music of Schubert; in these traditions, the Opheliad is a dramatic yet intimate song cycle that commemorates Ophelia and allows her to take central stage, not just as subject but as the voice of her own tragedy.

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