When I first heard the Dies Irae from Verdi’s Requiem I was struck by the vehemence of its anger. The text would indicate that it’s a portrayal of God’s terrifying wrath, and when you hear the requiems of Mozart and Berlioz and Britten you can hear the scene being set with the chorus narrating the final judgment; to the extent that the chorus is expressing an emotion it’s their fear of God, and with it a fear of the unknown and the shame of coming face to face with their lifetime of sins. Of course, all of that is plenty dramatic enough, and you can hear that drama in those works. But in Verdi something else is going on: I hear human souls screaming AT God, expressing THEIR judgment of HIM, and their inconsolable sorrow and anger at losing their loved ones and awaiting their own ends. Instead of being a terrifying depiction of cosmic justice, it’s a cri de coeur bewailing earthly injustice. And when I search for a way to paraphrase that meaning in English, to express our vulnerability in the face of God’s seemingly cruel capriciousness, the first words that come to mind are from Shakespeare’s King Lear:

 “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples…”

While we can’t know if Verdi was specifically thinking of King Lear when he was composing his Requiem, we know that he was seriously determined to write an opera based on that play and even worked extensively on a libretto for it with two different poets. When he was asked near the end of his life why he never saw the project to fruition, he replied that “the scene in which King Lear finds himself on the heath scared me” – the very scene that included the lines quoted above.

Five years ago, IN Series, continuing their innovative work in performance that crosses boundaries of culture and genre, presented The Promised End, in which a monologue, compiled by IN Series Artistic Director Timothy Nelson from King Lear and selections from an essay on Lear by Marjorie Garber from her book Shakespeare After All, is juxtaposed with a complete performance of Verdi’s Requiem with a pianist and eight singers. The piece is being revived this fall as part of the Shakespeare Everywhere Festival, and I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Nelson a few questions about this production.

James Jacobs: What inspired you to combine these works? Were you reading Shakespeare and it reminded you of Verdi, or vice versa, or neither?

Timothy Nelson
Timothy Nelson, Artistic Director of IN Series/Photo: Todd Franson/Metro Weekly

Timothy Nelson: I’d love to say that how I’m about to respond was the vision before making this piece, but in truth making the piece came from an intuitive place, sensing the connection, and only being able to understand and explain it after the fact.

Your intro-paragraph is perceptive. You are spot in identifying that, unlike the other requiem settings that you mention, Verdi’s is much more human and feels more singularly personal. That probably has to do with Verdi being the essential opera composer, unable to slip into formal objectivity like the others, but I also think it’s the fact that he wrote the libera me first, a text that isn’t part of the formal requiem mass, and then wrote the rest of the Requiem in such a way as to lead up to this very personal human response to the requiem itself.

Whatever the reason, Verdi’s Requiem is all about (hu)man’s personal relationship with the universe, with existence – rage, terror, fear, smallness in the dies irae yes, but also transfiguration, inspiration, learning, sublimity, ecstasy, even love at other moments. And, as you are right to point out again, King Lear, more than any other play, is also about singular (hu)man’s relationship with the universe, God, existence, however one views the fullness to which much respond even if it answers with silence. That is, of course, most obvious in the iconic scene on the heath and in the unforgettable dies by which we all know instantly the Requiem, but is apparent all throughout both those texts – literary and musical.  

JJ: Can you tell us about the monologue you composed?

TN: The monologue operates on three simultaneous levels – Verdi at the moment of his own funeral awaiting the body at the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, Verdi talking about Lear and why it is so greatand Verdi becoming Lear. And all that is on top of the full performance of the Requiem with each line attached to a section or bar of music (a terror for the poor actress to learn).  

JJ: Verdi intended his Requiem to be performed by hundreds of musicians in a large hall for an audience of thousands, but there were performances with much smaller forces even during his lifetime. What is gained by hearing this piece performed with nine musicians?

TN: The music is no less overwhelming, there is no less shock and awe, and it isn’t any less loud or not for the faint of heart. Essential to this version is the size of the voices and the size of the space, the former large and the latter small. The music in this instance, much more so than ever in a full performance with large forces in a concert hall, is in the audience’s face (literally). As Anne Midgette noted in her original review, the impact of the music realized like this is physical, visceral, has overwhelming almost uncontrollable emotional power that has nothing to do with story, or pathos, and everything to do with force of sound, sonic phenomenon. It really is amazing. 

JJ: The Requiem has been famously compared to an opera, but while it’s certainly as dramatic as anything else he wrote, it’s actually quite different from his operas in many respects. Could it be considered a music drama, a piece of theater?

TN: For me, and perhaps this is more subjective, what makes a piece “operatic” has little to do with having plot, or story, or formal structures of scenes, acts, or even having characters. It really is about musical style. Looking at it from the other direction, we certainly all know “operas” that lack drama, that DON’T feel operatic (Schubert operas to start with, or Fidelio with its incredible score but not operatic) – composers that essentially couldn’t find an operatic voice within themselves despite their clear brilliance in other forms. Verdi couldn’t help but be operatic – it must have been the way he went through life every day, but also, since so much of what defines “operatic” comes from Verdi, of course he was therefore essentially operatic. The Requiem’s differences from his operas are structural really – both in lacking the structures of a formal drama and in lacking the formal structures of the bel canto. But, in musical language it is fully in the line of his operas. It’s important, however, to note that that line is directional and not static because Verdi, of course, is ALWAYS innovating (like Handel or Stravinsky). We all note how Otello and Falstaff are so different from the early or middle operas, and those difference aren’t just purely musical – harmony, line, etc. – but also structural in that he’d abandoned the bel canto formulas in favor of a more organic type of musical storytelling. The bridge between these phases of his compositional life is the Requiem. I don’t think it is apart in any way from the operas, it is just another section of the line of Verdi’s creative trajectory. I challenge anyone to experience the Requiem blind, that is to say without the superficial trappings that define concert and theater, and to not experience the Requiem as a musical drama.  

JJ: Conversely, there is something about King Lear that evokes ancient Passion plays and Greek drama while also anticipating modern theater. Do you think it benefits from being staged in a way that dispenses with theatrical conventions and is presented more like an oratorio?

TN: YES – oh I love this question and I love that you see this in King Lear as well. Lear is different from every other early modern play in that it does seem to be less about narrative and more overtly about what lies underneath the narrative, like a Passion, a Greek drama, or oratorio, that is ritualized. This is evidenced by the fact that Lear becomes so popular, and cited, in the works of the absurdists. The way we think of Lear is really the product of existentialism and the theater of the absurd, and that they saw themselves in Lear is precisely because it has that thing which you point to – a sort of sublime awareness of itself. The desire to do this Lear project began many years before The Promised End, in a desire to compose a one-man version of Lear, and thereby create the oratorio version you imagine, to get to the marrow of the piece, the aboutness of the thing. I feel grateful that taking my role in IN Series and inheriting an undefined “Verdi cabaret” allowed me to discover Verdi’s Requiem as the mechanism, the crucible, through which I could finally make the Lear I’d wanted to make.  

JJ: This Shakespeare Festival comes at a time when assumptions about the importance and relevance of the Western canon are being interrogated and overturned. What aspects of Shakespeare’s work do you think still warrants further exploration? What more can we get from him?

TN: Yup, the value of the festival, the reason to do a festival, is all about canon. In opera, as well as dance and theater, we rely really upon a small canon of works, largely composed by white, male, western, Judeo-Christian, privileged, and, to a slightly lesser extent, heteronormative creators. In the global world and with the more diversified consciousness of the age in which we live, it is appropriate that this canon is being challenged, assailed, interrogated, etc. As arts producers working with that canon, it is our obligation, as well as our privilege, to defend the canon by presenting it ways which demonstrate its continued relevance by the fact that they have wide impact. 

I think the festival is, most importantly, an opportunity for the city’s arts institutions to show through their work and not their words that the canon, while evolving and growing, is still meaningful (but I’d only say so with an attitude of irreverence that prioritizes the living over the dead).  

Now, about Shakespeare, what “we can get from him” is limitless because he, his work, is really only a mirror through which we see ourselves. Now it is a uniquely very clear mirror because of the brilliance of the source (and the same here can be said about Verdi, Mozart, Handel, etc.), but it isn’t that he is teaching or telling us, but rather making surfaces through which we can perceive ourselves. Because we are changing, evolving, we can always glean ourselves anew in that mirror, those mirrors. The onus is really on us.  

JJ: There’s something about the concept of The Promised End that seems apocalyptic, a way of giving voice to the universal condition of death and the universal impulse to resist it, to not go gently into that good night. It seems prophetic that you would be drawn to these themes in 2018, since so much in the interim has brought them prominently into our consciousness. How does it feel to be doing this piece again after five years? How does working on it now make you conscious of the changes in the world between 2018 and 2023?

TN: Good question, tough question…. 

There is the apocalyptic element in the Requiem and in Lear, and those elements are the loudest and seem dominant. But I think the apocalyptic in Lear is really only an invention or a mechanism for something more subtle, but bigger and more important. The apocalypse in Lear is him losing everything, the stripping of a king and of a man, but that stripping is in service of learning. Lear must lose everything so that he may gain something. Lear’s utter loss is so that he can finally know the value of love. Marjorie Garber points out in her essay that the ending of King Lear suggests (but importantly does not give) the answer to the question at the beginning of the play. How can love be expressed except through love itself – what is the nature, the value of love. Lear learns this by losing everything (its Job right?) and his death is, in a way, transfiguration. The play, at least for me, is optimistic. Here is how Garber expresses it in her essay when talking about my favorite scene in the play, where Lear is awoken from his madness by Cordelia, and the scene that makes The Promised End fit in a season about resurrection: 

This is but a variant of resurrection. 

“No cause”, her affirmation is itself negation. 

Something can come of nothing. 

Love is not a matter of “cause”, love is a bond that transcends rhetoric and law; 
It requires only expression, voiced and unvoiced. 

 I have sneakily not really answered what you asked, because I don’t know the answer to what it means to do this piece now instead of five years ago (I mean I know artistically, re-examining, perfecting, going deeper and doing better, but I don’t know spiritually or psychologically). It does mean something though. I feel traumatized, I feel we are all traumatized in ways of which we are unaware, that we do not voice, that we do not give ourselves permission to feel. We are changed fundamentally and irrevocably. We may not have lost everything, but we lost a lot, including pieces of ourselves and the fibers the bind us to each other and to an understanding of the universe, and the questions is: “what have we gained?”. And, perhaps because we don’t yet take stock of the loss we can’t take advantage of the gain. The Promised End certainly doesn’t attempt to answer this, but hopefully it points out the reality of this position – and that is a reality which is pointed and which wasn’t there in 2018. I don’t say the piece was prescient, but it certainly resonates in a way that is personal and felt by us all, and which it couldn’t have five years ago.  

The Promised End runs November 18-December 10 at the Source Theatre in DC and December 15-17 at the Theatre Project in Baltimore as part of the Shakespeare Everywhere Festival

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