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Much Ado About Opera: How Berlioz Made Beatrice Sing

by LJ Bachenheimer

Beatrice (Daniela Mack) and Benedict (Alek Shrader) bicker in the 2018 Seattle Opera production of "Beatrice and Benedict."

Full disclosure: Much Ado About Nothing is my favorite Shakespeare play. I encountered it early, in an eighth-grade English class, but none of the Bard’s other plays that I later read in high school could knock it from the top spot. I was completely enamored by Much Ado’s wit and humor, especially through Beatrice and Benedick’s fighting-but-it’s-actually-flirting dynamic. As a teenager looking for female characters to identify with, Beatrice in particular stuck with me. She was an independent woman who had a lot to say and was going to say it, the men around her be damned.

Despite my love for the comedy, Much Ado About Nothing has been underappreciated by modern adapters, lacking the stylized treatment of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo + Juliet or the reinvention of Taming of the Shrew seen in 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You. Sure, there’s Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film version and even the inventive 1960s-inspired stage musical These Paper Bullets!, but I wanted something that struck a different chord. Unexpectedly, I found it in an opera from the 1800s.

First performed in 1862, Hector Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict adapts Shakespeare’s play by amplifying the bickering lovers through song and a dramatic orchestral backing. I initially discovered this work while pouring through databases and the Special Collections archive (and maybe Wikipedia) in search of different versions of Beatrice. Much like when I first read the play, I was immediately captured from the moment I heard “Overture.” While Berlioz didn’t necessarily reinvent my favorite Shakespeare heroine, his opera allowed Beatrice to stake a new claim on the stage and in my mind.

Beatrice: Witty Modern Woman

Beatrice steals the show in Much Ado About Nothing. A lady of Messina, Beatrice is Leonato’s niece and Hero’s cousin. She engages in a “merry war” of wits with returning soldier Benedick, who she is later tricked into falling in love with. Usually considered the female lead, Beatrice is known and beloved for being sharp-witted and intelligent, with a keen awareness of the world around her but also a sense of vulnerability.

A painting of Beatrice by F. Dicksee.

Beatrice is often considered a feminist character. She’s independent and strong-willed, standing up against the standards of her time. She disapproves of marriage and wants to make her own choices in love. Sharp-tongued Beatrice stands out when compared to more meek female characters of the time, like her go-with-the-flow cousin Hero or other Shakespeare heroines who lack agency like Ophelia or Desdemona. Dr. Miranda Fay Thomas describes Beatrice’s banter as her weapon, as “she sees the everyday sexism around her and decides to shout back.” While Shakespeare’s works are famous for their inventive use of language, wit and wordplay aren’t always espoused by female characters in the same way as their male counterparts, so Beatrice’s dialogue stands out. I think this distinction is part of why I’ve always been drawn to her. Also contributing to her perception as a feminist character is Beatrice’s ability to recognize her status in society as a woman and her desire to fight against it. She proclaims, “O God, that I were a man!” as she wishes she had the power to take revenge for the dishonoring of her cousin. In Béatrice et Bénédict, the character is portrayed by a powerful soprano, with the beautiful yet forceful expanse of the singer’s voice capturing her strong will and unique worldview through music. On the opera stage, Beatrice is empowered to draw your attention.

A photo of Hector Berlioz taken in 1863, the same year "Beatrice et Benedict" was first performed.

Berlioz and the Bard

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was a French romantic composer who wrote various pieces for orchestra and choir, plus three operas, including Béatrice et Bénédict. Notably, Berlioz had a lifelong fascination with Shakespeare. First exposed to the Bard through productions of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Berlioz was awed by the plays’ artistry and learned English to read them. He was also awed by Irish actress Harriet Smithson, who he became infatuated with. His love for her inspired the grand and dramatic Symphonie Fantastique (watch this unique and mesmerizing performance by Aurora Orchestra), which was my first exposure to Berlioz, as I performed an excerpt from it in high school. Many of Berlioz’s compositions were inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, from The Tempest overture and the “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette to Béatrice et Bénédict. He planned several other works, too, like operas based on Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra, that he never finished.

A print of Harriet Smithson from 1829.

Berlioz clearly had an appreciation for Shakespeare’s heroines. The plays he devoted larger works to often had prominent female characters, like Juliet, Ophelia, and Cleopatra. I wouldn’t be surprised if this had something to do with Berlioz’s fascination with Harriet Smithson, who was renowned for how she revolutionized portrayals of the Bard’s heroines. As Peter Raby’s biography Fair Ophelia: A Life of Harriet Smithson Berlioz recounts, Smithson shocked audiences in 1827 with her portrayal of Ophelia’s madness, with local newspapers reporting on both her beauty and the ugliness of the powerful emotions marring her features as she performed a role considered insignificant. When cast as Juliet that same year, she made the most of a heavily-edited role, standing just as prominently onstage as the famous actor playing Romeo and capturing the hearts of theater-goers, including Berlioz. Berlioz’s first concept of an opera based on Much Ado About Nothing arose in 1833, the same year he and Smithson were married, so perhaps writing an opera with a strong-willed woman at the center of the story had something to do with the attention-grabbing actress the composer was in love with.

Giving Beatrice Her Voice

Berlioz adapted Much Ado as an opéra comique, a more modern form of opera in comparison to the German Romantic style popular at the time. Since an opéra comique incorporates spoken word alongside singing, Berlioz kept Shakespeare’s language (after translating it into French) and instead altered the plot. He replaced the bumbling constables Dogberry and Verges with pompous music teacher Somarone, who was meant to be a dig at the composer’s detractors. More importantly, he eliminated the main conflict of the play, getting rid of Don John’s plot to dishonor Hero and ruin her and Claudio’s wedding. With this change, Beatrice and Benedict’s bickering and their friends’ efforts to set them up become the center of the action.

Hanna Hipp as Beatrice in Seattle Opera's 2018 production of "Beatrice and Benedict."

Even without the event that incites her feminist fury, Beatrice is still an imposing, dramatic presence on stage. She leads the vocal cast with beautiful, sweeping arias, necessitating the talent of a bold soprano. Beatrice and Benedict play off each other excellently, but the power of Beatrice’s voice always seems to win out, as in the “Insulting Love Duet” (performed here by Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader). She has her tender moments, such as the “Ladies’ Trio”, in which Beatrice helps Hero prepare for her wedding, demonstrating that Beatrice isn’t all hard edges, but that she is full of love, too.

Berlioz’s score and libretto adapt and encourage the wit of Shakespeare’s original play, adding levity and life to its characters. The orchestral pieces and accompaniments often have a playful sharpness to them reminiscent of the bickering lovers, like the jaunty yet varied “Overture.” The motion of the music and the singers’ voices also carries a similar quality, from the “Insulting Love Duet” to Beatrice’s aria where she realizes she’s in love. Since Beatrice’s wit is so important to her personality, as well as her perception as a feminist character, maintaining and recreating that wit through music is a crucial component. In all versions, Beatrice is at her best when her banter is at its sharpest, and Berlioz’s score and libretto carry that quality throughout the opera.

In our current day, both Shakespeare and opera are seen as art forms firmly rooted in the past. While that may sometimes be the case, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t new insights to be found within old works or mediums. Adaptation is a way those insights are brought to life. That’s why I sought a different version of Much Ado About Nothing that spoke to me the same way the play did, and found it in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict. These works still have something to tell modern audiences, from the power of an intelligent, independent woman and her words, to how you can mirror wit in music on the stage of an opera house. Regardless of the medium or the performance, elements of these stories speak… and sometimes they sing. And much like opera audiences might listen to Beatrice’s arias, understanding the meaning even if they don’t quite understand all the words, we should be listening to what these stories are telling us.

Bénédict (Paul Appleby) and Béatrice (Stéphanie D’Oustrac) hold hands in a scene from the 2016 production of "Béatrice et Bénédict" at Glyndebourne.

This essay is part of the Shakespeare, Sort Of series, a project exploring archival research and Shakespearean adaptations. Find every SSO essay here.

Further Reading

Audio excerpts from Seattle Opera’s Beatrice and Benedict (2017), featuring Daniela Mack and Hanna Hipp as Beatrice.

Glyndebourne’s Béatrice et Bénédict (2016), featuring Stéphanie D’Oustrac as Beatrice.

“Beatrice and Benedict.” The Hector Berlioz Website, Michel Austin. May 1, 2022.

Love and Mend: Much Ado About Nothing,” Ladyknightthebrave. YouTube. September 16, 2022.

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