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A night at the semi-opera

Boston Baroque and UNI will explore Purcell’s The Fairy Queen on Monday

CFA Music Professor Martin Pearlman, founding director of the Boston Baroque, conducting a rehearsal. Photo by Vernon Doucette

When most of us think of William Shakespeare, plays, poems, and sonnets immediately come to mind — operas do not. Perhaps they should. Because while Shakespeare did not write operas, he did inspire others to do so — more than 200 by one count, including The Fairy Queen, composed in 1692 by Henry Purcell.

Selections from that rediscovered “semi-opera,” which is based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, will be performed and discussed on Monday, February 27, at a 7 p.m. roundtable discussion with music presented by the University Professors Program and Boston Baroque, America’s leading Baroque orchestra and chorus. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Photonics Center Auditorium.

Called A Night at the Semi-Opera: Purcell, Shakespeare, and Musical Theater in 17th-Century England, the roundtable will feature music by Boston Baroque, which has been in residence at the College of Fine Arts since 2002. The evening will also include a conversation among four experts on the Baroque Era (1600–1750): Bruce Redford, a UNI professor and director, Martin Pearlman, a CFA music professor and founding director of Boston Baroque, James Winn, a College of Arts and Sciences English professor and department chairman, and Ellen Harris, an MIT professor and theater arts director.

The Monday evening event precedes an open dress rehearsal of The Fairy Queen on Thursday, March 2, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Tsai Performance Center. This Boston Baroque production, cosponsored by CFA, UNI, and Boston Baroque, will be narrated by Robert Pinsky, a CAS English professor and former U.S. poet laureate. On March 2 and 3 Boston Baroque will perform The Fairy Queen at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. For information on those performances, click here.

Henry Purcell is widely considered the greatest English composer of his time, although his contribution was largely forgotten until the 20th century, when many past composers were rediscovered and celebrated. The Fairy Queen, a fusion of music, dance, and comedy, is one of five semi-operas on which Purcell collaborated. It is known for its sparkling rhythms and lifting melodies.

“It’s a very interesting and complicated work,” says Redford, who is also a CAS professor of art history and English. “Unlike an opera, there isn’t music from start to finish. The Fairy Queen combines five masques — musical interludes  — with a spoken text that’s based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but based quite loosely. Only about one-third of Shakespeare survives, and the rest is either adapted Shakespeare or newly invented text.”

At the roundtable on Monday, panel conversation will alternate with music performances. “The idea is to illuminate this work from various vantage points, including the perspective of adopting Shakespeare and the whole idea of authenticity or fidelity,” says Redford. “For a late 17th-century audience, Shakespeare was a classic, but not a classic whom one should revere as we revere him. Composers often did not perform the texts faithfully.”

The idea of a roundtable grew out of Redford’s and Pearlman’s interest in the Baroque Era. “We wanted to bring together scholars to talk about a work of art that bridges mediums and bridges categories,” says Redford. “As teachers, we feel it’s important to expose nonspecialist audiences to such elusive masterpieces.”