Opera Dives Deep: Romeo and Juliet from Page to Stage

By: Lyric Opera Staff

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Sidonie Garrett, Executive Artistic Director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, joined Opera Dives Deep on Monday, March 4, 2024, to engage audiences with topics around Roméo et Juliette. Her presentation, Romeo and Juliet from Page to Stage, went behind the scenes to explore how Shakespeare’s classic story gets told on the big stage. The full presentation is available on YouTube, and highlights are below.

“Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.” These words mark the beginning prologue of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, premiered in 1597. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, a long narrative poem written in 1562 by the English poet Arthur Brook, who based his poem on a French translation of a tale by the Italian writer Matteo Bandello. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, it has remained the most continuously popular since its premiere. Sidonie summed up the story concisely, “What could be more moving than the story of two adolescents finding—in their sudden love for each other—a reason to defy their families’ mutual hatred by marrying secretly?”

Sidonie shared pictures from the 2022 production of Romeo and Juliet as presented by Heart of America Shakespeare Festival at Southmoreland Park in 2022. She shared a few themes of the work: its timeless exploration of desire; historical conflict between old forms of identity and new modes of desire, between authority and freedom, and between parental will and romantic individualism; and its clarity in affirming the power of love over hate. Romeo and Juliet is timeless, universal, and immediate—no wonder it is often the first Shakespeare play taught in schools!

The 1998 romantic comedy film Shakespeare in Love speaks to the poignancy and enduring “surprise” of the final scene of Romeo and Juliet. One of Sidonie’s favorite parts of the movie (see below) is when Juliet—lying in the tomb and supposed dead—suddenly wakes up. The crowd, viewing the first-ever performance of Romeo and Juliet, gasps! Sidonie finds this scene interesting because, despite working on Romeo and Juliet many times in her life, there is likely someone in the audience who doesn’t know the ending. She said, “It gave me heart, because if you don’t know what is going to happen, think about how that emotional thing kicks in for you… My job as a director is to make you feel that as much as we can.”

Sidonie continued to describe the “elements” of directing a play. When producing and directing a show, the first thing Sidonie does after reading it is to hire designers to help create the world that will be inhabited. In the case of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, the “elements” include weather—durability of materials is of the utmost importance. Some specific questions that Sidonie and her team ask include, “Where are we? What are we wearing? What are our needs for props and weapons? Who, what, when, where, why? What time period makes sense?”

After walking the audience through more specifics of staging Romeo and Juliet and reviewing the story, Sidonie offered a few words of conclusion. Remarking that she wished Friar Lawrence listened to himself, Sidonie shared his words from act two, scene three: “Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast.” Friar Lawrence also wisely said in act two, scene six, “These violent delights have violent ends.” And in Sidonie’s own words, “High drama, beautiful language, great swordfights, a fancy-dress ball, romance, comedy, and the possibility of finding great love when you’re a teenager. This is why we want to tell that story over and over again.”