Hoiby’s “Tempest” Reviews

opera in three acts by LEE HOIBY
libretto adapted by Mark Shulgasser

The Tempest – Act I, California State University, Brent McMunn, Conductor

1986 Des Moines Metro Opera PREMIERE

The Tempest is an elegant, masterful expression of American musical conservatism. This was especially true during the conventional set pieces: the quartet in Act I; detachable arias such as tenor Caliban’s show-stopping “Be not afeard,” which stands dramatically at the center of the second act; Ariel’s songs that have entered into the consciousness of all literary people (”Come unto these yellow sands”). Act III, in which Iris, Ceres and Juno bless the young lovers has always proved a stumbling block for stagings of the play, since it feels dramatically superfluous . . . but Mr. Hoiby writes as beautifully for three female voices as Richard Strauss (a major influence throughout) does in “Der Rosenkavalier”, and gives us as well as the lovers a sumptuous gift. One could detect echoes of Beethoven and Elgar, musical colorations of which Debussy and Ravel would have been proud, off-stage choruses like something from a Speilberg film, and Mozartian overtones everywhere . . . Mr. Hoiby captured the wonder and magic implicit in the Bard’s last romance.


Hoiby’s unabashedly extravagant spectacle attests to the composer’s passion for the genre and courage to preserve its cherished traditions. . . The score is crammed with musical events . . a feast of arias, ensembles, choruses and fourteen roles, comic, poignant and otherworldly, each given its due according to its relative importance in the original.

The Tempest – Act II, California State University, Brent McMunn, Conductor


. . . Caliban, the monster –creature of tremendous dignity has extended moments of uncommon poignancy that convey the anxiety as well as the tragedy of his life in this story. … Ariel’s music is especially memorable, the storm music is consistently effective, those preludes and interludes I recall with pleasure, the duets for Miranda and Ferdinand, Caliban’s arias, the act iii masque, and so many other moments are superbly singable and downright beautiful.
Thor Eckert Jr


Where others have failed, Hoiby has succeeded. With a series of brilliant solo set pieces, with hymn-like choral writing of Verdian sonority, with layered orchestral texturing that echoes the lush beauties of Richard Strauss, Hoiby has met the challenge of making musical magic of Shakespeare’s complex last comedy. Constance Hauman’s astonishing Ariel is a vivacious, beautifully sung characterization. The memorable finale – its main theme echoing in the mind long after the opera’s end – must surely have been written under Prospero’s “auspicious star”. It’s the most beautiful moment of a beautiful opera.


A three and a half hour evening in the theater that was both memorable and all too short… an eminently workable libretto complemented eloquently by the score. There was a wealth of melody . . . set arias, duets, ensembles and music for each of the characters that gave them individual identification and importance. … a rich orchestration brightened from time to time with delightfully imaginative and humorous touches.
Ruby Mercer

OPERA (London)

Jacque Trussel (Caliban) was the undisputed star of the production. Not only did he sing masterfully, with diction worthy of a Shakespearean actor, but he gave an incredibly acrobatic performance, and dramatically as well as vocally, made his big aria the lyric highpoint of the evening. . . The young coloratura Constance Hauman was also a favorite. She negotiated Ariel’s music, including a fiendishly difficult vocalise, with brilliant, clear and breathtakingly secure vocalism, while flitting about the stage like a dancer, much of the time on point. . . . The evening began with orchestral sounds redolent of Das Rheingold and contained many moments when the influence of Richard Strauss was apparent. Even so the music was melodically, harmonically and musically pure Hoiby.

The Tempest – Act III, California State University, Brent McMunn, Conductor

L’OPERA (Italy)

Over thirty composers have written versions of [The Tempest] and this latest may be the culminating one… Hoiby has fitted the work with advanced tonal harmonies, fascinating timbres, effective recitative and silken lyricism. His expressive range is complete, and from the tempestuous orchestral prelude to the transcending lyricism of Caliban’s aria “Be not afeard”, his music continually heightens and colors the story.


The obvious complaint against Hoiby’s music is his seemingly blissful refusal to acknowledge the every existence of musical modernism.
John Rockwell

1987 Kansas City Opera

…lushly melodious, dramatically cogent setting of Shakespeare’s lyrical fantasy that ought, if there is any sense at all to the Byzantine world of opera companies, to enter the repertoire and remain there…. The setting of Prospero’s “We are such stuff as dreams are made on / And our little lives are rounded with a sleep” gave away the sage magician’s whole character and illuminated the entire evening.
Kenneth LaFave

1989 USC Long Beach Hoiby Festival

Not to waffle: Hoiby writes wondrous, not just funny, songs–songs as touching, communicative, poignant, vocally effective and pungent as any written in this century. For those unfamiliar with the whole range of his output, this small survey was revelatory. The major discovery, however, came in the excerpts from “The Tempest,” with Shakespearean libretto by Hoiby’s associate, Mark Shulgasser. These showed the composer’s thorough mastery of literary and musical language in the service of dramatic point. Hoiby himself, resourceful and virtuosic pianist that he is, played the orchestral part on a grand piano; one can imagine the full effect of the complete instrumental complement, especially in the great finale of the opera.
Daniel Cariaga

1996 Dallas Opera

The real star of the show is Hoiby’s music, always beautifully and colorfully orchestrated around a constant flow of melody, a fluid lyricism pulling into some magnificent set numbers – including a sweeping ensemble built around the song “Full fathom five” in Act I.


Hoiby’s mysteriously neglected 1986 The Tempest is a beautifully written modern masterpiece, Dallas Opera’s most enjoyable contemporary effort in memory. The Tempest is a real opera, melodious and sensitively orchestrated. The music is rock solid and absorbing. . . and enhances the text instead of competing with it. . . . Caliban’s Act 2 aria “Be not afeard” may be the most beautiful aria written into an opera for nearly 50 years.

NOTES, Journal of the Music Library Association

Hoiby’s opera’s, like his songs, are written so that words can be heard and understood. In The Tempest the climate is appropriately stormy, sunny, joyful or eerie. Though there are plenty of moment of harmonic acerbity and dissonance the prevailing musical atmosphere is sweetly harmonious. The music is intriguingly constructed, with leitmotifs entwining and surfacing throughout in ways that continually appeal to the imagination.

2004 Pacific Opera Victoria

. . . a lush and wistful score. It has moments of absolute brilliance, like bolts of lightning that split the sky over the island. The third act contains the most flamboyant and richly textured vocal work and an evocative orchestration brought to stunning life by the members of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra . . . The opera is easy on the ears but still manages to evoke the dark and lonely secrets of the heart-jealousy, envy and longing.


Hoiby’s score sidesteps angular modernism in favor of richly textured melodies, tonality and conventional structure. There is a gentleness and sweetness to this music, which seems shot through with a pervasive sense of nostalgia. The orchestration is subtle, complex and clever, and follows Shakespeare’s original text with a great deal of reverence for the story and language. . . . The beauty of the language is foremost. Typically, he wrapped up the famous “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” with the sweetest of string lines. His music heightens, rather than diminishes. [With] challenging roles and notable duets, nothing really tops the finale or the siren-like wedding masque. The vocal harmonies are absolutely seraphic. Hoiby and the POV succeed in conjuring up a magical island suffused, in Shakespeare’s words, by the “sounds and sweet airs of a thousand twangling instruments.”


. . . one of the most theatrically satisfying nights at the opera POV has ever mounted.

2008 Purchase Opera, Symphony Space, NY

At Symphony Space, we heard not the entire opera but generous excerpts, lasting over an hour. When Mr. Hoiby starts out, his music smells of the sea, and the strange events to come. It is full of anticipation and promise. As the opera continues, it is by turns sprightly, heroic, gracious, coarse. In other words, it conforms to the drama unfolding. The score may put you in mind of Debussy and Britten, among others. … But mainly the score is Hoibyesque. And it ends with a stirring ensemble — 10 soloists, plus chorus. . . .
Mr. Hoiby has another Shakespeare opera up his sleeve: “Romeo and Juliet.” When will New York be able to hear that? This city, and other cities, receive too little Hoiby. But those who know his music tend to love it. And his music — beautiful, honest, and inspired — will endure. Jay Nordlinger


Since its 1986 premiere, The Tempest has undergone two revisions, each further streamlining the work to its essentials. This third version is perhaps the charm.

2008 Purchase Opera Albany CD (Troy 1106-07)
FANFARE Critics’ “Want List for 2009”

I was privileged to be in the audience for SUNY Purchase’s terrific April 2008 production of Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest. The ensuing CD release does not disappoint. Though there have been a number of operatic adaptations of Shakespeare’s play, I have never encountered one that is more satisfying and gripping than Hoiby’s. The work has been revised and tweaked since its 1985 premiere and it has now reached a tight final form in which every gesture seems perfectly calculated. Hoiby’s neo-Romantic language is in full bloom form the very opening moments, and just when one thinks that it couldn’t get any better, some of the most beautiful and moving music is saved for the reconciliation scene of the final act. I believe this to be one of the greatest American operas and urgently recommend it.
Carson Cooman

. . . . I would also go so far as to assert that Hoiby’s adaptation is one of the great Shakespearean operas. Gripping right from its opening moments, this is a work that should not be overlooked by anyone with an interest in American opera.
Walter Simmons

OPERA NEWS (Oct. 2009)

Lee Hoiby’s beautiful, stimulating opera The Tempest . . . Shakespeare’s magical, otherworldly play makes frequent reference to music and its transformative powers; Hoiby picks up on all the cues, and then some. His musical language has been described as conservative and tonal — even Romantic — but there’s far too much variety and imagination on display here to make such a facile categorization. Even in lush, melodious passages — of which there are many — he shows a genuine affinity for the natural music implied by Shakespeare’s elevated, ornate language, coupled with an artistic personality of his own strong enough to transfigure it for his own clear-eyed purposes. His enormous skill in differentiating his characters musically also contributes to the success of this work. . . .Caliban, the enslaved island native gets to deliver the wonderfully incantatory Act II aria, “Be not afeard,” which has the feel of a modern classic. . . The luxuriant trio for the three goddesses, with its Wagnerian overtones, is another memorable one.
Joshua Rosenblum

UJ SZO (Vienna/Bratislava)

In the opera of American composer Lee Hoiby we step straight into Shakespeare’s dream. [Compared to Ades] Hoiby’s version is more traditional, more easily receivable: There is in it a huge portion of neo-romantic élan and film-like plasticity. . . . Hoiby’s Ariel is fairytale-lyrical, the prime mover of the plot, a character painted with splendid colors, that has no trace of inapproachability. One of the Hoiby-opera’s highlights is Caliban’s “Be not afeared” aria named by one of the composer’s critics “maybe the most beautiful tenor aria written into an opera for nearly fifty years.”

Of Prospero’s exhibitions of stage magic, Hoiby creates an almost separate island on the island. A splendid example of this is the fantastic, enchanting scene in the third act trio of the three goddesses — which, in my opinion, is the most successful part of the work: from here on the music surges with irresistible naturalness toward the finale, which arrives with the jeweler’s precision to which we are accustomed from Hoiby. Zoltan Csehy


Surely Hoiby’s masterpiece. This lovely opera is neo-romantic, modern, and 17th century baroque all at once. Hoiby has his own musical voice. Hoiby’s writing for the voice in the English language is reminiscent of Purcell and Britten – all is so natural and so clear. The language is faithful to Shakespeare’s play, unlike that of Thomas Ades’s “Tempest”. The orchestration is rich and varied and always supports the vocal line. I’m downsizing my large collection of CDs because we are about to retire, but this is one album I will keep.

This is a fabulous recording by one of America’s finest vocal composers. SUNY Purchase Opera is a revelation—real operatic voices and a full-fledged symphony to support them. More power to Jacques Trussel (director and former star tenor) and the very gifted conductor Hugh Murphy who leads this lovely product. Kudos to all. Finally – a lovely recording of a very worthy opera!
John X. Pena

I first heard Lee Hoiby’s opera of The Tempest about ten years ago when Dallas broadcast their production of it over NPR. I was enchanted with it and naively assumed it would be recorded and released by somebody with a great cast by some enterprising recording company. I was so naive… Now Albany has produced a lovely recording of the revised version David L. Reynolds (LA, CA USA)

Shakespeare’s plays have proven surprisingly resistant to successful adaptation to the operatic stage . . . Lee Hoiby’s 1986 version has the sound of a modern grand opera, with cinematic sweep and color. Hoiby is not afraid of melody and traditional tonality, although his harmonic vocabulary is not limited to it. His music is lushly lyrical and has far more character and compositional variety and inventiveness than is common in most modern American operas that use this kind of conservative tonal language. . . . The finale is splendidly cathartic and satisfying. BARNES & NOBLES All Music Guide