The This is Lincoln Center podcast offers listeners intimate, enlightening moments with some of the great artistic talents of our time. Hosted by Live From Lincoln Center producer Kristy Geslain, This is Lincoln Center features the musicians, dancers, actors, creators, and thinkers who make the magic happen on Lincoln Center's famous stages.

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Episode Transcript

Ailyn Pérez: I think the story is... Oh, my goodness.

Andrew Wade: You have duels, you have dances, you have singing, balconies, tombs.

Sterling Hyltin: I definitely get completely consumed anytime I perform it. It's so shocking. It's just... it's incredibly draining.

Kristy Geslain: Although it's more than 400 years old, William Shakespeare's tragic romance Romeo and Juliet continues to captivate audiences of all genres—theater, film, ballet, music, and opera. While the story has become ubiquitous, performers must find their own way to keep it engaging and fresh. I spoke to three people who've figured out how to do just that—New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Sterling Hyltin, who is dancing the role of Juliet this season, opera star Ailyn Pérez, who is singing the role at the Metropolitan Opera in the spring, and Juilliard vocal coach and Shakespeare specialist Andrew Wade. Join these three artists as they discuss their relationship to the work, and why this tale of lovelorn teenagers continues to resonate today.

Let me also take this opportunity to wish our listeners a very happy Valentine's Day.

This is Lincoln Center: Romeo and Juliet.

KG: Romeo and Juliet is one of those works of art that's become so familiar, it can feel like it's always been there. Do you remember when you first saw or read the play, what impression it made on you?

AW: It was at school and it was the first Shakespeare that I was given to study. And in England, there became that point in your education when you were "ready" for Shakespeare, which, looking back is a worry to me (laughs), because already we're putting this writer on a pedestal that denies the fact that he's just a writer, and perhaps already, without knowing what, gives somebody an expectation of how to come at this writer or it's going to be difficult. So, we were told it wouldn't be and that we would identify with it, that's why we were doing Romeo and  Juliet. I think I stalled at the intellectual understanding of the text and that stopped me really entering it, which probably helped me to become a voice coach.

SH: I read it in school. I was in middle school when I read it. I thought it was just so... How many different productions have been made off of just sort of the template of Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare is incredible. It lends itself to any time period, to any artform. It's incredibly malleable that way.

AP: I saw the film—I think it was actually at the same time we were reading the play. I think that's why our literature teacher showed us the film. And also, they had scheduled that as the winter play in my sophomore year of high school. So I saw a couple of friends take on the roles. I don't remember much of it, though. I just remember the balcony scene and how beautiful [my friend] was as Juliet.

KG: What do you think it is about the story that translates from the original so well into different interpretations—into opera and dance and movies and more contemporary settings?

AW: Yes, I think it lends itself because of the core. There are so many parts of the story that people can sympathize with as they move through different parts of their lives. We can identify easily with the adolescent throes of conflict, of love so easily. Many of us can identify of being parents of teenagers, when everything is so dramatic and extreme. When love is so extreme in this play, when everything is clearly no compromise. Being part of a group, in this case, a family, but how we identify as being parts of groups, feuding groups. And then, perhaps, at times identifying with people who are just trying to do their job as best they can. Perhaps that's what the Nurse and the Friar were really doing. That center of love, a word that we all use and perhaps all have our own different interpretation of it of course, trying to identify our connection to love when there is an obstacle in its way. I would say that core theme, if I say it that way, can lend itself to most artforms.

SH: I think it's really suited well to dance because in dance it's physical. We touch each other, and it's a love story. We're touching each other as individuals would who are in love.

AP: It's actually really challenging for an opera singer to... For example, if I want to just have my Romeo behind me and I want to reach up while I'm singing and caress his hair and stroke his back or something, my chin going up will hike up my larynx. Also, like, if you want to see a lot of movement onstage, while you're running and singing you will get out of breath. And guess what? You need a lot of breath when you're singing (laughs). So it poses a challenge in that way.

While I was working at Royal Opera House, the ballet is really running alongside that opera schedule. So I was able to see the dancers dance these great... you know, Giselle. You can see... it was astounding to me in Giselle, for example, how incredibly dramatic one can be by just fixating a look, or just a stance, or just one arm movement. So for me, going to the ballet is really important because I can see how people are expressing what we get to sing. And yet when we sing, we kind of get stuck because it's really hard to move. But the ballet... Oh, God, if we could only move that way.

SH: You know, it's funny, because I am saying that the physicality lends itself very well to the romance of it, but one thing I just wanted to add is, similar to Ailyn, I don't have words. So that's the biggest challenge for me, especially when things are happening with the priest, let's say. You know, it's not quite as physical. So other than... you just have to come up with ways to convey the story to the audience, and that's difficult. It's really difficult with no words, but I think it lends itself to the story, the physicality lends itself to the story because, I mean, you do what you would do if you were in love. I mean, you hug them, or you can touch their face, or you can, you know... it's very, it's literal.

AW: What's fascinating for me as a practitioner who works in theater, is that when I go to a different artform, because it's not my expertise, I can just live it, enjoy it in a way that I no longer can with theater. I have a different way of relating to theater that sometimes denies me ever being quite lost in it in the same way. So I can more naively, but perhaps more personally, react to other artforms. So it doesn't worry me (laughs)... there aren't words in ballet, in inverted commas, that I'm not getting what I'm used to. It interests me the way the human condition is... can be expressed in so many other forms.

KG: So let's talk about Juliet. Ailyn and Sterling, how do you approach playing her in terms of her character and her personality? And, Andrew, from your perspective, how do you see her?

AP: Juliet. I adore her. She's introduced in this very bright key of G major, and the reason why I mention that key is... If you play C major or E flat, all these different keys... but you listen to what G major sounds like and you go from low G to high D, that's Juliet's entrance. And to me it's like champagne, glitter, high energy, bright sound, young, fiery—all of the things that I think of a Juliet, all happening in the first moment. And I love that Gounod scores it for her that way.

SH: My Juliet, I do try to be polite. I try to be a well-bred Juliet, despite the youth, until it's just impossible. It's impossible to make everybody happy. Part of the reason we all end up how we end up is because everybody kind of is trying to... through trying to keep these divides within family and keeping separate, it's like there's a certain way to act, but in a way nobody's happy. So it's really Juliet fighting for this happiness and coming to this very mature conclusion that you just have to kind of go against authority to finally get to something that's really good and really positive and essential to life.

AW: I think it's another example of Shakespeare the feminist. So often, it seems to me, as I hear it, that Shakespeare is putting forward a female viewpoint in a society where so often the voice—metaphorically I'm talking about—was unable to be heard. And how many of the female characters are really the driving force behind whatever the action, whatever the lives are that they're going through, and it seems to me that Juliet is certainly in charge.

AP: I have found in the duet—and I haven't performed the opera enough times to figure out if it's the response of the singer or if it's actually the way the music is written for Romeo—but there is a sense of Juliet driving all of that action, like: "Let's get married. Let's do this." And he's like... "Yes?" I mean, there's a little sense of she just takes over. She's like, "Right, so we feel this, so now this has to happen." And it's amazing.

AW: So perhaps is that why in the 19th century in fact, Romeo was considered to be too emotional and, in fact, one of the most important productions in this country of an American actress playing Romeo, because it was no longer considered quite the part for the image of a man.

AP: As a woman in a scene in a romantic lead, I guess I would've pictured the man doing that, and wooing, but he does that in secret because he's almost not as brave, or he's not quite sure, or he already knows this is not a good idea. So that informs... it tells you a lot of about the character right there and the sneakiness and the willingness for how Juliet wants to live her life.

SH: I respect Juliet because she gets herself up off the floor and stops feeling sorry for herself and she decides she does have a source. She's going to go to the priest and is just going to take matters into her own hands, and it's heroic and inspiring.

AW: She has the spunk against all her conditioning. So, I suppose what I mean by, "Yeah, I hear the feminist."

KG: What's the starting point when you're preparing to play a character like Juliet? Where do you begin?

AP: It starts with the music, because I think also... that's a great question, because what if I didn't start at that point? How would I approach it? It'd probably be different. I hear music, and I hear... the sonic elements inform the emotional for me. So my Juliet, that's how that feels. That entrance music is like, there's a... I mean, it's just like the happiest birthday party you could ever imagine with the biggest ball, and the fanciest costumes, and the high life sort of feeling. So if I approached it from text, I would say actually it would be shy, because she's uncomfortable. She's not really excited to be there, and she'd rather not be. So you just changed my Juliet.

KG: No, no, no. I don't want to take responsibility for that!

AP: Actually that's a brilliant... Thank you. You know, I hadn't thought of it that way. See what these artforms are doing to one another?

KG: And I wonder what a dancer will say to that same question.

AP: Oh, please tell me.

KG: Is it the music? Is it the story?

SH: I read the text and I watched the Zeffirelli film quite a bit, but I felt that I didn't really watch too many other ballet Juliets, ballerina Juliets, because I really, I knew that I was younger than them. I've watched them more after the premiere, but I felt really adamant that... I took my interpretation of the text and I was just honest with the way I wanted to be. And some people would be like, "That's a huge mistake." But for me it just really made sense at that time to make it mine. I had to create a trail so that I can deviate from the trail, but I have to have my own trail and my own path. That way, then maybe I can throw in a few other ideas that maybe I've seen other people do, but I really want to be original.

KG: What do you think is the hardest part about the work today, both as a performer and for audiences as well?

AW: Undoubtedly, a challenge today for us, in the sense that Shakespeare's text... it's so poetic, as we know, it uses poetic forms, not just verse. And for a contemporary actor, certainly, and an audience to a degree, not to be alienated by that, I think is a particular challenge that we must keep very much in the forefront of our work. Not to deny it, but to find the way where it can release me into something other and not reduce me into being alienated. So that is a particular challenge of how we honor the form and yet find a contemporary nuance as we say it that can ring right for now.

SH: In terms of the physicality of Romeo and Juliet, I've been lucky enough as a principal ballerina in the New York City Ballet to have danced every single full-length that our company does. So I definitely have a very good idea of what's the hardest and what's, you know, the easiest. There's no easiest, first of all, but physically Romeo and Juliet is probably one of the easiest because you don't have 32 fouettés. You don't have a lot of technique that you have to necessarily just worry about from act to act. There's not as much that I lose sleep over, as much as I just want to tell the story well. I really want to give it honor and let it read to the audience. I want to take the audience someplace. That's what Romeo and Juliet is more about, than just proving these physical feats one after another, like some of the story ballets can feel for a ballerina. 

However, the emotional side is the highest end of the spectrum of difficulty of all the ballets. The emotion is just so, so much. I really go home and feel like I have no personality. It's like everything just got sucked out of me. I just feel completely exhausted when I go home, but I don't have aches and pains, maybe, in my feet or my knees or something like I do after Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, but I certainly feel pain sort of in the soul, almost.

AP: I think that we all have to come to a learning of what each other wants or needs and can do before you really just let go and play. It's like a safety kind of first conversation. You just don't know. I think that's part of what makes the excitement of a Romeo and Juliet. Putting one on together, you really get to work that out with your Romeo and see what can work and really delve into having the priority be about... I would say, like, a very, very close list of priorities: great singing, great sound, but also with such warmth and tenderness physically. And that is really exciting work. And it's work

KG: You've studied Romeo and Juliet on a deeper level than most of us. What have you learned from doing that, either from the story as a whole or from specific characters?

AP: Oh, my gosh. What Juliet taught me... and I don't... it just... maybe will share what perspective was home to me, or what I was coming from... that she's actually more of a leader. She's more of a driving force than I would typically have... I just thought Romeo and Juliet... I remember the first time I was learning the role, I was an understudy. I thought I knew the piece, and then I think one of my comments while I was, you know, talking to a friend... I was like, "Gosh, she's almost like in everything." (laughs) And my friend was like, "Um, it is Romeo and Juliet, you know?" Like, "Are you kidding me?"

So I think that Juliet taught me how to be a leading lady as an ingenue. How to be a young leading lady. How to also be a brave young lady and a driving force for the drama, instead of things happening to you.

SH: Juliet's in a lot of extreme situations that I don't think, or, hopefully won't ever find myself in. Finding a way that you would react in those situations has been interesting and telling of myself, so I think that's what I learned the most from dancing this role.

AW: I think it's a very... it's a misunderstood play, and some of the things that we are talking about and the interest that you have in wanting to talk about it says to me that we all somehow think we know Romeo and Juliet. And I often feel that we are disappointed by Shakespeare's play. It isn't quite the play we think it's going to be. The opening is "two households," not "two lovers." It's about families, it's about institutions, it's about people but not just people. And as we know that in Shakespeare's play when Mercutio dies (snaps fingers), the play changes. It becomes something else that I think often we're not quite wanting because we talk about "Romeo and Juliet" in everyday life. The other aspects that we touched on earlier, the conflicts, etcetera, etcetera, that create the drama, I think they've been put to one side and denied the social, and the political to a degree, and we must never lose the political must we, in the art?

KG: This is Lincoln Center is hosted by me, Kristy Geslain, with production help from Gillian Campbell, Eileen Willis, and Ian Goldstein.

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