A CLASSROOM ACTIVITY
Each student will need a photocopy of the printed resources for the activity, found here.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a tangle of kings, earls, and thanes. For Giuseppe Verdi, though, only three participants counted: Macbeth, his wife, and the witches. Over the course of the opera, Verdi and his librettists carefully delineate the emotional journeys of Lady Macbeth and her husband, as well as the complexities of their relationship. In this activity, students will explore Verdi’s accomplishment in depicting characters’ feelings through song.
- describe characters’ moods and attitudes
- create masks to visually represent the emotional states of
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
- acquaint themselves with the character arcs and some of the
music in Macbeth in advance of the Met’s HD transmission
STEPS In this activity, students will have several opportunities to listen as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth express their feelings through song. As a class, the students will analyze and characterize the moods Verdi’s characters express. Then, in small groups, they’ll make masks for each of Lady Macbeth’s emotions and each of Macbeth’s. Afterwards, they can “act out” a scene from the opera, using the masks they’ve created to depict the characters’ emotional states.
Step 1: Introduce the opera to your students, placing particular emphasis on the central characters, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Explain that opera offers the opportunity to present characters' feelings and relationships through music. In the first part of this lesson, students will listen to selections from Macbeth, identifying the feelings they hear in the characters’ voices.
Step 2: Draw a two-column chart on the chalkboard. At the top of one side, write “Lady Macbeth.” At the top of the other, write “Macbeth.” As the class listens to selections from the opera, use the chart to keep track of the emotions they identify.
Step 3: Distribute the printed resources. Play the musical selections one at a time. Students can follow along on the printed resource.
Step 4: As students listen to each selection, have them jot down the first word that comes to mind describing any feeling they hear. (You may want to play each selection twice—first for students to get a general sense of the music, a second time to give them a chance to name the feelings they hear). List the feelings on the chalkboard. Then repeat, adding to the list with each musical selection.
In this selection, we hear the witches predicting Macbeth’s and Banquo’s futures, followed by Macbeth’s response: “Saranno i figli tuoi sovrani” (your children will be kings), Banquo’s response and their mutual comment “Accenti arcani” (mysterious words). Notice that Macbeth is talking about Banquo and Banquo’s children. He’s not even mentioning the prediction that he will become king. What do your students make of this? What do they hear in his voice?
Here, Lady Macbeth gets the same news—not from the witches, but in a letter from her husband. In the first part of the selection, we hear her reading the letter. What do your students make of the fact that she’s speaking, not singing, what she reads? What might Verdi be telling us? At “Ambizioso spirito/Tu sei Macbetto” (You are an ambitious soul, Macbeth), she bursts into song. What does the change tell us? Listen carefully to her shift in tone in the line “Ma sarai tu malvagio?” (Will you be wicked enough?). Notice the descent of the melody as she sings, then repeats the word “retrocede” (meaning to retreat).
As Track 2 continues, “Vieni t’affreta” (Come! Hurry!), Lady Macbeth changes tone yet again. What relationship do your students hear between this merry new melody and her message, “Accendere/Ti vo’ quel freddo core!” (I want to light a fire in your cold heart!) What kind of person does Lady Macbeth seem to be when she’s by herself, revealing herself to the audience?
Now we hear Lady Macbeth and her husband together at a critical moment. Macbeth has just killed King Duncan. He’s returning to tell his wife. For Verdi, this scene was so important that he insisted his original cast rehearse it 150 times before the opening! The score indicates that Macbeth is not to sing in full voice until he looks down and sees his bloody hands, “O vista, o vista orribile!” (What a horrible sight!).
At that point, the fireworks really begin. Macbeth tells what happened in the King’s bedroom—how he could not say “amen” to the guards’ night prayers—“La parola indocile/Gelò sui labbri miei” (the rebellious word froze on my lips). How does his wife respond to this chilling anecdote? “Follie!” (Madness!), repeated as Macbeth insists “non potei” (I couldn’t!).
These conflicting attitudes continue through the strange duet that follows, Macbeth obsessed with his experience, Lady Macbeth calling him crazy, foolish, cowardly and childish. Hear her irony and disgust as she sings “Sei vano, o Macbetto” (You are bold, Macbeth).
Macbeth then sings “Com’angeli d’ira vendetta tuonarmi” (Vengeance, like the thunder of wrathful angels). Notice how the very melody of Lady Macbeth’s response, “Quell’animo
trema, combatte, delira…”, (His spirit is trembling, struggling and raving) echoes and ridicules her husband. How would your students characterize Macbeth’s tone? How does Lady Macbeth’s melody correspond to her words?
The argument comes to a head when Lady Macbeth tells her husband to replant the murder weapon at the scene of the crime, “Il pugnal là riportate.” We can almost hear him quiver as he says he couldn’t possibly go back, “non posso entrar!” What do your students hear in Lady Macbeth’s response, “Dammi il ferro” (Give me the knife)? (By the way, the deep percussive strings we hear at the end of the selection are Verdi’s musical analogy to Macduff and Banquo banging on the castle gates, seeking admission.)
Track 4: As Act II opens, we hear attitudes shift rapidly. Lady Macbeth begins the duet “Perchè mi sfuggi” (Why are you avoiding me?). Notice her tone here, and again, seconds later, as she insists “Il fatto è irreparabile!” (The deed cannot be undone). In contemporary language, she might be saying, “Honey, just get over it!” But Macbeth is worried. We hear it in his voice, mulling over the predicament: “Dunque i suoi figli regneran? Duncano/Per costor sarà spento?” (So will [Banquo’s] sons reign? Did Duncan die for them?)
The next few lines play out an intricate psychological drama. Hear how Lady Macbeth nudges her husband along. She nourishes the thought of killing Banquo, softly encouraging her husband. But as soon as he declares “Tonight!”, Lady Macbeth turns the screw: “Immoto sarai tu nel tuo disegno?” (Will you be firm in your intention?). This is the chord she’s been playing all along. Students can decide whether she’s successful or not in both the words and the music of Macbeth’s reply, “Banco! l’eternità t’apre il suo regno…” (Banquo, eternity opens its realm to you!). Has Macbeth changed? What do students make of his attitude now?
Track 5 (OPTIONAL):
One of Macbeth’s best known arias follows directly after the above duet. In “La luce langue” (The light is fading), we hear Lady Macbeth’s inner thoughts. With her husband away, does her confidence wane? Does she sound pensive? Concerned Scheming? Have your students listen carefully at three key moments in the aria:
Nuovo delitto! (Another crime!)
È necessario! (It must be done!), and
O, voluttà del soglio (O, desire for the throne!).
Lady Macbeth is by turns thoughtful, decisive, self-justifying, warming to the thought, and, ultimately, thrilled. Your students can hear all this unfold, even more through her music than in words.
Track 6: Here we find Macbeth and his wife in public, at a banquet, interacting not only with each other but with their assembled guests. Just before the selection begins, Macbeth has seen Banquo’s ghost. His queen notices something amiss. She sidles up to ask what the problem is—but, as we can hear from the music, she never drops her happy party face. “Che ti scosta, o re mio sposo,/Dalla gioia del banchetto?”—what’s keeping you from the party, dear? Both in words and music, she and Macbeth now play a double game. The melody is merry. The lyrics are in code: They speak of Banquo’s absence, but we know they refer to his murder.
Or they do right up until the ghost reappears. Your students will hear that, as a dramatic chord interrupts the merriment and Macbeth exclaims “chi ciò fece?” (which of you did this?). Now the guests know something’s amiss. “Che parli?” they ask—what are you talking about Macbeth keeps talking to the ghost, and the guests exclaim, “Macbetto è soffrente. Partiamo…” —he’s sick, let’s go! But Lady Macbeth will have none of it. How would your students describe her tone when she tells the guests, “Restate!”—stay!, then turns to her husband and asks, “E un uomo voi siete?”—are you a man?
Macbeth’s answer is revealing, both in words and music. No longer does he crumble beneath her intimidation. He has bigger fears now. What new aspect of his personality does his response present here?
Divide the class into groups of 4 or 5, and distribute art materials. It’s time to make masks of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth—one mask for each of their many moods. Have each group choose a few moods for each of the characters. (Students should be careful to label the back of each mask with the character’s name and the mood). If time is short, students can finish their masks for homework.FOLLOW-UP:
As follow-up to the mask-making, students can “act out” the climactic duet between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Track 7: Here Macbeth has returned from his second visit to the witches. They’ve presented the scary vision of kingdoms to come. He reports back to Lady Macbeth, and in this duet they plan their final crime.
Have pairs of students from each group stand in front of the class and perform the scene along with the recording—by holding appropriate masks in front of their faces at each point in the duet.