ASR Music ~~ “Prospero’s Island:” Good and Evil at Herbst Theater

By Jeff Dunn

The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place.—Alexander Solzhenitzyn.

In Prospero’s Island, an evil Nazi biologist has escaped retribution for his Dr.-Moreau-like experiments on human subjects. One day, after surviving by circumstance for 15 years on a deserted Falkland island, with his daughter along with two of his cross-species creations, the scientist executes an elaborate plan to turn himself in to authorities. Has his line dividing good and evil changed place?

Prospero’s Island offer(s) many pleasures…

Such is the nut of the new opera by librettist Claudia Stevens and composer Alan Shearer, presented in a single performance at the Herbst Theater on March 25. Its shell is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the many parallel details of which may delight, amuse, distract, and annoy aficionados of the Bard.

Those unacquainted with the play may be confused at times, but are perhaps better off. On its own terms, the new work offers us a qualified redemption for humanity’s past evils. As we meet him on the day of his plan, the Nazi Prospero is loved by his daughter, respected by his human/starling Ariel, worshipped as Leader by modified, speaking penguins (one of whom has had fingers grafted on so it can play a violin), and reviled by Caliban, a sport that is half sea squirt.

Prospero (Andrew Dwan) and his short-wave radio/TV-remote-like device. Photos courtesy Herbst Theater.

Prospero exercises unlikely but supreme power via psychology, a short-wave radio, and a TV-remote-like device that can incapacitate from a distance. Using the remote, he downs an aircraft carrying four special agents he already knew were coming to arrest him (kudos to Jeremy Knight’s video projections here). Prospero then hopes that one of the agents will fall in love with and marry his daughter Miranda.

His plan works out to perfection, except that Miranda, learning of her father’s crimes, cannot “bestow quality of mercy” on him, saying “It is not mine to bestow.” And Ariel reminds him, “There must be truth for all to hear, … all to bear.”

In this production by InTandem and Ninth Planet, Prospero’s Island offered many pleasures. Shearer’s music diligently followed the plot twists in semi-modernist style, occasionally bursting into references to Handel, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Cole Porter, folk dance, bebop, and Elvis. While his own melodies might elude first-time listeners, Shearer’s highly varied and transparent chamber orchestration, superbly realized by Nathaniel Berman and his players, was a treasure chest of invention.

Members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus were irresistible as chirping penguins. Rubber-limbed Bradley Kynard was a delight as a grumpy Caliban in a fabulous sea-squirt costume by Joy Graham Korst.

Members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus at work at Herbst Theater. Photos courtesy Herbst Theater.

Shawnette Sulker (Ariel) and Amy Foote (Miranda) were in excellent voice. The four special agents, Sergio Gonzalez, Julia Hathaway, Angela Jarosz, and Michael Mendelsohn, all in fine form, rounded out the cast, all under the wise direction of Philip Lowery.

Andrew Dwan’s rich bass-baritone would have well served the god-like Prospero of Shakespeare. In Stevens’ and Shearer’s reimagining, however, he is having his last day as a free man, and is reverting to the nerdy nobody that he would have been without Hitler’s help—as symbolized by the dingy khakis and sweater vest he wears and his relatively static stage actions.

This concept matches Hanna Arendt’s conclusion regarding Adolf Eichmann, about the “banality” of evil. But does banality belong in opera to a towering character, Shakespeare’s Prospero, one that has impressed itself on the history of the arts for 400 years?


Jeff Dunn is ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor. A retired educator and project manager, he’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionProspero’s Island
Alan Shearer

Claudia Stevens
Directed byPhilip Lower
Producing CompaniesNinth Planet, InTandem
Production DatesSingle performance, March 25t
Production AddressHerbst Theater
401 Van Ness Ave
SF, CA 94102
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----