To be Shakespeare
If there is anything actor F. Murray Abraham likes more than performing Shakespeare, it’s performing Shakespeare with music. Abraham - who won an Oscar for his powerful performance as Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus’’ - will be at Tanglewood Wednesday in “Stage Music in the Plays of William Shakespeare.’’ He’ll do scenes from “The Winter’s Tale,’’ “The Tempest,’’ “Macbeth,’’ and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’’ with Le Concert des Nations, under the baton of Jordi Savall. He spoke to us from his home in New York.
Q. How did your acting career become so intertwined with classical music?
A. My fame is rooted in the movie “Amadeus.’’ People really think because I did that movie I know something about music. Vienna thinks I’m brilliant. But it’s acting.
Q. What did playing Salieri teach you about music?
A. With “Amadeus,’’ the biggest surprise was the magic of great music. I’m a serious actor and when I was preparing for the film I began to listen to certain passages over and over all day long. And with really great music, it’s always a surprise, and that was a big discovery for me. The surprise was I was always, always surprised by the music. There are moments when I go, “You got me again.’’ That’s what I think great acting should be. Full of surprises.
Q. I’ve heard that Shakespeare altered your life when a schoolteacher asked you to read Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen’’ speech. How did that happen?
A. There was something magical about those words that spoke so strongly to my conditions at the time. I was 16, and I’d become a hoodlum, a bum, in and out of small-time jails. It was the rebellion of youth. I decided I wanted to become an actor. [The speech] turned my life around.
Q. Do you have a favorite role?
A. There are so many. I love Lear. I love Bottom. I love all of Chekhov. You can’t beat the Greeks. Also, I want to tell you what a thrill it is to do Beckett and Mamet. But if I had a choice I’d do original plays only. Something that’s never been done before.
Q. You’ve developed a reputation in the genre of spoken word with music. How did that evolve?
A. There’s music in language. And as much as I can’t quite connect with hip-hop, I understand that it’s the music of the people. It is their attempt to say, “This is ours,’’ and it becomes an invention of music and language. Doesn’t it shock you how hip-hop is universal?
Q. Is it challenging to perform a scene from “The Winter’s Tale’’ or “Macbeth’’ while the orchestra is playing?
A. In music, there is an essential established tempo. You can improvise within that tempo but you’d better end up where they do. I try to improvise and just simply submit myself to the moment. It’s thrilling. You begin to understand that it’s one piece, one whole thing that we’re doing, and you’re simply connecting with the language in a way that is meaningful to you - and fun.