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An Ear for Shakespeare

ae3RodyOrtegaSSC’s star composer elevates the drama of ‘Henry IV Part II’ with music

When Rody Ortega is not composing music for Shakespeare Santa Cruz, he works as a commercial airline pilot. The sky is an important source of inspiration for Ortega, but he believes he can reach people on a deeper level through the arts. “Art can take you places an airplane can’t,” he says.

For the fourth summer in a row, Ortega has returned to UC Santa Cruz, where he will help elevate Shakespeare’s “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Henry IV Part II” with music. The latter—which runs Aug. 7-26 at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen at UCSC, and stars Charles Pasternak, V Craig Heidenreich and Richard Ziman—is the second segment of Shakespeare’s “Making of a King” trilogy.

The play begins where “Henry IV Part I” left off: England has been ripped apart by civil war, and though the rebels have suffered a major defeat, their feelings of animosity persist. At the heart of it all, is the story of Prince Hal—the heir to King Henry IV’s throne—who has abandoned his royal duties in favor of gallivanting with his friend Sir John Falstaff, despite his father’s rapidly declining health.

The production “covers the epic scope of what is going to happen in England,” explains director Scott Wentworth. Although, he assures that history is only one aspect of this multi-dimensional work, which also touches on universal themes, like family, the generational gap, and mortality. “It’s a very personal play,” he adds.

Ortega believes “Henry IV Part II” is both “honest and real.” “These are stories that through all these years have not lost meaning,” he says.

Using everything from solo flute pieces to more complex, film-like scores, Ortega says he hopes to set the tone for the play by capturing Prince Hal’s journey from boyhood to the throne. Rather than pull the ear away from Shakespeare’s language, Ortega’s music is crafted to support the play and help the audience feel the drama of the story.

“I hope that the music can bridge those gaps where—do I even dare say it?—where even Shakespeare’s words may not be enough,” says Ortega.

Although the music in “Henry IV Part II” is subtler than in other plays Ortega has composed for, Wentworth believes it is just as important.

Even the background music that plays as characters converse has a crucial role when it comes to amplifying the drama of a scene. The language of the play is complex on its own, but Wentworth finds it “thrilling.” “I think the music’s role in a conversation like that is to kind of give that conversation a platform—to enhance it,” he says.

Aside from setting the time and location of each scene in the play, the music provides clues for audience comprehension, and is intended to strike listeners on an “emotional level, easier, quicker, and more fluently” than words, explains Ortega.

After working together for four years, Wentworth and Ortega have developed a deep understanding of how each other works. Wentworth knows Ortega will be able to compose something at the last minute, if necessary—Ortega once had to compose the music for an entire act of “The Man in the Iron Mask” in a week. “You’ll say to him, ‘We need some music here.’ And it seems like 10 minutes later, there it is—and it’s gorgeous,” says Wentworth.

Ortega explains that composing for “Henry IV Part II” is like looking at a moving target—cues and scenes can change at any time. “I have to compose a little bit smarter so that I have places in the music that I can get myself out of and make a quick edit to truncate things,” he says.

Ortega adds that many people have an image in their mind of how composers write music, which is completely different from reality. “The romantic thought [is] ‘Well I’m going to go into the redwoods with my quill and scroll and start writing when the inspiration hits me,’” says Ortega. “That doesn’t work.” 


“Henry IV Part II” runs from Aug. 7-26 at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen at UCSC, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. $30-$50. $15/students, $14/under 18. shakespearesantacruz.org.

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