Britten Operas

“At the dress rehearsal I thought the whole thing would be a disaster,” recalled Benjamin Britten, referring to the world premiere of Peter Grimes. When the final curtain fell on June 7, 1945, at the old Sadler’s Wells theater in London, silence followed by shouting filled the hall. The stage crew didn’t know what to make of the reaction, according to Joan Cross, the original Ellen Orford: “They thought it was a demonstration. Well, it was, but fortunately it was of the right kind.”

English tenor known for interpretations of such Britten roles as Aschenbach in Death in Venice, Peter Grimes, Captain Vere in Billy Budd, and Quint in The Turn of the Screw. I only sang once with Britten, in Bach’s St. John Passion on Good Friday in the early 1970s. I was engaged for the arias, and Pears was to sing the evangelist.

No one could have expected that Britten’s new work would single-handedly restore prestige to English opera. By the time of the Met’s first performance of Peter Grimes in 1948, the buzz was enormous. Time magazine even chose the youthful-looking composer for its cover, posing him against a backdrop of fishing nets. The accompanying feature article declared that “no opera since the days of Puccini has had so much advance praise.” Peter Grimes has continued to live up to that praise. Firmly established as part of the international repertory, it holds a singular place among operas created since World War II.

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It’s just as unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the convoluted path that led from an obscure literary character to operatic protagonist. Peter Grimes first appeared as one among a large cast of townsfolk in George Crabbe’s long epistolary poem from 1810, “The Borough.” Crabbe (who was also, incidentally, an acclaimed naturalist specializing in the study of beetles) depicts Grimes as a creepy, sadistic misanthrope, “untouched by pity, unstung by remorse and uncorrected by shame.” He is a tormenter rather than tormented, strikingly different from the central figure of Britten’s opera.

An article by E.M. Forster prompted the composer’s discovery of Crabbe’s poem in 1941, at which point Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, were living in America. Britten experienced a double epiphany, on both artistic and personal levels. He not only perceived the operatic potential of “The Borough” but was moved by the richly detailed local color of the poem, set on his native East Anglian seacoast—so much so that he determined to reconnect with his roots. As soon as it became possible, he ended his self-imposed exile and returned to war-ravaged England, which the composer and Pears had fled in part because of their pacifism.

Britten homed in on Peter Grimes as the prospective opera’s central character (he appears in just one section of Crabbe’s poem). What attracted him was the potent dynamic of “the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation,” the composer wrote. Here he alluded explicitly to the scorn he and Pears faced as conscientious objectors upon returning to England—but also, implicitly, to their outsider status as a couple. “This led us to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is, rather than the villain he was in Crabbe,” Britten explained.

Peter grimes opera

Britten and Pears drafted a scenario that dramatically transformed the ruthless bully depicted by the poet. Christopher Isherwood was their first choice as librettist; when he declined, they turned to the left-wing writer Montagu Slater, with whom Britten had previously collaborated in the thirties, writing incidental music for two of his plays. Slater brought his own preoccupations to the libretto, although the composer ended up vetoing a number of his choices (as well as some he himself had originally suggested). Working with these various layers embodied in the final libretto, Britten then added a further dimension with his music.

As a result, the hapless fisherman is fleshed out into one of the great operatic paradoxes: an outsider characterized both by his uniqueness and by his archetypal amplitude, capable—like the Byronic hero he in some ways resembles—of mirroring contradictory identities. Britten’s Grimes contains aspects encompassing the prophetic visionary, the misunderstood artist, the egotist, the driven capitalist who will “fish the sea dry,” the eternal child, and the troubled transgressor.

But all of these traits exist within the context of the Borough—and it is the interplay between Grimes and his setting that is at the heart of the opera. The Austrian-British musicologist Hans Keller comments that Grimes “cannot show, let alone prove, his tenderness as easily as his wrath—except through the music which, alas, the people on the stage don’t hear. Thus, he is destined to seem worse than he is and not to be as good as he feels.” For example, when Grimes testifies during the inquest in the prologue, the musical texture directs our sympathies toward him with held chords—“like the halo of string sound” in a Bach Passion, as the music critic Michael Kennedy observes.

At the same time, Peter Grimes is hardly a simple parable of oppressors and oppressed. One aspect that makes the opera so involving is how ingeniously Britten’s music differentiates the townspeople—from quirky, Dickensian strokes, for example, for Swallow and Mrs. Sedley to the full portrait of Ellen Orford. She shares something of Grimes’s outsider stigma, after all, and is the central figure who tries to mediate between him and the Borough. Her duet with the fisherman subtly illustrates their tragically illusory connection: Grimes sings in a key separated by a half-step but briefly, at the end, gravitates into her harmonic field. Later, at the climactic moment when Grimes strikes out at Ellen, he erupts in a motif (“And God have mercy upon me!”) that, with resounding irony, is taken up by the villagers in their menacingly mocking chant “Grimes is at his exercise!”

Britten creates an impressive but economical network of tonal symbolism that tracks Grimes’s relationships not only with the Borough but also with the natural elements he tries to master—and into which he eventually dissolves. The six interludes offer a symphonic parallel to the collective of the townspeople, where the sea provides its own chorus-like commentary. In the second interlude, for example, Britten modulates between outer and inner landscape: the thrashing storm music also mimics Grimes’s turmoil, and it incorporates the yearning intervals of the vision he has just expressed in “What harbor shelters peace.”

A measure of the opera’s depth is that it has been able so convincingly to accommodate widely divergent interpretations. The Met’s new production by Tony Award–winning director John Doyle adds yet another perspective. While the original interpreter, Peter Pears, emphasized the title character’s fundamental humanity—portraying him as a sensitive misfit—Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (who first sang the role at the Met in 1967) ratcheted up his contradictions, declaring he used “one kind of voice for the inner Grimes, and another for the outer Grimes.” Writer Andrew Porter enthused over how Vickers, with “one of the few voices that can set the enormous Met ringing,” was able to shape a performance in which “his voice, his features, his demeanor are distorted, transfigured.”

Whatever we decide is the cause of Grimes’s conflicted nature, the opera’s tragic inevitability exerts a pull that seems both timeless and distinctly contemporary. In part this is because, as Peter Pears once remarked, “There are plenty of Grimeses around still, I think!”—a notion the Met’s new Grimes, Anthony Dean Griffey, has echoed. It is the genius of Britten’s music to make us feel what is at stake, what has been lost, and how the pattern threatens to be repeated as the Borough resumes “the cold beginning of another day.” We return to Peter Grimes, as Porter justly claims, because “its freshness, its dramatic force, its richness of musical structure, and its illuminations of private and public behavior seem ever to grow.”

—Thomas May


With so much Britten being performed for the 2013 centenary, it is hard to know what to choose and where to begin – but if you don’t know much about Britten’s operas, here is a brief guide to get you started. Benjamin Britten was a talented musician who explored most types of composition, and as well as his instrumental and choral works, he composed sixteen magnificent operas. Each is very different but devilishly clever, and his compositional process as well as the works themselves have taught us a great deal about him. Many of his operas are established in the repertory and their regular performances represent a large percentage of the 20th-century output.

We’ve chosen five of his most popular operas and put together a short list of starting-points for anyone who’s new to Britten’s operas, as well as details of where to hear these works live in the months ahead.

Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes is the first work that gained Britten recognition and fame as a composer. It is set around the sea, which was a huge influence to Britten as he grew up in Suffolk very near the coast. The opera is centred around the story of an outsider – as are many of his operas – and one of its most notable features is the orchestra being used to create huge representations of the sea in its various states.

The role of Grimes is a good example of one written specifically for Peter Pears, Britten’s life-long partner, with the song “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades” written mainly on Pears’ favourite note (E above middle C). The music is dramatic and emotional, and has success as separate orchestral publications as well as an opera, with the Passacaglia and Sea Interludes often performed in their own right.

There is an interesting series of letters relating to the composition of Peter Grimes, exchanged between Britten and Pears in 1944. On 10 January Britten wrote “Actually in this scene there isn’t much for you to do... I don’t know whether I shall ever be a good opera composer, but it’s wonderful fun to try once in a way!”, and after hearing an extract a few days later, Pears replies “Ben my darling, Peter Grimes was quite madly exciting! Really tremendously thrilling”. Pears also offered criticism however, about tempi and general capabilities of singers, but their joint effort resulted in a huge success, and one of Britten’s finest compositions.

As Britten’s most famous opera, Peter Grimes is central to the centenary with numerous performances, most notably the performances on Aldeburgh Beach this month, as part of the annual festival. Productions scheduled for 2014 include a revival at English National Opera starring Stuart Skelton, and Zurich Opera’s staging by David Pountney, with Christopher Ventris as Grimes.

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Britten’s only Shakespeare opera and also the only opera with a libretto written by Pears. The story is familiar to most, with four young warring lovers, a comic group of amateur actors, and the controlling fairies who live in the forest nearby, where most of the plot takes place. This opera is not performed as often as it should be due to the large forces required: nineteen soloists, an orchestra and a stage band.

The Aldeburgh Festival saw the first performance of the opera in 1960, twelve years after Britten and Pears founded the festival, and the opera then had a successful run at Covent Garden from 1961, with six revivals. More recent productions have played around with the setting, such as ENO’s modern take in 2011 with Oberon and Titania teachers and Puck and the other fairies students at a public boys’ school.

Britten Operas

Britten stayed very traditional, with the three groups of characters having appropriate music: the actors with folk-like tunes, the lovers with romantic, flowing melodies, and the fairies ethereal. However, he adds original touches too: it is unusual to have a countertenor lead as we see here with Oberon, written specifically for Alfred Deller, and although Peter Pears doesn’t have a lead role here as he often did, his comic drag role of Flute/Thisbe has a hilarious song which has to be sung a semitone out of tune.

The music is based around a series of glissando chords, but although they are perfectly ordinary triads they swarm through all twelve keys to give a simultaneous feeling of the natural and the unnatural. Although the original critical reception was mixed, with many feeling that the opera didn’t match the quality of Britten’s earlier ones, David Drew (writing for the New Statesman in June, 1960) called it “an achievement far beyond the capacity of any other living composer”. James Conlon will be coming to the Metropolitan Opera in New York this October to conduct Tim Albery’s production, featuring Iestyn Davies as Oberon.

Billy Budd

Billy Budd is another of Britten’s operas that focuses on the world’s reactions to an outsider. The opera is set on board the battleship HMS Indomitable during the French Revolution, and we see a flashback from the ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, who is grappling with guilt over Billy’s fate. Billy was popular with the crew when he arrived, but had a fatal flaw: he stuttered under pressure. This flaw had disastrous consequences as Billy failed to defend himself, but at the end of the opera, Vere as an old man realises that Billy’s downfall had in fact saved him.


The opera may at first seem striking because the cast is entirely male, and although it is strange seeing seventeen tenor and bass soloists, four trebles and a male chorus, it is appropriate for the setting, and is a refreshing change from convention. When writing the opera, Britten had no idea who would be performing it but he was optimistic with the orchestration, using large forces including six percussionists. Britten uses higher registers with wind and brass to make up for the lack of female voices, and the alto saxophone occasionally features prominently.

The opera has a libretto by novelist E.M. Forster and director Eric Crozier, and is based on a short novel by Herman Melville. Forster described the opera as “my Nunc Dimittis”, and the theme of the power of homosexual love is in common with his then unpublished book Maurice, which he had shown to Britten and Pears around that time. Billy Budd has always been a popular Britten opera; the première received seventeen curtain calls, and many of the most famous male opera singers have either Budd or Vere in their repertoire. Jacques Imbrailo and Mark Padmore are the leading two in Glyndebourne’s production this August, and next year John Chest and Burkhard Ulrich take the roles for Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Curlew River

Curlew River is the first of Britten’s three Church Parables (all written in the 1960s, and composed to suit the specific acoustics and atmosphere of a church performance), and it was premièred in June 1964 in Suffolk by the English Opera Group, with the original cast including Peter Pears and baritone Bryan Drake. The work is based on the Japanese noh play Sumidagawa (“Sumida River”), written by Juro Motomasa in the 15th century. Britten took a holiday with Pears to Japan and the Far East in 1956 and the influences are obvious here, not just in the plot and dramatic material, but also in the theatrical treatment and the music itself. Britten wanted to avoid pastiche with his setting of the play, but still used elements from a performance he saw in Tokyo in 1956, with no conductor and only seven instrumentalists required.

The librettist William Plomer transformed the original into a Christian parable, again to move it away from its Japanese origin, and set it in early medieval times near the fictional Curlew River in East Anglia. The action centres on the Madwoman – again, an outsider.

The lack of conductor allows different groups of performers to adopt different tempi, which harked back to the music of a Nobayashi ensemble in Japan. These different speeds led to the Curlew sign being created, used to resynchronise previously separated groups of musicians. The harp part is heavily influenced by music for the Japanese koto, and the chamber organ part features extensive use of tone clusters, sounding similar to the shō, an ancient Japanese mouth organ which Britten played whilst on holiday. Also, as in many of Britten’s other dramatic works, individual instruments are used to represent particular characters, and here we see the flute and horn as the Madwoman and Ferryman respectively. The opera opens with the Gregorian chant Te lucis ante terminum and an interesting fusion is created throughout, with singers dressed as monks and accompanied by gamelan-style percussion.

The initial rehearsal period for the opera was particularly stressful as Britten worried about its critical reception: his writing was going in a new direction, and Pears was performing a drag part. Curlew River marks a departure in style for the remainder of Britten’s creative life, paving the way for such works as Death in Venice and the Third String Quartet. Upcoming performances include a staging by Frederic Wake-Walker for Mahogany Opera as part of the City of London Festival this July, and Londoners will have a further chance to hear it in August at St John’s Smith Square.

Death in Venice

Death in Venice was Britten’s last opera, with a libretto by Myfanwy Piper. It is based on the novella of the same name by Thomas Mann, which Britten contemplated setting for many years before finally starting work on it in 1970. The first performance was at Snape Maltings near Aldeburgh in 1973, just three years before Britten’s death. He was under huge physical and psychological stress whilst composing the opera and had to postpone major heart surgery in order to finish it.

The opera seems to provide a tribute to the voice and work of Peter Pears, but it also sums up his own life’s work. The story shares many themes with Britten’s other operas and his own life, and significant links can be made between Britten and the opera’s hero, writer Gustav von Aschenbach. Aschenbach is aware that the end of his life is nearing, and he travels to Venice, where he falls in love with a young Polish boy, Tadzio, who is portrayed as a silent dancer in the opera.

Even though Britten was an experienced operatic composer by this time, he still had his doubts. He wrote to the choreographer Frederick Ashton on 21 October 1972, saying the opera was “either the best or worst music [he’d] ever written” and that he had a “terrible dread of playing [it] to anyone”. The biting score is full of haunting and ambiguous Venetian soundscapes, with the music overall being direct but movingly understated, and it is a wonderful and fitting culmination to Britten’s operatic career. Deborah Warner’s production of Death in Venice is coming to English National Opera this month, and the same production is then travelling to Amsterdam, with the same cast performing for the Netherlands Opera in early July.

Benjamin Britten Opera

For people who are new to Britten, opera is a very good place to start; and for people who feel like they know Britten, the operas always have more to give.

Britten Operas

Peter Grimes Opera

Billie is a keen music student in London, and a former Bachtrack intern. She started piano lessons and singing at the age of four and is still doing both regularly. She sings in Ralph Allwood’s Rodolfus Choir and has a particular interest in Benjamin Britten.
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