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An interview with Benjamin Britten.

The sixth of eight groups to participate in Expo's World Festival of Opera in Montreal was the English Opera Group. For those who had heard and seen Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes. Billy Budd or Albert Herring at the Stratford Festival this summer, but were not familiar with his church operas, it was both a treat and a moving and memorable experience to see the productions of Curlew River and The Burning Fiery Furnace under Mr. Britten's direction.


What has gone into the career of England's leading composer today? How does he work? Where does he get his ideas?

Mr. Britten's first work in the operatic field was Paul Bunyan, completed in 1941. His first grand opera was Peter Grimes. 1 asked him how and why he happened to compose it.

"The story of how I came to write Peter Grimes," he said, "was perhaps rather interesting. I was in California at the time and happened to pick up an old copy of The Listener, a very good English journal, which reports radio talks; 1 found in it a talk by the English novelist E. M. Forster on the works of George Crabbe. There were quite a few quotations from the poem 'Peter Grimes 'by Crabbe and I don't know whether it was homesickness or a sudden opening of my eyes to a new poetic style, or both, but I was amazed and thrilled by the poetry. I went into Los Angeles a few days later and, in an old second-hand shop, I found a copy of the works of Crabbe and devoured them avidly. The idea of writing an opera came almost immediately, although it would be the first full-length opera I'd ever written. I didn't start it until I got back to England, but meantime I had talked it over with Peter Pears, who was with me, and we had planned the action very thoroughly together. But it was a chance reading of that old copy of The Listener which sent me to the poem 'Peter Grimes' by Crabbe.

"I told this story to [conductor Serge] Koussevitsky," Mr. Britten continued, "when he was performing a work of mine very soon after this chance finding and he asked me why I didn't start writing the opera. I said, quite frankly, that one must take a long time off to write an opera and one can't always afford to do it, but that I hoped one day to be able to. He then asked me whether if he found the money so that I could take the time off. 1 would write it. I said certainly 1 would ... and that was how I began work on Peter Grimes."

RM: What do you feel are some of the highlights of that opera?

BB: I think the highlights are the shape of the work, the development of the character, the reaction of the people to Grimes, which I hope is a real one and not an artificial or caricatured one, and the study of the characters that you get in a small village, maybe anywhere in the world, to someone who is a gifted eccentric--a person who doesn't fit. Particularly now, when people are inclined to be a little stereotyped, when the inclination is so much to mass communication and for people to think rather the same about things, I am interested in the people who don't think the same. So many of the great things of the world have come from the outsider, the lone dog, and that lone dog, or outsider, isn't always attractive. That is what I try to portray in Peter Grimes.

RM: What about your next opera, The Rape of Lucretia?

BB: I wrote that for The English Opera Group and because of the small number of people involved, the story was entirely different. There the inspiration came from a very fine play by the French writer, Beaudet, which suited the medium we were trying out at the time.

RB: Just how much has writing for particular voices influenced your writing of certain roles?

BB: I don't think I ever write an opera without knowing before I start who is going to sing the roles. That goes for all the other music I write, too; I am most completely and hopelessly committed to the people I write for. For me, personally. it is necessary to know whether [cellist Mstislav] Rostropovitch. [horn player] Dennis Brain or [guitarist] Julian Bream or any of the marvellous singers that I've had the honor to write for will be performing my music. I like to have their particular voices, their fingers, their harps, their lutes, in my mind when I write for them.

RM: The Rape of Lucretia was the first opera produced at the Stratford Festival, where your Albert Herring was most successfully produced this past summer. Is there any special story connected with your composing that work?

BB: It was the second opera written for our Opera Group and we wished to have a good contrast to The Rape of Lucretia. It was produced at Glyndebourne, and it was the most brilliant first production of any opera I've ever had. Frederick Ashton was the producer; it was designed by one of our best English painters, John Piper; and fabulously well acted by Joan Gross, one of our greatest sopranos, as Lady Billows, and Peter Pears as Albert Herring with Mabel Ritchie, a very light coloratura soprano, as Miss Wordsworth--I could go on through the whole cast for there was not a single flaw in that cast, nor was there in the whole production.

RM: How did you happen to choose [John] Gay 's Beggar's Opera for your next work?

BB: It is part of our great national heritage, an extraordinary work, written as a kind of parody on the fashionable form of theatrical entertainment that was called opera. Most of the operas at that time were fairly dreary, but Gay came along and took those marvellous melodies, which were and actually are part of our lives, and fitted brilliant new words to them and wrote dazzling, sharp, bitter dialogue around them. [Johan Christoph] Pepusch did the arrangements for Gay at the time but I think it's a piece that must be rearranged, because it has no arrangement of its own. All through the 19th century new arrangements were made and there was a famous one in the 1920s by Frederick Austin. Then there was mine and Arthur Bliss has done one; I think it's high time now for someone else to do a new one.

R.M: You began by composing the grand opera, Peter Grimes, and later gave us Billy Budd. But in the past few years you seem to have written more chamber operas. Is there any special reason for this?

BB: No, I have alternated all my operatic composing life, as it were, between the two different forms. I should like to make it quite clear that because I have written some chamber operas does not mean that I think the grand opera style is finished. I wouldn't be so rash as to say that. But owing to the difficulties of getting operas put on the stage, some friends of mine and I evolved this style in order to make the work possible to perform. It was obviously cheaper to write and present chamber operas than to write and perform grand operas. So we started the English Opera Group, a small chamber opera company. That was over 20 years ago now.

RM: What is your concept of opera today?

BB: That's a very big question and I don't quite know how to answer it. I believe that opera is a most lively and immediate form of art and I think that the reaction to opera in many parts of the world bear me out on that. It isn't always easy to get audiences for opera in some of the smaller provincial towns, but in most of the big cities the interest seems to be enormous. I expect you feel that in Canada, too.

RM: Yes, we do, particularly so in Canada. Bat in Italy the original home of opera, it's on the decline in spite of the fact that many current composers are trying to find a new and successful formula for it. Germany on the other baud, where your English Opera Group has performed a number of times, is evidently the most active country on the Continent, operatically speaking.

BB: Yes. I think it's true. Though I must say that in some of the northern countries the interest in opera is very great--also in Russia where we went with the Opera Group recently. The interest there in what we produced has been so enormous that they have started two opera groups of the same kind themselves. They were particularly interested in this form because it is so much easier to tour than a great big opera company in that huge country of theirs.


RM: How do you account for the fact that your group made such a big impact in Russia when you were singing in language they did not understand--in English?

BB: Well, we made quite sure, first of all, that the program contained a very clear analysis of the events of the opera. Then I think that one of the things we have accomplished in our group is to make the acting side as important as the musical side. We try to make people look like they're supposed to look and behave as they are supposed to behave. For instance, The Turn of the Screw, which we gave in Leningrad and Moscow, and which is not, after all, a very easy story to understand, caught on in an amazing way. We didn't have an empty seat in the house for any of our performances there.

RM: Mr. Britten, you have been quoted as saying "opera is the most fascinating of all musical forms. " Do you still feel that way about it?

BB: Yes, but 1 wouldn't like to say it's fascinating to everyone--to me it is. 1 think it is the combination of the human being in his or her daily life and music which can point up the events of peoples lives and their emotions in a most marvellous way. I think also that when you go to the theatre you don't want--at least I don't want--to see just a little touch of people's everyday lives. I want to see something heightened; I want to see something stylized. And that is why I believe the operatic form, like the poetic drama, is so much more illuminating than, for instance, just a straight drawing-room comedy. I like the idea of the stylistic vision of people's lives.

RM: I read not too long ago that you had been tremendously impressed by the Noh plays in the Orient. Horn much have they influenced you?

BB: The Noh plays went straight to my heart just for the reasons I've been saying; they are the most stylized, crystallized form of art that I can think of and they have influenced me very directly. When 1 saw the play, Sumidagawa, the story of the mother looking for her lost child, I immediately felt that not only was it a wonderful story which had great importance for us in the West as Christians, but also that the actual form in which the emotions were conveyed could be most useful and something we opera composers could surely learn from. So the first church opera that I wrote, which was in a style that I only recently evolved, was an Anglicization of this Sumidagawa, Sumida River, which we then called Curlew River and translated it, in every sense of the word, into East Anglia--the part of England where I live."

RM: Mr. Britten, do you have a set way of working when you 're composing an opera?

BB: No, I wouldn't like to say there's a regular of tine that I always stick to, but I can say that the idea for an opera always comes from me. Perhaps other people suggested subjects years before which have gone into my subconscious and come out again, but when I consciously decide to write a new opera, the idea comes from me. I then approach the librettist, discuss the idea with him, discuss the form and even discuss the links of the line sometimes. Then he goes away and writes it. After that, we discuss it again, but even through the writing period I find that I have new suggestions to make all the time--bits that have to be shortened--bits that have to be added--until the first performance. I find alterations go on being made even later than that--into first editions--until the work is published.

RM: How much depends on inspiration?

BB: When hear that word I think of someone sitting at a table when suddenly an angel appears and gives him wonderful ideas and he writes for three days without stopping. That 5 may happen, but mostly the true picture is of someone going to a desk, regularly at half past eight or nine in the morning, and sitting down and working. The inspiration is in us all the time. Otherwise, how could you explain Mozart, for instance, turning out one amazing work after another? He never waited for inspiration because his way of writing, his way of thinking, was always inspired.

Besides founding the magazine, Ruby Mercer had an active career in radio, first in New York and then in Toronto, As Mrs. Opera, she interviewed many leading singers and opera personalities, This transcript of an interview with Benjamin Britten appeared in December 1967.


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Author:Mercer, Ruby
Publication:Opera Canada
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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