Peter Grimes is the greatest music drama in English.
Brisbane Festival has assembled an exemplary international team to mount two exclusive, semi-staged concerts of Benjamin Britten’s supreme opera. This will be a monumental, life-defining musical event.
Australian tenor Stuart Skelton is the greatest performer of the title role on the planet. One of the most thrilling heldentenors of our time, and the International Opera Awards Male Singer of the Year in 2014, he has appeared in the world’s most celebrated opera houses.
"The best Peter Grimes I’ve ever seen… I don’t know when I have ever felt more horrified, more shaken by a performance." THE SPECTATOR, UK
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra will be conducted by Scottish star Rory Macdonald, and the staging will be by brilliant UK director Daniel Slater. The mighty Opera Queensland Chorus will lift the roof.
Peter Grimes is the defining British opera of the 20th century and a masterpiece of musical theatre. What really happened to the young apprentice of gruff fisherman Peter Grimes? Featuring Britten’s most evocative sea-inspired music, including the Four Sea Interludes, Peter Grimes paints a vivid picture of a small community convulsed by rumour and mob rule. It is opera for our times. It is an opera to get the blood rushing.
Joining Stuart Skelton for this once-in-a-lifetime event are British singers soprano Sally Matthews and baritone Mark Stone as Ellen and Balstrode, the two characters who resolutely stand beside the titanic, but shunned outsider.
|Proudly supported by Shaun and Sue Kenny|
|Bill Haycock||Set & Costume Designer|
|David Walters||Lighting Designer|
|Tarita Botsman||Assistant Director|
|Stuart Skelton||Peter Grimes (Read biography)|
|Proudly supported by Philip Bacon AM|
|Sally Matthews||Ellen Orford (Read biography)|
|Proudly supported by Tim Fairfax AC|
|Mark Stone||Balstrode (Read biography)|
|Proudly supported by Andy Greig & Ingrid Asbury|
|Katie Stenzel||Niece 1|
|Natalie Christie Peluso||Niece 2|
|Jacqueline Dark||Mrs Sedley|
|Michael Honeyman||Ned Keene|
|Bradley Daley||Bob Boles|
|Gregory Massingham||Rev. Horace Adams|
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Interview by Richard Betts
This production of Peter Grimes is semi-staged. Why did you choose that route?
Semi-stagings don’t provide everything scenically, they leave the audience to imagine a lot of it themselves and that can be very effective. It can create a lot of atmosphere. If the set’s too overwhelming it can distract from what the audience experiences. This production is perhaps more like a simple staging, a happy mix of a full production and semi-staging. Bill Haycock has designed a set that’s simple but gives us flexibility, and the chorus is singing off the book [without music] so we can be freer in movement. The sea is so important to this piece and it’s a great advantage that the orchestra is on the stage, because especially for the Sea Interludes between scenes, the orchestra is the sea, so by making the orchestra present, the sea becomes the centre of the show for the audience.
What was your starting point?
I try to start any piece by thinking I want to tell the story as clearly and excitingly as possible. I imagine a production that’s not for cognoscenti but for people who don’t know the opera. That’s particularly the case for something like Grimes, which people may not have seen before. I want to create a show for an 18-year-old whose grandmother gives them birthday money and says, “Here, go to the opera”.
This is your third Grimes. Is this production based on your previous ones?
No, I try to separate myself from what I’ve done before. I can’t lose previous productions from my head but I try to come to it as fresh as possible. I do try to keep key concepts but I really wanted Bill Haycock as the designer to influence things, so it wasn’t me just saying to Bill, “This is what I’ve done, this is what I want to do again.” I’d rather merge our two visions.
Directors and conductors have equally strong views about what the music says and does. How much does your vision change when you get together with the musicians?
I would hope that it would be very flexible. As an example, I did Wozzeck in Santa Fe with Vladimir Jurowski. We were doing a scene and I said to Vladimir, “This feels terribly slow.” He showed me the score and said, “Look, it’s marked at that tempo. I think we should try to make the staging work for that because [composer Alban] Berg must have had a reason for it.” So because of what Vladimir said we evolved a different way of staging the scene to the one I’d thought of and it was much better for it. When you know what you’re doing when you start rehearsing, you can accommodate that kind of input, so I hope the influence of the conductor is profound. I’ve worked with [Grimes conductor] Rory Macdonald before and I know he’s good at Britten. That helps because he and I can talk very freely about the piece. But I think that anything I do as a director is always music-led. Although I come from a theatre background, all decisions you make when working with a designer have to be based on the music. If a major set move occurs and there’s no music to back it up, it doesn’t feel right.
It’s been said that Peter Grimes is the best English opera since Purcell in the 17th century. What is the lasting appeal of Grimes 73 years on from its first production?
I think there are a lot of reasons. Britten wrote a piece that is fantastically good theatre; he paces the drama beautifully. He also creates so many memorable characters. It’s hard to think of another opera that has so many carefully drawn, distinct individuals. That comes partly out of George Crabbe’s poem [the collection The Borough, the source material for Montagu Slater’s libretto for Peter Grimes], which features most of those characters. But Britten wrote the music in a way to integrate all of these people into this story, which is expanded so far beyond Crabbe. And Peter Grimes is just very moving, it’s frightening and it’s complex. We’re left with something uncomfortable about how we respond to characters, there’s nothing simple. I like that nuance and ambiguity in my operas and characterisations. That feels more honest to me than straightforward hero/villain/lover kinds of roles.
Grimes the Outsider
By Richard Betts
When George Crabbe published his set of poems The Borough in 1810, he had an unequivocal view of Peter Grimes. He was “untouched by pity, unstung by remorse and uncorrected by shame,” wrote the author.
That is not the Grimes you will see and hear tonight. The Grimes of Benjamin Britten’s opera is ambiguous, he is “not a hero nor is he an operatic villain. He is not a sadist nor a demonic character,” wrote the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s life partner and the singer who created the role.
Grimes is, instead, an outsider.
“He’s different, he’s weird, he’s not like the other villagers, so he’s rejected and pushed away,” says Daniel Slater, director of this Brisbane Festival production. “His way to deal with that is to try to be accepted. He talks about wanting to marry the widow Ellen Orford but I don’t think he knows what love is in that sense; he just knows what people think they should do.”
This theme of a person dislocated from society was entirely intentional.
“A central feeling for us was that idea of the individual against the crowd,” Britten said of Peter Grimes in an interview, “with ironic overtones for our own situation.”
That situation was complicated. In 1939, just months before England declared war on Germany, Britten and Pears had sailed for America. They returned only in 1942, with the war in full, desperate swing, and immediately registered as conscientious objectors.
Inevitably that caused difficulties. Pears quickly got work at Sadler’s Wells but BBC records show that many conductors and musicians were hostile to the idea of employing Britten. Musical Times editor Harvey Grace wrote of “having saved one’s art and one’s skin at the cost of failure to do one’s duty”. To be a pacifist in wartime created “tremendous tension,” Britten admitted.
So too did the fact Britten and Pears were a couple. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in England until mid-1967 (appropriately, The Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love’ was at number one in the charts), and although their romance was widely known among their circle, many of whom were gay as well, Britten and Pears were cautious not to advertise their relationship.
Additionally, and for a combination of reasons that included but were not limited to his pacifism and sexuality, Britten was not much liked by his English contemporaries. The composer Michael Tippett, mostly a supporter, claimed that grandees of the time such as William Walton, Elisabeth Lutyens and Alan Rawsthorne were concerned about some ill-defined “homosexual conspiracy in music.”
(In fairness, Britten wasn’t keen on Walton, Lutyens and Rawsthorne, either. While he could be extremely charming if the mood took him, Britten had an acid tongue, especially when referring to other composers – Walton and Elgar in particular came in for scathing criticism.)
It’s easy to think that, like the Grimes of the opera – “a tortured idealist,” in Britten’s words – the composer felt himself to be the victim of a mob mentality.
But Britten is not Grimes. Grimes may be a tortured idealist but he’s a brute, too, at least partly responsible for the deaths of two boys. Britten’s genius is that he almost – almost – makes us love him anyway.
“What’s most interesting is that you sympathise with Grimes despite him doing some terrible things,” says Daniel Slater. “He’s very much a modern hero in that sense. We like our heroes to be complicated. He’s morally confused and confusing for the audience, a figure who does terrible things and yet we’re kind of on his side.”
In our sympathy we are complicit with the brute, and left uncomfortable by our response.
The paradox of Grimes, written by a man who identified with his shunned subject, is that it made Britten a figure of the establishment.
From the first performance at Sadler’s Wells in London on 7 June 1945 – just weeks after the end of the war in Europe – Britten became the most celebrated English composer of his age, even appearing on the cover of Time magazine. His reputation has only increased in the years since his death in 1976; in 2013, a century after his birth, he was given his own postage stamp.
Britten was no longer an outsider.
Peter Grimes: A very British opera made in America
By Richard Betts
Peter Grimes couldn’t be more English.
It’s composed by the greatest English musician of his age and set to a libretto by a northerner born near the Lake District. The libretto is based on a series of poems sited in Suffolk by a man who also lived in that East Anglian county, the county which, not coincidentally, was also home to the composer.
Yet Grimes would not have happened had Benjamin Britten not left for the United States. In April 1939 the 25-year-old composer sailed from England with his friend – and eventual life partner – the tenor Peter Pears. The reasons for the move are hazy. There was some notion of work in Hollywood, but really Britten was escaping not only the brewing war in Europe but also an apparently complicated personal entanglement with a young man.
A career writing film scores never eventuated, but Britten nevertheless produced some important pieces during his three years in the United States, notably the operetta Paul Bunyon, with a libretto by the poet WH Auden; the Violin Concerto in D; and The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, the first song cycle Britten wrote for Pears.
Britten never settled in America, though. While he had close friends there, notably Auden and writer Christopher Isherwood, Britten was too conservative to engage in the pair’s bohemianism and pined for home.
The final straw, it seems, came in July 1941 when Britten read the script of a radio talk given by EM Forster. Forster, the author of the (deeply English) novels A Room With a View, Howard’s End and A Passage to India, had chosen the life and poems of George Crabbe as his subject.
Crabbe was, like Britten, from Suffolk. Unlike Britten, he was a man of only average talent, however Crabbe’s work is evocative, and the composer was intrigued by The Borough, published in 1810, which takes the form of a series of long poems, or ‘letters’ – ‘Peter Grimes’ is letter XXII – each depicting a different character or aspect of life in Suffolk.
The specificity of Crabbe’s work, in particular, appealed to the homesick Britten – “To think of Crabbe is to think of England,” wrote Forster.
Britten needed no further urging, and having secured a second-hand copy of The Borough, $1000 by way of a commission from the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, and return passage to England, his attention swung to Peter Grimes.
Britten had no intention of using Crabbe’s text directly, and searched for a collaborator who could mould the libretto. He settled on Montagu Slater, a left-wing journalist and intellectual from Cumbria who’d won a scholarship to Oxford before joining the Communist Party in the mid-1920s.
Slater wasn’t Britten’s first choice as librettist, Christopher Isherwood was. Isherwood, however, wasn’t interested, writing, “Frankly, the subject doesn’t excite me so much that I want to make the time for it.”
Still, Slater and Britten knew each other well enough. Britten, though never a Communist, was generally sympathetic to the other man’s politics, and the pair had a mutual friend in Randall Swingler, editor of the socialist journal Left Review, which Slater had founded. Britten and Slater had also worked together before the war at the GPO Film Unit, making surprisingly artful documentaries extolling the virtues of the British postal system.
But their relationship was never smooth. Slater was dismayed when Britten and Pears left for the United States, and Britten was later to drop Slater altogether, the latter becoming one of the composer’s ‘corpses’, as Britten’s long trail of jettisoned acquaintances came to be known.
The cracks in the relationship were there to see in the development of Grimes. Britten worked at a much quicker pace than Slater; the libretto took 18 months, the music 13. Slater also held a full-time job, at the Ministry of Information’s film unit, which meant he wrote the libretto early in the morning and had little input when it came to revisions and edits, which were largely made by Britten, Pears and producer Eric Crozier. Slater was so irritated by the trio’s changes that he published his own, unexpurgated version of the text, which in turn irritated Britten and Pears.
It’s perhaps for these reasons that, despite Grimes’s career-making success, Slater and Britten never worked together again, much to the writer’s chagrin.
Slater died in 1956, aged just 54, and is now mostly forgotten. Britten lived a further 20 years as his country’s most fêted composer. Together, though, they produced England’s greatest opera – with due thanks to America.
These performances of Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten with libretto by Montagu Slater, derived from a poem by George Crabbe are given by permission of Hal Leonard Australia Pty Ltd, exclusive agents for Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd of London.
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Queensland Performing Arts Centre