Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Britain's Britten

' Poised like a dart. At the heart of woman'
Act 1 Scene 3 The Rape of Lucretia

I am inordinately fond of Benjamin Britten operas. I know they can seem weird and often dissonant, but really they are 'music drama', not opera as we know it with arias and choruses which have a beginning a middle and an end, followed by applause.

Britten just draws us in to the drama and emotion of the moment, or in the lighter works the humour of the moment. If you have been lucky enough to visit Aldeburgh in Suffolk where he lived for almost all his life you would see the names of villages, lovely old churches and village halls which he mentions in those works such as Albert Herring, and Lets Make an Opera.

I taught my hugely talented young mezzo today, and last week took the plunge and gave her what is one of the few 'arias' in one of Britten's most formidable but fantastic works, The Rape of Lucretia. I sent her home furnished with the whole score and a DVD of the opera performed magnificently by Jean Rigby, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and many other greats of the British opera world. It was a gamble, she may have hated it, but this evening she came back positively glowing with excitement.

I was so thrilled that the combination of the high drama, the truly moving story combined with fantastic music and singing, had engaged and thrilled her more in one week than, than a year full of lessons may have done !

It is a wonderful piece, and I have often used it to really 'catch' teenagers, for whom the soppy stories sometimes seen in operas deemed 'suitable' for newbies, are irrelevant, patronising and downright silly ! They are much more riveted by a powerful, intense and compelling storyline, which had some shock and reality within it's bounds, and Lucretia is all of that and more.

Britten keeps us on the edge of our seats with the changes of pace, and the Male and Female Chorus roles making comment on the 'play within a play' scenario, the Male Chorus keeping the narrative strong and dangerous, and the Female Chorus trying desperately to intervene and stop the heinous act from happening.

I took a party of V1 formers to see the opera in London many years ago, and after the moment she has killed herself with a knife in her husband's arms, Junius, the young soldier who dared Tarquinius to seduce and eventually rape Lucretia, guiltily asks the audience 'is this it all ?'. The Male Chorus answers with ' God is All', and in this particular production the Male Chorus was wearing an almost religious black robe and a large silver crucifix. As he breathed to sing ' God is All', his chest rose and the lights caught the crucifix, thus for a brief moment the auditorium was filled with a blinding flash of light so bright the whole audience gasped. It was so dramatic, not only because of the shock factor, but because it was a complete accident of the moment. No performer, however experienced could know exactly where to stand, exactly how high to raise the chest, and exactly where the crucifix was at that moment.

The power of the theatre left those V1 formers with such a jolt of amazement and disbelief, I imagine if you were to ask them now, 37 years down the line, they would remember it as if it were yesterday.

In 1997 I produced my then group of singers in 6 performances of Lucretia, both in the South of England and at the Edinburgh Festival. Nothing quite so dramatic happened, but I know it was a memorable and rich learning curve which they still talk about with sharp and tingling memories.

Works like that live with one for all one's life, and one day young Mezzo M will make a thrilling Lucretia, and it will be hers for life too.

Benjamin Britten with Clytie his Dachshund. A picture of a happy composer - now there's a thing !


  1. I really wish we lived nearer to you or vice versa so we could have you as our singing teacher! From your posts I can see how much thought you put into suitable songs for your pupils, not just for their voices but also their personalities.
    Teresa x

  2. Thank you so much for your kind remarks. I think the song should be just right, or it simply does not work! I like to think I try to teach the person and not the voice, so sometimes the right song just falls into place. Sometimes it takes AGES however!