Opera from the Playground: Benjamin Britten's Roles for Children's Voices

By Zakresky, Kevin | Journal of Singing, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

Opera from the Playground: Benjamin Britten's Roles for Children's Voices


Zakresky, Kevin, Journal of Singing


IN A 1967 INTERVIEW WITH RUBY MERCER, Benjamin Britten said of his children's opera The Little Sweep:

I like writing for children and I like the sounds they make when they sing. So I wrote something in which children played a major part and I'm very glad that it sparked off, certainly in England, a new way of thinking about music for children.1

Britten's numerous operatic roles and choral pieces for children show a devotion to the development of the young voice that is without parallel among major composers of his time. Of particular importance is his dismantling of the notion that children's roles should always sound soft, ethereal, and pure. Instead, Britten creates child characters that sound like children often do in everyday life: belting, shouting, and hollering. Rather than calling for a sweet or subtle timbre, Britten's choral and operatic roles for children demand a full, throaty sound, or what Donald Mitchell describes as a "raw, vibrant tone."2 Britten takes the natural, unbridled sounds of the playground and turns them into opera.

Of Benjamin Britten's sixteen operas and staged vocal works, twelve include singing roles for children. His choral works also include many pieces that are written specifically for children or are written to include children's voices. Britten often wrote for children's ensembles that are known for having a hearty vocal style. The boys of the Westminster Cathedral Choir (under the direction of George Malcolm), the Vienna Boys Choir, and The Wandsworth Boys Choir (under the direction of Russell Burgess), were three such ensembles. His preference for a "raw, vibrant tone" was first recognized in the Spring Symphony of 1949. The kind of tone needed for the loud passages and unhindered bellowing in much of the boys chorus music of the Spring Symphony was characteristic of much of Britten's writing for children's voices. According to Peter Evans, "since the Spring Symphony at least, Britten had treated the boy's voice as an incisive wind instrument."3 Britten describes the fourth movement of the symphony as ending with a boys' chorus that is "sung or rather shouted by the boys."4 Example 1 shows the entry of the boys in the fourth movement. Because the full orchestra plays ff and the range of the boys choir is quite low, Britten marks their part with accents on the top notes and a fff dynamic. This particular song must also be sung against a prevailing texture of an unrelated triple meter tune performed by the full orchestra and adult chorus.

Writing after the premiere of the Spring Symphony (which took place in the Netherlands), Desmond Shawe-Taylor noted the raucous singing of the boys chorus.

Most listeners, and most composers, too, think of boys' voices in terms of a soft, ethereal, pious, floating quality of sound . . . Both Wagner and Verlaine would have had a shock if they had heard the sound of those Rotterdam kids the other night, as they came charging into the solemn Concertgebouw (they might also have shinned up the wall and through the windows) with a raw, naughty, don't-care-a-rap E[-flat] unison tune.5

Shawe-Taylor recognizes not only the loudness of the children's voices but also the quality. How many children's choir directors spend much of their time trying to refine the "don't-care-a-rap" tendencies of their singers? Is music for children's choirs not supposed to be lyric and heavenly? To many listeners, the type of raucous singing in the boys choruses of the Spring Symphony sounded more like urchins shouting in the street than cherubs singing in the clouds. In this piece, the children's chorus must use unaffected, forceful vocal production if it is to be heard through the thick orchestral texture.

Britten's treatment of the children's voice parts in his operas and choral works shows that he does not necessarily prefer trained singers to untrained ones. As Imogen Hoist, assistant and friend of Britten's for many years, writes in her biography of the composer:

[In the Spring Symphony] the boys needed no more training than they could pick up from regular singing-classes under an intelligent teacher who would encourage them to pronounce their words clearly and would allow them to sing out from their chests. …

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