The Operas of Benjamin Britten a Personal Memoir

By Ralls, Stephen | Opera Canada, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

The Operas of Benjamin Britten a Personal Memoir


Ralls, Stephen, Opera Canada


November 22, 2013, as all the world of music knows, is the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. No other composer of his time achieved comparable fame on the lyric stage: 17 operas, big and of which has failed to gain a place in the repertoire and several are among the most frequently performed works of the 20th century. Canadian singers appear frequently in this performance history: Jon Vickers, Ben Heppner, Gerald Finley, Adrianne Pieczonka, Russell Braun and Michael Schade have all made significant contributions, and a younger generation continues the tradition with notable success. Next Spring, I will celebrate a personal anniversary--50 years of working on Britten's operas as repetiteur, coach and conductor--a suitable point at which to stop and reflect on what this musical activity has meant to me and, perhaps, to those with whom I have collaborated. I have been involved with 21 productions of 11 Britten operas, but I want to focus (chronologically, as each first cropped up in my career) on the three that have been most significant to me.

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I've enjoyed chinking back to my first awareness of Britten's music. Sometime in the late 1950s, my elder sister bought an LP of A Ceremony of Carols, performed by the Copenhagen Boys' Choir. The sound of this music and the brilliant setting of medieval English texts enthralled me and was my first exposure to the composer. Barely out of short trousers, I travelled on London Transport's Metropolitan Line from our suburban home in Harrow on Saturday mornings to the Royal Academy of Music--often joining as a fellow passenger the future conductor Andrew Davis, who had boarded the train at Watford. Through the beneficence of the Middlesex County Council, we were "Junior Exhibitioners" and attended various classes and ensembles as well as our piano lessons. The highlight of my time at the RAM was in about I960, when we sang in a concert performance in nearby St Marylebone Parish Church of the cantata St Nicolas. Hearing Britten's music was one tiling; actually performing it as a young person was a privilege I now share with many.

On 30 May, 1962, I listened, a little bemused, to the BBC's relay of the premiere of War Requiem from Coventry Cathedral; but at the Proms a year later, I thrilled to the Spring Symphony conducted by Britten at his 50th birthday concert. I was emotionally ready for exposure to the operas, but hardly equipped, technically, to be drafted at short notice as a repetiteur (the pianist who guides singers through rehearsals, with or without the assistance of a conductor). In 1964, at the end of my first year at Oxford, a university choir to which I belonged was to visit Nevers, in the middle of France, for a summer festival. Our conductor, the brilliant young Hungarian Laszlo Heltay, was also invited to bring a cast from Oxford for the French premiere of The Turn of the Screw. I have no idea how I was chosen to play for rehearsals and I cannot imagine what my attempt to cope with the score sounded like--50 years later, it seems an almost impossible "two-handfuls." What a relief, at the end of rehearsals, to give place to the orchestra and to enjoy performances in the beautiful little Napoleonic theatre in Nevers!

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I hardly imagined that, nine years later, I would be repetiteur and orchestral pianist for the English Opera Group, Britten's own company, which was giving performances in 1973 of The Turn of the Screw, firstly at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, then on tour in Newcastle, Nottingham and Geneva (where the Director of the Grand Theatre at the time was the late Loth Mansouri). The central role of the Governess was shared by Jill Gomez and Canadian soprano Alexandra Browning, the conductors were Kenneth Montgomery and Steuart Bedford. Most crucially, Peter Pears was singing for the last time the role that perhaps most perfectly captures his vocal style, Peter Quint. …

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