Saturday, May 26, 2007

Benjamin Britten's operas -- still controversial


The May 2007 Pittsburghy Out has a story by Mike Crawmer, “Homoerotic Billy Budd staged by Pittsburgh Opera,” on p. 1. The story reports that artistic director Christopher Hahn had to deal with the controversy surrounding the opera by Benjamin Britten, dating to about 1951. At least one opera threatened never to come if the opera company ever put this masterpiece on. I saw this opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington in September 2004. The music from the opera formed the backdrop for the 2000 film by Claire Denis, Beau Travail (“Good Work”) from New Yorker Films, in a story about the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, with a story that parallels the opera. There is a writeup here.

Britten died in 1976, had a long term relationship with Peter Pears that Leonard Bernstein would sometimes discuss with some candor. Since the onset of the current debate over gays in the military erupted with President Clinton’s adoption of “don’t ask don’ tell” in 1993, there has been a growing interest in whether Britten could have foreseen this issue when he wrote the opera.

The immediate subject is mutiny in the 18th Century British Navy. Since Britain is an island, its whole history and economic growth over centuries was based on the sea and on naval power, so it had to come to terms with the social issues surrounding men confined together for long periods of time at sea. In the modern Navy, the ultimate expression of this problem would be life on a submarine. The early colonists had this problem in their voyages to the New World, although sometimes families came together, whereas at other times the men came first. (That would be a whole subject in itself for dissertations, suitable for the Jamestown VA 400th Anniversary – family life during colonization – more movies and books, starting with New Line’s “The New World” in 2005).

But if mutiny is an issue, so would be personal jealousies and potentially sexual and homoerotic tensions. Britten surely knew this. In the opera, a likeable kid Billy Budd joins the warship. His “fatal flaw” is stuttering but he gets along with everyone except Claggart. When in a conflict Claggart winds up dead, Captain Vere tries Billy, who is executed in the tragic end of the opera.

Britten’s eclectic musical style combines British pastoralism with romanticism, resulting in a palette with stunning effects, as in the choruses (“Down All Hands”) near the end of the opera. He achieves similar effects in Peter Grimes, which I saw in Dallas in 1980. In that opera, a young apprentice dies in an accident, and Peter is accused of his death by the angry townspeople, with a suggestion of abuse. The same theme comes up in the ghost story chamber opera The Turn of the Screw (1954), where ghosts of people possibly suspected of child abuse inhabit a house with young children and a governess. Of course, Death in Venice (1973), which I saw at the Met in New York in 1975, has a dying older man chasing a young man in a cholera epidemic. The orchestral suite from that opera invokes a mood similar to that of the first movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1909), the movement that announced twentieth century music as we know it!

Britten, as a young man, was an admirer of Gustav Mahler. It is said that Mahler would have written a Requiem Mass had he lived longer, but Britten’s War Requiem(1962) may resemble what Mahler had wanted to write.

I have another writeup of Britten's music here.

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