Monday, September 14, 2009

ON BRITTEN, notes from a symposium

Sparkling..."to shine or glisten with little gleams of light".

Farm Cove was sparkling. It was early afternoon in the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Spring had been lifted to some zenith by the out of season warm air from the north west. It was as close to a perfect day as you could ask for, although (as when I had once proposed such a thought to my dearest of Aunts who understood clearly there was no such thing as perfection, at least in this here and now and countered after a thoughtful pause that 'it had come a little unexpectedly') it was a little unexpected, and more.

We sat under the Wisteria and drank water. It was a very good start to a very good afternoon.

The notice about A Benjamin Britten Symposium (Sunday 13 September) had come from Opera Australia - an opportunity to explore the works of Benjamin Britten with the focus on OA's new production of Peter Grimes and featuring the Conservatorium's opera students presenting excerpts from Albert Herring, their major presentation for the year.

The Music Workshop was virtually full and after a brief welcome from Imre Polle (Chair in Conducting) and likewise by Adrian Collette AM (OA Chief Executive), Associate Professor Michael Halliwell, (Vocal/Opera Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium), who seemed to be the driving force behind all this, took the chair.

The first section was a general look at Britten and chaired by Michael Halliwell with the panel made up of:

Stuart Skelton
(Peter Grimes)
Neil Armfield (Director of the new Peter Grimes)
Mark Wigglesworth (conducting the new Grimes, replacing the late Richard Hickox)
Stephen Mould (Snr lecturer at the Con and conductor of the Con's Albert Herring)
Tom Healy (directing Albert Herring)

and these notes are to the best of my memory, the content not mine, and hopefully not too distorted or lost in translation.

1. Britten as the premier post war (opera) composer?

Menotti could arguably be considered the only serious rival. MH noted that in a 3 year period there had been 72 performances of Britten operas in the world.

NA expanded on the extent of Britten's work pointing out he has been working with Houston Grand Opera on 4 Britten operas (Turn of The Screw, Billy Budd, MSND, and now [the same as OA] Peter Grimes - for 2010). He felt the clue lay in Britten writing works of great theatricality with an incredible sense of drama and a superb creation of character through music, emphasising that with Britten, there is nothing unnecessary.

MW concurred, saying Britten had the courage to be simple and, without the interludes, Peter Grimes would in fact take about the same time as it would if it were a straight play.

MH commented that despite being considered rather old fashioned by the 70s and 80s, now Britten was virtually the sole survivor.

2. Peter Pears voice as a benchmark, considering Britten wrote with/for him?

SS said his experience was with 2 roles - Turn of the Screw, some time ago, and Peter Grimes, currently in his repertoire.

He felt people mainly looked back to Vickers, who cast a long shadow indeed. The Pears voice he said was quite idiosyncratic, rather English, very flexible and sitting high, but with a limited tonal palette. Vickers, on the other hand, was a big man, a visceral and powerful man, with a voice to match. But, it was essentially erroneous to look to or compare anyone to anyone else. Any singer must sing with his own voice, never copy, there is no 'new so-and-so', ever, there is only one of anyone. His voice is closer to Vickers than Pears.

3. Are there (NA) special challenges in directing Britten?

MH, asking the question, commented that Britten wrote genuinely psychological works comparable to Chekhov.

Britten looks after his directors very well said NA. A director's job is NOT to get in the way of the music, to let the orchestra tell the story and expose the pyschology at work. It is important not to confuse the metaphors.

4. (to MW) Are Britten's own recordings definitive?

No was the reply. The essence of greatness is in the hugeness of the options. At any time, it is the collaboration of the singers, the conductor, and the director which delivers the 'take of the day'. Listening to Britten conduct is listening to Britten then, with the resource he had then. The greater the composition the more liberated the perfomers are.

SS expanded using the Bruno Walter interpretations of Mahler as an example. Listening to Walter, who was 'there', and then listening to Solti or Bernstein, is to hear the differences but not to hear any loss.

NA noted that when you listen to Britten, the composition itself suggests he was completely adaptable to the resources he was working with, for example the children's music in MSND is instinctive to what children can and will do.

5. Is Britten's future secured?

SS exclaimed - 100%. He noted that at the ENO premier in 1945, Grimes outsold Butterfly in its first week.

NA highlighted that Britten wanted his operas sung in the vernacular of the audience.

There followed a delightful medley from Albert Herring by the Con students, fresh, young, very alive to themselves and the work. Albert Herring is playing on September 19 | 22 | 24 | 26, and tickets are available, the link is above.

The second session after afternoon tea was specific to Peter Grimes, chaired by Adrian Collette, the panel now reduced to Skelton, Wigglesworth and Armfield.

Pondering Peter Grimes
(l to r) Stuart Skelton, Mark Wigglesworth, Neil Armfield, Adrian Collette AM

1. The Music

MW talked about the interludes, particularly I and IV (the Passacaglia) noting they are all musical psychological statements.

Interlude I (Dawn on the Beach) starts with a lonely bird circling, a metaphor for anyone alone, with the waves as time, timelessness, that nothing ever changes, and then the appearance of clouds of portent. The Passacaglia, a fixed baseline with a set of free ideas on top, highlights that nothing ever changes despite superficialities.

NA talked of his (Homebush) highschool music class when the teacher played the first interlude and 35 boys were stunned into silence. His own thoughts of 'oh, it is about the sea' were slighted when one of the youngest in the class said 'it feels like you are looking over Hiroshima'. NA noted that Peter Grimes was written at the end of WW2, and in it Britten (a conscientious objector) explores the mystery of pain, anger and rage. In Crabbe's poem The Borough, Grimes was a less ambiguous character, older, a parent, but still possessed of anger. Dr. Crabbe is actually written into Britten's Grimes, a silent observer, the father of the work, watching his child, watching his child go wrong. Peter Carroll is playing Crabbe!

SS explains that right from the beginning, we, and Peter, know what is going to happen. It is as if he almost asks (of Crabbe), can we end it differently this time, just once (wanderer getting teary already).

The discussion continues on anger and fear, the great storm, erosion of safety and Peter like a prophet: "Now the great Bear and Pleiades...Who can decpiher...Who can.."

2. Preparing the role

AC asks SS about how he prepares a role. SS talks about a role that is anything but a stand and sing, a technically difficult role, from pianos to great gutteral howls. He first plays the score, all of it, he must know what everyone is thinking, and after learning the role and making his plans, he goes to rehearsal and leaves his plans at the door. He sings it like it is the last time he will do it, going to the edge, to the boundary, a boundary which will be different each night. (buy more tickets).

When asked how hard it is to start again after just having sung it to great acclaim, SS agrees you do tend to think why are we changing this, but soon the new journey begins, to tell the story the best way that this new team can.

3. The production

NA spoke about his team: Ralph Myers set design - his first opera but a long history with NA; Damien Cooper lighting - Exit the King, MSND in Houston; Tess Scofield costumes - a great feeling for texture and character.

Opera is a dream he said. He talked of evolving out of Belvoir, without the facility of wings or flies, how he looks for a single metaphor for the whole work, one open and strong and beautiful enough to let the music be, not underline it. The place of story telling can be anywhere. The imagination leaves the space. Seek transformation. There will be no plastic fish here - this was their pact. The directors job is to reveal the music to the people so we listen with our eyes and our ears. He told us some details of the set but perhaps that should stay in the room. (buy more tickets).

There was unanimous excitement about the reheasal process and the loss for the audience that it doesn't share in it.

4. Widening the discussion

MW said he conducts this work as it is written, without artifice. He worked with Hickox 14 years ago on Grimes.

SS notes Grimes an elemental character, literally and figuratively, and with NA they explore the complexity of the man, bringing in Ellen and her complicity is his downfall, the opportunities Grimes has to change course, how close he comes but never gets there, his choices. This was explored further from the floor, discussing their relationship, her involvement in the getting of a new apprentice, her failure to understand his complexity, the fear of love, the propulsion to self-destruction.

The role of the chorus was raised, both its own character and its role as a Greek chorus. And the last and inevitable question was on the issue of Grimes sexuality. Both SS and NA responded strongly that there is nothing to even hint that Grimes is anything except an outsider, an outsider for lots of reasons, but sexuality is not one of them. NA noted Grimes was initally more sexually ambiguous but Britten worked hard to pull back from that position and SS felt that the sexual inferences placed on the character are hindsight coloured by the relationship of Britten and Pears.

SS sang. (buy more tickets).

The gardens looked quite different as we retraced our steps. The sun was lower, the light still played off the bay but the glint off the water, something Sydneysiders know well, had softened. There was a greyness replacing the silver. Birds still winged above, people were clumped in pairs, groups, families, and some were alone. Young men with bare chests and darker skin kicked a soccer ball. It was not too big a stretch to see people by the sea, people with secrets, superficially at their business of leisure and pleasure, and work, yet none who weren't possessed of universal fears.


Simon said...

Some of us might like the details of set etc. that you are trying not to spoil :-) Just a taster, perhaps, to get me through the three weeks until I see it? Also, Dr. Crabbe isn't in the opera - is this Armfield's brilliant idea, to include him? The man is a genius.

wanderer said...

Simon I wasn't trying to hide anything except from anyone who wanted the surprise. The question only needed to be asked.

In the context of talking about opera as dream and story telling, Armfield drew the distinction between the place of the story (fishing village say) and the place of the story telling. As I understood him, the set will be the place of the story telling - in this case a/the hall, the church hall. How brilliant is that. I suspect that, like his Billy Budd where we were all at sea with them, he will try to make the barrier between audience and performers as insignificant as possible. He also mentioned something about walls and ceiling and helping the sound get out. (Get ready for big chorus.) I imagine the intent is that we are also occupants of that space, not outside observers.

Actually Dr Crabbe is written into the opera as a silent character (whose presence is either overlooked or underdrawn). The genius will be in what Armfield makes of him and that he implied is evolving in the rehearsal process, with Peter Carroll there for every rehearsal, watching.

Simon said...

Sounds fantastic. Isn't Armfield a genius? HGO seems to have him directing all of the Britten operas as they prepare for the centenary in 2013 (i think?) - it would make a GREAT set of DVDs, if only they were willing.

I thought Billy Budd was the most stunning psychological piece of theatre I've ever seen; I cannot wait for this one. Thanks for the tantalising preview - the whole opera set in the church hall? Amazing.

wanderer said...

I am guessing now (and soon we'll know) but I think the hall is from where the story is 'told' rather than 'set' - the music will take us to that place.

Agree about the Billy Budd and the shame of it is that it wasn't filmed to capture Langridge's Vere.