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Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Peter Grimes at the WNO

Peter Grimes, the 1945 darkly themed opera by Benjamin Britten with a libretto by Montagu Slater, had its Washington National Opera company premiere March 21 to April 4, 2009, at the Kennedy Center. The Steiny Road Poet saw it opening night and again on March 26. She would have enjoyed seeing it a third time. Could it be that after a full year of giving all her attention and devotion to the enthusiastic study and appreciation of Gertrude Stein's and Virgil Thomson's cutting-edge opera Four Saints in Three Acts that the Steiny Road Poet has fallen in love with another twentieth century opera that seems by contrast to oppose what the Poet loves about Four Saints?



What immediately struck the Steiny Road Poet was that Britten took a traditional approach in storytelling. To Gertrude Stein's ecstatic, experimental and nonlinear libretto that presents the artist's creative process through a procession of saints, Britten's tale—and he is the originator of the subject matter which is based on George Crabbe's 1810 poem "The Borough"—is a straight forward account of a loner fisherman who may be abusing the boys he takes as apprentices and the gossiping town that sees him as a murderer. While traveling in California in 1941, Britten encountered Crabbe's poem about a blatantly cruel Peter Grimes. In the following excerpt from Crabbe's "Letter XXII The Poor of The Borough," Grimes, who is both a fisherman and a thief, goes to London to obtain a workhouse boy because he wants "some obedient boy to stand/and bear the blow of his outrageous hand."

Such Peter sought, and when a lad was found,
The sum was dealt him, and the slave was bound.
Some few in town observed in Peter's trap
A boy, with jacket blue and woolen cap;
But none inquired how Peter used the rope,
Or what the bruise, that made the stripling stoop;
None could the ridges on his back behold,
None sought him shivering in the winter's cold;
None put the question, "Peter, dost thou give
The boy his food? — What, man! the lad must live.
Consider, Peter, let the child have bread,
He'll serve thee better if he's stroked and fed."
None reasoned thus — and some, on hearing cries,
Said calmly, "Grimes is at his exercise."

Working with his partner, the accomplished tenor Peter Pears (Pears created the role of Peter Grimes in the opera's premiere), the two men laid out the scenarios that would be handed over to librettist Montagu Slater. Britten's Peter Grimes is a man misunderstood by his neighbors. Britten's Grimes, a dreamer attached to the natural environs of his birthplace, wants to build his financial well being by fishing. By establishing himself in this way, he expects to gain the respect of his community and then afford to marry the widowed schoolteacher Ellen Orford.  



Except for operas based on fairy tales like Engelbert Humperdinck's children's opera Hansel and Gretel and Rossini's bel canto opera La Cenerentola, a Cinderella story, stories of child abuse and child abusers had not been depicted with such sobering reality and social commentary until Britten's Peter Grimes. In fact, current day audiences that are constantly bombarded in the news by real life stories of child abuse and their abusers find Britten's subject matter hard to sit through, despite the fact that Britten's fisherman is an ordinary but sensitive man more down on his luck and a victim of his own bad choices and temper rather than a willfully bad man.  

However, the opera, particularly in Britten's time coming after World War II and the atrocities exacted by Hitler and his Nazis, also deals with mob mentality. What is other is suspect in closed communities, such as the small village Peter calls home. One specter hanging over the label of other is homosexuality. After all, Peter who has never been married is not a young man. When Ellen confronts him about a bad bruise on his new apprentice's neck, he tells her not to touch him (Peter) and then the scene ends by him hitting and knocking her down. Throughout the opera, the townspeople want to know what goes on between him and his young boys when they are alone in his hut.



For as much as the Peter Grimes story of child abuse and otherness resonates with current day news and issues, what got the Steiny Road Poet's attention was Britten's musical treatment. Like Virgil Thomson in Four Saints, Britten's musical palette is mostly tonal. Both Thomson and Britten bucked the dissonant trend of classical music of their time. However, Britten does unusual things. His chorus of townspeople unifies as a single character throughout the opera. In Act I, Peter, played by Christopher Ventris in the WNO production, and Ellen, played by Patricia Racette, not only sing an a cappella duet, but each sings in a different key. Of course, this is the composer saying musically that Peter and Ellen are not in synch, not in harmony, with one another. Initially, the Dresser did not know about the separate keys for each singer, but intuitively understood something more than the absence instrumental accompaniment was operating in this duet. Maybe a similar strategy occurs in the verbally dueling duet between Captain Balstrode (played by Alan Held) and Peter when Peter insists that he will stay in The Borough, gain the townspeople's respect, and marry Ellen. In Act II in a scene with Peter's second apprentice, Ellen sings against music emanating from the town church. The church bells heard in that passage reflect Britten's exposure to gamelan music. One musical element that intrigued the Dresser was the somewhat mysterious leitmotivs that appear and repeat throughout the opera. Unlike Wagner's leitmotivs, Britten's recurring musical themes do not seem to represent one character, place, or idea.

What fed the Steiny Road Poet's interest in Britten's music was similar to what she experience in hearing William Bolcom's View from the Bridge. An accrual of mostly contemporary opera experiences congealed and brought the Poet to a new understanding of individual operas she already had heard. In other words, the Poet kept having eureka moments with Peter Grimes because this opera has influenced work that came after. For example, View from the Bridge, which premiered in 1999, has strong and unifying use of the chorus. While both Bolcom's and Britten's choruses initially take off from the Greek chorus, what Britten did in making his chorus a single personality has clearly influenced composers creating work after the premier of Peter Grimes.  


Another opera that immediately popped into the Poet's head as she took in Peter Grimes was Thomas Whitman's A Scandal in Bohemia. Chorus was also an important element of what Thomas Whitman achieved with his 2009 opera. Because the Poet heard Whitman acknowledge Britten was one of the composers influencing his creation of A Scandal in Bohemia, she decided to interview him. As it turns out, Whitman, who claims not to be an expert on Britten, teaches a graduate-level seminar at Swarthmore College on Britten and Mahler. Whitman particularly wants to promote Britten to his students because Whitman says Britten was intent on giving back to his community and that unlike many composers he was not egotistical. Although Whitman said he did not consciously set out to emulate Britten and that he came to Britten late and well after he (Whitman) had been to Bali where he, like Britten, had immersed himself in the study of the gamelan orchestra, the Britten influence is nonetheless apparent. Whitman explained that just prior to Britten writing Peter Grimes, Britten came under the influence of Canadian composer Colin McPhee who had lived in Bali and had composed some instrumental work influenced by gamelan music. While the influence of gamelan on Peter Grimes is small, later works by Britten such as Death in Venice exhibit a greater influence and benefit from Britten's travel to Bali where gamelan orchestras are prevalent.  

Here's a short catalogue of other things the Steiny Road Poet learned from Whitman about Britten and Peter Grimes:

    Modernists think Britten is too traditional and traditionalists think Britten is too modern (dissonant).

    Musically Peter does not line up with any other voice except for one short duet with Ellen. After the Poet noted the a cappella duet between Peter and Ellen, Whitman pointed out that in this piece Ellen and Peter sing in different keys. Whitman also pointed out that when the townspeople sing the sea shanty and round about old Joe who has gone fishing, Peter comes in late in the song, singing in another key that throws the chorus off and stops the townspeople from singing.

    Britten draws from Mozart and possibly was influenced by The Magic Flute. The Poet wonders about a particular Grimes leitmotiv played by the flute that sounds like Mozart's Magic Flute. Whitman also said that Britten was interested in balancing dark subjects with humorous interludes and these may have been influenced by how Mozart handles humor.

    Britten's use of motifs tends to be abstract melodic or orchestral ideas. Unlike Wagner's leitmotivs that are clearly and consistently associated with characters, places or ideas, Britten tends to use his repeating musical themes to create mood but not a fixed association.

    Britten is remarkable for his psychological acuity and one particularly strong example is how Britten creates both the natural storm that drives everyone inside Auntie's, the local madam's, pub (the storm upsets Auntie's girls and brings together some unlikely individuals creating a tempestuous situation) and the internal storm within Peter.

    Britten was the first to use gamelan sound in Western opera.


The Poet says without hesitation that she is fan of Patricia Racette. Racette always takes on the hard contemporary roles and does them masterfully as is the case with the WNO production of Peter Grimes. After all, Racette also sang Ellen Orford in the recent Metropolitan Opera production. Also, the Poet has heard Racette sing the title role of Leos Janácek's Jenufa and Roberta Alden in Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy.

The Poet enjoyed Christopher Ventris performance of Peter Grimes better in the March 26 performance. During his opening night performance, the Poet did not feel empathetic with his interpretation of Peter. However, something in his performance changed by March 26 and his delivery not only seemed surer but also the character of Peter seemed more vulnerable.

Alan Held as Captain Balstrode was well cast by director Paul Curran. Balstrode is Peter's one constant and unwavering friend unlike Ellen who has good reason to doubt Peter. The Poet who associates Held with the operas of Wagner (she has seen as the Flying Dutchman and Wotan in Die Walküre) thinks Held brings more than the average authority usually associated with a bass-baritione voice.

Although the Dresser has auditory and visceral memory of many fine musical moments in Peter Grimes, one ensemble piece she will make special note of occurred between Ellen, Auntie (sung by Ann McMahon Quintero), and the girls (sung by Micaëla Oeste and Emily Albrink). "Why from the gutter should we trouble at their ribaldries" is a piece that raised goose bumps for the Poet on both occasions of hearing these four performers sing.


While the Steiny Road Poet was aware that typical operagoers feared that they would not like Peter Grimes because Britten's music would be too modern (meaning dissonant) for their tastes, she was pleasantly surprised to see how full the orchestra section of the Kennedy Center's Opera House was on the two nights she attended. However, the audience got smaller after each intermission. Recently, she ran into a friend from Baltimore and discovered that subscribers and ticket holders to the recently failed Baltimore Opera were given the opportunity to redeem their Baltimore Opera tickets for spring 2009 WNO productions. My friend said that while she recognized how accomplished the performers were and that she appreciated the sets and costumes, she did not like the music. What does she prefer? Puccini, Verde, and Mozart.  

And, the Poet also ran into one of her DC poet friends who did not like A View from Bridge. This friend had just heard the pre-concert talk on Grimes and was quite excited about what she heard including how the scene with Ellen singing against the church music was influenced by Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The lecturer had actually played musical excerpts from Ellen's aria and Bach's choral work to demonstrate the crossover. Did this friend enjoy Grimes? A few days after the performance, the Poet contacted her and she said something similar to the Poet's Baltimore friend praising the production except not only did she dislike the music but she but also she hated the story. She preferred the lyricism and verismo of Puccini.

The Steiny Road Poet realizes that it is not enough to get operagoers to contemporary operas. Critics and appreciators of contemporary opera must continually reinforce the experience of new operatic work. The Steiny Road Poet says go for tabla rasa and start playing new operas for babies. The Poet plans to introduce her new grandson to Four Saints in Three Acts. Without explanation of story, she'll blend in the music of Peter Grimes. After all, she knows from teaching poetry workshops in Arlington, Virginia, that most first graders know a little something about opera and already at that age they will snigger about the fat lady with horns.

Photos - Karin Cooper


©2009 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


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may 2009

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