Britten’s “Peter Grimes” as Theater

By · Title Image Andreas Øverland (CC BY 2.0) · Date 2/15/2018

In June 2013, the Aldeburgh Festival celebrated the centenary of its founder, Benjamin Britten, by brutalizing his music. “Grimes on the Beach,” a production of the opera “Peter Grimes” that was performed over three nights on the very shoreline that first gave George Crabbe, and then Britten, a setting for their stories of Suffolk fisherfolk life, submerged the composer’s achievement in a site-specific storm of ambient sound. The orchestra was reduced to a recording, captured earlier in the week in the concert hall a few miles up the road at Snape Maltings, then squeezed through a hundred tiny speakers. The soloists were amplified, their voices disembodied, enunciating a few feet in front of each section of the audience, as their owners’ mouths opened and closed 50 yards back. The chorus maintained an increasingly heroic focus on Britten’s matrix of time signatures despite the drizzle in their eyes and the unrelenting beat and hiss of the tide. The combined effect was less a carefully proportioned seascape in the style of Paul Nash, more a Turner-esque splash.

It was a travesty—if Britten’s own standards of precision and interpretative priority were applied to the performance.

But “Grimes on the Beach” was also a triumph: a revival charged with enough iconoclastic energy to force received notions into a somersault. I emerged wide-eyed with the realization that the work’s external life—its place in the music and performance histories both of my own internal canon and, potentially, of everybody else’s too—had been transformed: into something bigger, brighter, more universal.

Photo sabin paul croce (CC BY 2.0)
Photo sabin paul croce (CC BY 2.0)

In the manner of the earliest editions of Aldeburgh, which saw one-night-only theatrical productions programmed alongside recitals and concert performances, the festival had staged a play. The orchestral music had been harried and flattened into a single layer of the wider dramatic tableau. The music still brought color and shade, momentum and eloquence, pattern, texture and metaphor to this “Peter Grimes.” But its mise en scène, choreography, and site-specificity didn’t feel defined or delineated by Britten’s compositional intention. The work hadn’t “come out of” the music—what opera does, according to one theater historian I spoke to. A brilliantly original and potent performance event had emerged instead from the text’s engagement with landscape and community, its exquisitely controlled narrative ambiguity, its latent theatrical dynamite.

To somebody like me, who knows a lot more about theater than about opera, this made spellbinding sense. The music had been liberated from a tightly wound operatic algorithm, and offered a new life as a beautiful and original performance language. Britten, who, from his teenage years onwards, was synonymous with merciless musicological rigor and compositional seriousness, almost certainly would have hated it.

How could the custodians of Britten’s legacy have let this happen? One pessimistic view, which found its way into a number of reviews, implied that Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Aldeburgh Festival’s artistic director, was simply echoing the 2000s mania for blockbuster site-specific events. Was “Grimes on the Beach” just another version of “Hamlet Live” at Kronborg Castle, Helsingør? Once somebody had suggested staging “Peter Grimes” on the very beach on which much of the opera’s action takes place, was it going to go ahead regardless of what this dramatic reinsertion of Britten into the East Suffolk landscape revealed about the work? Regardless, even, of whether it wrecked it?

Other reviewers accepted Aimard’s suggestion that this was community opera, as much as a site-specific one. Such sentiments tend to sound trite, but this time it rang true: Britten’s return to his native coastline and community, and the resulting festival charged with the gung-ho, provincial-meets-professional energy best encapsulated by the title of his work for children, “Let’s Make an Opera!,” represents a lens through which much of his work should always be viewed. This applies most of all to “Grimes,” an opera about the insidious dynamics that inevitably unite a small-town community against an imaginative individual.

The community dimension of “Grimes on the Beach” was amplified by its companion piece in the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival program. “The Borough,” named after the collection of poems by Crabbe that was Britten and his librettist Montagu Slater’s source text, was an intimate shard of immersive theater created by the Punchdrunk company. It extracted characters and storylines from Britten’s opera and placed them in settings all over Aldeburgh, from a fisherman’s hut on the beach, to a little cottage that played the part of Ellen Orford’s home, to the reedbeds on the edge of town. Audience members explored each location alone, with the help of headphone commentary and a small army of extras. The effect, experienced after “Grimes on the Beach,” was that the town of Aldeburgh (at the best of times a slightly unreal, too-perfect beach resort) became a huge stage set. It was difficult to tell the difference between performers and innocent tourists: Is that woman in a vintage dress looking at me like that because she’s in character, or is she looking at me because I’m looking at her like I’m in character?

But when I saw “The Borough” the morning after “Grimes on the Beach,” it wasn’t community theater I thought of so much as just theater. By picking up characters and themes from Britten’s opera, and dropping them into a reasonably cutting-edge work of contemporary performance, which relegated Britten’s composition to the status of incidental music, detaching it from its original narrative context, “The Borough” encouraged me to double down on suspicions that had already begun to crystallize. Perhaps the perversely original take on “Grimes” that I’d experienced the night before, in which Britten’s music represented a feature of the drama rather than its origin, was in fact a justifiable response to the performance text. Maybe the director Tim Albery and the team behind “Grimes on the Beach” had come to realize, whether consciously or subconsciously, that Britten’s achievement in his most famous opera is perhaps primarily theatrical rather than musical. I left Suffolk increasingly confident that the impact of this performance event, probably the most significant of my life, was not so much the product of site-specific spectacle and community choreography as it was, quite simply, the work of Britten, Slater and the other artists there at the beginning, liberated from the opera house. Albery staged a play because “Peter Grimes” is actually, literally, a play. The music still matters, of course. It’s just that the drama matters more.

Photo Jimmy Baikovicius (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Photo Jimmy Baikovicius (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If “Peter Grimes” can be considered a play, it’s a lost play, as far as theater audiences are concerned. Accounts of European and American theater in the 20th century either ignore opera totally, or start to become interested from the moment when Philip Glass and Robert Wilson premiered “Einstein on the Beach” in 1976. This is mostly the fault of theater critics and scholars: for not leaving their comfort zones, and for not being more imaginative in applying the knowledge they have accrued to a greater range of artworks. Academics tend to pride themselves, in my experience, on what they know they don’t know as much as on what they do. A sizable section of theater scholars probably don’t know all that much about music theory, so why should they apply themselves to a form of performance that they see as originating in serious, difficult music?

Because critical engagement with music doesn’t have to be conventionally theoretical, that’s why! The score of an opera only ever exists as part of a multidisciplinary artwork. The moment music responds to, intersects with or catalyzes something else, whether that be movement or acting or singing or lighting, anybody who knows anything about the other form has the right to stick their oar in. A critical vocabulary for film music and incidental music, rooted in film and performance theory respectively, rather than musicology, exists within both fields. So why the lack of crossover opera criticism?

For one thing, opera has consistently refused to absorb and respond to the discoveries of 20th-century performance practice. It hasn’t sufficiently proved to people with serious thoughts about theater that it’s not just hysterical melodrama—that it’s very much worth their time. A few months after “Grimes on the Beach,” I went to see David Alden’s production of “Peter Grimes” for the English National Opera. Looking forward to what I’d heard was a thrillingly experimental take on Britten, I found myself nonplussed: Why was everybody so excited about this pick-and-mix of early-20th-century, pan-European avant-garde tropes, from Weimar Expressionism to über-marionettes, crowbarred into a production otherwise rooted in a generally realistic depiction of 1940s Suffolk? And then I realized: opera audiences and critics hadn’t seen most of this stuff on a stage before, even though it’s almost a century old.

Photo Rob Nunn (CC BY 2.0)
Photo Rob Nunn (CC BY 2.0)

It’s tempting to interpret the title “Grimes on the Beach” as a statement: that Britten’s opera combines the energies and imperatives of opera and performance with as much ingenuity as “Einstein on the Beach.” Sadly, there’s little evidence to suggest that Aldeburgh’s intention was anything other than to convert a coincidence into a neat joke. But this is the case I wish to make.

“Grimes on the Beach” changed my life. I saw it at a time when I was increasingly bored by British theater, which was failing to live up to the rich revelations of the performance theory I was steeping myself in. My knowledge of orchestral music was shallow and reactive in a way that meant I was unlikely to look beyond “hip” contemporary operas by George Benjamin and Nico Muhly when buying tickets. Through the Aldeburgh Festival’s production of “Peter Grimes” I discovered that here, actually, was a text and a form that could represent everything I hadn’t known I was looking for: a work pitched halfway between realism and expressionism, articulated through a performance language of exceptional complexity and beauty, driven by tireless community and ensemble energy, and straddling the line between English limitation—all folk culture, Anglicanism and the customs of my tribe—and the modernist avant-garde in a manner that felt like an honest expression of the dreary glories of British art.

The thing is, I went to “Grimes on the Beach” on a whim. I didn’t go because I had the sense that it was an important cultural touchstone which ought to be witnessed at least once. This wasn’t a story I’d been told, which in hindsight is surprising: I was editing books about theater and performance at the time; my mother is a music teacher; but I just wasn’t aware of the piece’s importance. It wasn’t just me. One composer of music for theater that I spoke to told me that he “didn’t regard opera as relevant to my work. And then I saw ‘Peter Grimes.’”

I think it’s essential that Britten and Slater’s opera is recognized as an unmissable gateway drug for audiences interested in all the possibilities of performance. A reframed “Grimes” also has the potential to enrich theater history itself. The post-“Einstein” narrative—that suggests it was only when opera took on the abstract, minimalist, symbolist, postmodern qualities of Wilson and Glass that it became relevant to the contemporary practice of theater—is a cul-de-sac. Accepting “Peter Grimes” as a play could open up Britten’s toolbox, its unlikely mix of Europhile ambition and English repression, for a new generation of theater-makers. Perhaps they’ll move on to Handel, Wagner, and Berg, too, and start uncovering further buried treasure. ¶

Sam Kinchin-Smith’s book about Peter Grimes, for Routledge’s Fourth Wall series, was published this week.