Thursday, March 19, 2009

Britten's Operas at Seattle Opera

I'm very excited that we're preparing Seattle Opera's first-ever production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, one of Benjamin Britten's most intriguing (and, in the opinion of many, accessible) operas. Britten wrote more than a dozen operas during his extremely productive life; Seattle Opera, which was founded four years AFTER the first performances of A Midsummer Night's Dream, has produced several of Britten's best-known works.

First came Peter Grimes, presented in 1982, in a now legendary production starring the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. I was a little kid at the time, but later heard great war stories about that production from Seattle Opera's beloved Archie Drake, who played Captain Balstrode--and who was only a few years younger than Benjamin Britten, and born in the next little fishing village on the English North Sea coast, just north of Britten's hometown.

Seattle Opera produced Britten's Turn of the Screw for the first time in the 1993-94 season, starring Peter Kazaras as Peter Quint. Kazaras, who sang a wide variety of tenor roles at Seattle Opera and other leading opera houses around the world, made something of a career specialty singing Britten's music. He starred as Captain Vere in Seattle Opera's next Britten production, Billy Budd in 2001. Christopher Maltman won Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year award that season for his house debut as Billy Budd.

Seattle Opera's Young Artists Program presented Turn of the Screw in 2006, and is currently rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream. And it's not just because Peter Kazaras is the program's Artistic Director! Britten's operas are terrific choices for a Young Artists program, because he tends to write ensemble operas, which showcase a variety of talents; his music, while easier to sing than some opera (such as Wagner or Verdi) from a strictly physical point of view, is nevertheless fiendishly challenging as music, to get the notes and rhythms accurate; and even if you perform his music flawlessly, that isn't enough, because every one of his operas is a true musical drama, and singers who take on Britten must be phenomenal actors, and able to deal with the fearsome challenges of singing opera in English, as well.