Paul Bunyan is a virtually unknown operetta by Benjamin Britten to a libretto by W. H. Auden. Exploring themes of nature vs. industrialization, it is full of musical delights, trenchant observation, and, yes, lumberjacks and a certain blue ox; it will receive its Boston premiere in a four-performance run at The Paramount Theater beginning this Saturday night. Stephen Lord, New England Conservatory’s Artistic Director of Opera Studies, has been wanting to do this piece for some time. “I believe in it deeply,” he told BMInt. “it’s funny and really touching. It emerged from the gratitude to America that Britten and Auden felt while they, as pacifists, were taking refuge here during WW II. They believed that America was the hope for the future “
Composed in 1940-1941 when the English composer and expatriate librettist were living together in a Brooklyn Heights house they shared with Southern author Carson McCullers, Paul Bunyan is very unlike Britten’s other output, as it presents the folkloric saga of the mythical American lumberjack in a setting replete with American music of popular, jazz, folk and hymn idioms. Intended for Broadway, it premiered at Columbia University in May of 1941. That it was not well received by public or press prompted Britten to revise it 35 years later.
Executive Director of NEC’s Opera Studies Program Luretta Bybee noted that “Paul Bunyan will be our first production in the restored Paramount Theater and after visiting it, we found it charming, with an intimacy that was particularly appealing, and we are discovering that the acoustic is working well. Also, the venue is very hospitable to the extensive staging designed by James Robinson. Jim is seeing to it that the story is being well told while giving our students a theatrical experience that is enhancing their training and helping them tap their own personal artistic resources. The story is clear cut and is being told that way. Interesting choices are being made with singers who are playing animals — just one of the many reasons to come and see the production.
“Paul Bunyan has an immediacy about it that is powerful and moving. The orchestration (41 NEC students will be playing) and strophic approach to many of the pieces give it an American folk flavor. The piece has a particular timeliness about it today. It asks us to reflect on what America stands for, upon what principles this country was founded, and ultimately what responsibility we have in upholding those principles. The large chorus is clearly an integral part of the piece, contributing, among other things, the beautiful theme of the birth and ‘voice’ of a nation.”
International opera star James Maddalena (NEC ’76) returns as the voice of Bunyan (who is never seen). The production is conducted by Stephen Lord and directed by James Robinson, artistic director at The Opera Theater of St. Louis. The cast (two, on alternate nights) and orchestra are composed of NEC students. A link to the program which contains a reprint of Auden’s 1941 essay for The New York Times as well as details about the performers and the performance is here.
April 14 – 17, 8:00pm at The Paramount Theater 559 Washington St. Tickets: $20, $16 for students/seniors are available here.