As the celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s centennial continue, Boston University’s Opera Institute is the latest to offer a rarity. The composer’s penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave, begins a 4-performance run at the BU Theater this Thursday. Based on a short story by Henry James, the opera, originally presented on BBC TV as a Vietnam War protest, tells of a young pacifist who is at odds with the military traditions of his family. His rejection of that tradition showed great courage, but led to personal disaster. BU’s production, employing two casts, is directed by Jim Petosa and conducted by William Lumpkin, with whom BMInt had an interesting conversation. Ticketing information is here.
Lee Eiseman: Let’s start with some questions about Britten and pacifism. After applying for “conscientious objector” status in1942, he decamped for Brooklyn during World War II, yet he never did explain to the satisfaction of some of his countrymen how one could be a pacifist when the Nazis were invading the English homeland. Why did he never have a Sergeant York moment when the time came to stand up and protect his family, friends and countrymen? His pacifism seems more justifiable in the context of the Vietnam War.
Jim Petosa: He was trying to assert that once you produce a notion of a just war, war becomes inevitable. So I don’t know if he ever answered the question directly about what you do when you have Hitler taking over Europe, do you exist under pacifism at that point? But I think his convictions were that a just war is an oxymoron. I don’t want to rebut him or support that position but I think that’s where he’s coming from. Owen Wingrave, though, comes from a much later period so he’s writing that in the late 60s early 70s when notions of pacifism and notions of conscientious objection becomes suddenly extremely thinkable and that World War II notion goes away because we’re in the midst of a series of questionable wars that seem to have have lingered through today. So if the Second World War for most people could have been considered the last justifiable war, in comes this opera at the advent of these other kinds of wars. At that time he was certainly not alone in his thinking that pacifism is preferable.
LE: Is Owen Wingrave a political drama; is it preaching?
William Lumpkin: No. We find it interesting that Owen, as a pacifist, is very aggressive and almost militaristic in his belief as a pacifist: that is in itself a paradox. And, in fact I don’t think there is any preachiness in the opera. It juxtaposes two vastly different points of view, even though it’s seven against one. How you feel about the fact that Owen’s life comes to an end at the end of the opera is the dramatic crux— whether that is retribution or whether that is Christ-like. Does Owen die with salvation?
JP: It’s almost too passionate to be political, yet in a lot of ways he’s written a character who really doesn’t articulate a fully formed philosophy. We watch a new thought come to him as it dawns on him that the inevitability of what he’s expected to do, preparing himself to become a soldier, begins to become nonsensical. He can’t make it work for himself, he’s not only rebelling against that societal norm but he’s also rebelling against a family tradition that makes his soldier status an inevitability, since he’s from a long line of warriors. He is intended to be the next great soldier and hopefully the father of soldiers. There is almost a monarchical line to the Wingrave family. One wonders even in 2013, if Prince William or Prince Harry for all of the simple pageantry of the British monarchy today, ever actually decided to reject their military portfolios and say, “no, we’re not doing that,” what sort of furor would result. The Wingraves, being granted that kind of status, are angry with the young Owen for threatening to alter the family’s sense of itself. Those of us of a certain age know something about that and understand that when you make that kind of a choice as a late adolescent, against the established beliefs of all those around you, you’re doing something profound.
JP: This opera resonates hugely with how we fell on the side of that question of war and peace in the late 60s and into the 70s.
BL: That Britten chose to write this opera and have it done on TV in 1971 was a conscious expression of his beliefs about the Vietnam War.
LE: So was it propaganda or some sort of screed?
JP: No I think it was deeply personal.
LE: Is there any dramatic action to speak of?
JP: In terms of a basic narrative line, the play begins at the military academy where, in questioning his teacher, Owen forms his notion that “what I’m learning is telling me that this is folly” and then, “wow you’re going to have to go home and tell your family about this” and the unspoken notion of, “the family will get you on the right track.” A quote from the libretto is literally that Paramore, the house that they live in, will “straighten him out” and get him back on an appropriate level of thinking; he goes home with the belief that because he knows he is loved, that will prevail, and people will support him because he is loved. Instead he finds systematic rejection, not only of his own point of view, but also a growing hostility toward himself as a person. So he is rejected as a nephew, a grandson, a boyfriend, and ultimately that leads to his disinheritance following an almost diplomatic dinner party that goes badly awry. Then the ghost story takes over within which he is asked to prove to his girlfriend whether or not his pacifism is actually an act of cowardice. Of course he is furious at even the suggestion of that.
LE: And that might be a little autobiographical for Britten.
JP: Quite possibly. And I like how he presents a character who views his quest for peace as harder fought than battles within war. Britten and librettist Myfanwy Piper, connect Owen with a Henry Jamesesque legend of the unresolved death of a small boy who haunts the house in which he was accidentally but brutally killed when he refused to stand up to a bully in the yard.
BL: He is the only other example in the history of the family, prior to Owen, who exhibits these pacifist beliefs. In fact he exhibits them at a very young age, he is a schoolboy and we learn about this from the point of view of a balladeer in the 2nd act who reveals that the dead boy is the ghost. So there is that connection between Owen and this supposed ghost of a boy who also, as a result of his pacifist beliefs, came to the end of his life.
LE: Does your staging reference the anti-Vietnam War argument in any direct manner?
JP: We’re setting it in the early 20th-century, pre-World War I kind of world. It’s not slavishly specific but it feels late Victorian maybe a little bit beyond that, but certainly the repressive modes of that era are still very much in force and that amplifies, I think, what Owen has to come up against.
LE: At the premiere in 1974, would the Vietnam references have been obvious?
JP: A British population then would have gotten the message loud and clear. It’s certainly not veiled but it’s like Shakespeare, it resonates to our present time, but it’s not Hair.
LE: Well, the setting is very specific for that play but I think it does have a timelessness too.
JP: Yeah, but it was very much of its era; there’s no question about what war it was talking about.
LE: Owen Wingrave is a twelve-tone composition, can you hum a few arias from it?
BL: There are all sorts of comparisons that one can make. Early in his career Britten wanted to study with Alban Berg who was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, of the Second Viennese school, and he actually got a grant, but Britten’s teachers and his family counseled him not to go. That’s a sort of Owen Wingrave situation. He really wanted to pursue this compositional style and he was basically forced not to do it…
LE: In other words his family wanted him to remain in a modern version of English pastoral tradition.
BL: With all due to respect to Vaughan Williams and those mainstream British composers, it was Britten’s British heritage. He was counseled, “We want you to continue this style of composing.” But he could take twelve-tone system and almost hide it; he could make it sound like it has a tonal center and develop themes that make a twelve-tone row suddenly sound like the twelfth pitch is a cadence in d minor, simply by the way he introduces the final pitch.
LE: Are there arias?
BL: Owen has a very extended monologue in the 2nd act. Mr. Coyle has a brief aria in the first act where he describes Owen’s intention not to become a soldier, and laments how the students come to him at a certain state of their development and how much he cherishes them.
JP: And Mrs. Julian has one singing to the image of her daughter.
LE: Are they lyrical?
BL: Quite. Mr. Coyle’s aria is definitely in the key of A major and very lyrical.
LE: Is there a lot of spoken dialogue?
JP: It’s all sung except for some Sprechstimme.
LE: Are there indications of pitch suggested for the Sprechstimme?
BL: Yes, that’s at the end of Owen’s aria.
JP: Just like he did for Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Lee: So are the moments that you wouldn’t quite call arias, and aren’t really Sprechstimme either, more like recitatives?
LE: Sung conversations.
JP: Yeah, sung scenes.
BL: Yeah, they’re through-composed.
JP: Which actually is a lot of fun to get into.
LE: Is there word painting in this piece would you say?
BL: Everything Britten does is a strong response to the text. So in fact, everything that he does is word painting. I don’t think it’s a device where he says, “Now I’m going to use word painting.” Which is why he’s such a good operatic composer.
LE: Tell us something about the production values, the orchestra looks to be about 30 pieces?
BL: Yep, 30.
LE: And the percussion occupies a third of the pit, meaning that is an important part?
BL: Britten uses a lot of tuned percussion: vibraphone, xylophone—and we have to include the piano as part of that—glockenspiel, chime, timpani—anything that has an actual pitch which almost is ghostly or tribal in effect, and can be attributed to the influence of Balinese gamelon music on Britten.
LE: Would you say it is lightly scored? Are there a lot of tuttis?
BL: It’s really ghostly. No I wouldn’t say there are a lot of tuttis. In fact I think the main tutti is at Owen’s biggest moment, when he goes into the haunted room at the end.
LE: And in terms of set design, there are nine scenes, a couple of which are replicated. Since it was made for TV, there were lots of possibilities of cross cutting and quick changes of scene. Is that possible with this staging?
JP: When you’re doing it on television it invites a kind of realism that the camera loves. And putting it on the stage it seems like what we have to come up with is a different visual vocabulary. So we have eschewed realism for the most part, since it is more of a Gothic ritual rather than a naturalistic story.
How do you take something that was made for television which is a very interesting process in it of itself and say, “hm… let’s take this story and put it on stage, what do you have to do?” There are no clear pathways to that so we’ve had a good time experimenting with the possibilities of what the opera might be
LE: Do those Georgian doorways I see onstage form part of a unit set or are there distinct scene changes?
JP: It’s a unit set with some dynamic elements, like projections, moving columns. There’s no furniture to speak of.
LE: If you had an unlimited budget would you do more elaborate scene changes?
JP: I don’t think so, I really don’t think so. I don’t think it wants it. I might do more elaborate ideas but I would not say that the decision to eschew realism has anything to do with resources. It has to do with attempting to find the platform for the story to work.
BL:And I think the score really helps us with that. Britten does a sort of split screen in the music. He’ll have a layer where the strings would be representing something, like the scene with Owen in the park. The strings are Owen in the park, a very placid thing, and then you have at the same time the conversation going on between Ms. Wingrave and Mr. Coyle so the woodwinds are playing something different. At the same time there is that layer so it is like a split screen in the orchestra. And then there is the horse cavalcade and the brass and percussion have that and these are all going on at the same time.
LE: Are you conducting polyrhythms?
BL: Rarely but there are certain bars, I call them free bars, where there’s really no meter and something will be going on in the orchestra that’s sort of repetitive, and over that the singers have something that’s conversational. It’s almost a sort of recitative-like thing that there’s not really a pulse to that bar and it quite free.
LE: So, bar by bar in these sections that aren’t metered there’s a lot of rubato shaping possible.
BL: There’s a lot of spontaneity that was written into the piece that allows for things to be slightly different between Friday and Saturday.
JP: Coming off of the singer/actors too.
BL: Exactly, there are choices and I think Britten’s allowed for them to make. The actors/singers can make choices without being so beholden to 4/4 time.
LE: Does that make it hard to follow the singers or do they follow you?
BL: We meet at the next place.