Storming the stage: Benjamin Britten’s cinematic mind

Paul Kildea relates how the movies inspired Benjamin Britten to revitalise British opera.

Paul Kildea
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Benjamin Britten at the Old Mill, Snape, circa 1945

Benjamin Britten at the Old Mill, Snape, circa 1945

“All that the English permitted themselves to see of Europe was characterised by the Salzburg Music Festival, French Impressionism, the Lake of Geneva, and of course the museums and art galleries,” wrote Stephen Spender of late-1930s England.

Upper-class men (particularly) could add the Paris opera or the Bayreuth festival to Spender’s list, yet even so there remained something ossified in British culture between the wars, trapped as it was in the genteel 19th-century conventions that caught E.M. Forster’s eye. One outcome of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was to accentuate many of these insular traditions, in a resolute demonstration that English cultural traditions would survive the carnage.

What no one predicted in the aftermath of the First World War was that technology would do what war did not. Certainly there were bleak forecasts, the playboy conductor Thomas Beecham prophesying in 1934 that in 20 years time “there will not be a single musical institution left in this country, except possibly organisations providing music inside a cellar in London. You will depend for every kind of music on the radio and musical reproduction by mechanical devices.”

Beecham was responding to shifts in the 1920s and early 30s, years in which the BBC revolutionised the music industry and then the talkies decimated it. Unemployed cinema musicians in the Depression years found themselves competing with Jewish immigrants for scraps of work, which sharpened their bigotry as well as their hostility towards the new film technology.

By chance, in the 30s, at precisely the moment cinema was recasting the English visual imagination, England finally decided to take opera seriously. Beecham had been funding opera seasons at Covent Garden since 1910, spending considerable amounts of his father’s money on glamorous guests, but there was nothing permanent about his company. Yet in 1931 Lilian Baylis founded the Vic-Wells Opera Company – though its offerings were meagre, its ambitions initially muted. More promising were the three Hitler émigrés (Fritz Busch, Carl Ebert and Rudolf Bing) brought together by Glyndebourne’s ambitious squire, Sir John Christie, to found an opera company in the small theatre he had built in his Sussex grounds. Necessarily, each of these ventures had a Continental flavour – not simply because of the personnel involved, but because opera was then such an un-English genre, transplanted to England as though an exotic tree, its roots none too firmly bedded down.

If opera was an uncommon national pastime in the 1930s, cinema was not. Hitchcock made Blackmail in 1929 (“BRITAIN’S ALL-TALKIE CHALLENGE TO THE WORLD”) and the industry was soon competing fiercely with the American musical films, comedies and gangster flicks flooding the market. In Vile Bodies (1930) Evelyn Waugh could satirise the fly-by-night companies of these years (“It is the most important All-Talkie super-religious film to be produced solely in this country by British artists and management and by British capital”). Yet even intellectuals sniffy about this cheap, democratic art recognised the social and cultural changes it heralded.

Britten at Crag House, circa 1949

Britten at Crag House, circa 1949

This was true not least in opera, where there were both social and aesthetic implications. Christie had founded his opera company nominally as a present for his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay, but he viewed Glyndebourne as a bulwark against the democratic values and audiences that cinema embraced: his audiences were to be drawn from the landed gentry. (After the war Christie greeted the audience at the opening night of the working-class comic opera Albert Herring with the warning, “This isn’t our kind of thing, you know.”)

Christie had spent much time in the 1920s on the Continent doing far more than Spender’s list prescribed, and had come to appreciate the happy marriage between opera and the aristocracy. It was time for such a relationship to be formed in England, he decided. Baylis thought the opposite and though she did not live to recognise it, her greatest legacy was arguably the wartime touring by Sadler’s Wells throughout Britain, audiences latching on to this form with enthusiasm and gratitude.

In their different ways, each of these new companies was a response to the new audiences cinema had created or identified. Working-class audiences had turned their back on music hall, embracing cinema and radio in its place. Christie abhorred their vulgarity, while Baylis saw their potential. The popularity of musical films in the 30s only underlined the idea that there was an audience for the sung word if only it could be cultivated.

The aesthetic influence of cinema on the emerging opera industry is more interesting than the social influence, though it was much slower to show itself. Christie was mired in traditional Continental ideas of opera staging, and would live only just long enough to see the rise in the 50s of Regietheater – director’s theatre – arguably the strongest theatrical response to the visual and imaginative possibilities of cinema. Baylis was hamstrung by lack of money and the prevailing idea that opera directors (or producers as they were known – the term borrowed from cinema) were little more than stage managers, shifting their singers around the stage as though chess pieces.

Tyrone Guthrie was an exception and has legitimate claim to his reputation as one of opera and theatre’s great revolutionaries. In 1962 he made an argument for theatre over film, but by then he had already refashioned English opera in cinematic terms.

Guthrie cut his teeth as director of Sadler’s Wells peripatetic opera company in the early war years. In 1947, for the newly founded opera company at Covent Garden – which somehow managed to embrace both the exclusivity of Glyndebourne and the opportunism of Sadler’s Wells – he directed a magnificently dark production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, just two years after its premiere.

Guthrie’s designer, Tanya Moiseiwitsch, junked the cluttered, over-coloured realism of the original production in favour of stark sets, a monochrome palette, and severe lighting and shadows. It most closely resembled the opening scenes of David Lean’s film Great Expectations of the previous year, Pip a silhouette running across the marshes, the sky a moody grey. Britten disliked Guthrie’s production (his theatrical taste was conservative), yet it was a watershed moment in English opera.

David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946)

Peter Grimes was not simply English opera; it was opera by an Englishman. The work’s success recast the genre’s narrative in England. Britten had been hugely encouraged by the way wartime audiences had responded to the Sadler’s Wells tours and, like Baylis before him, was determined that these audiences be part of post-war English operatic culture.

The big difference between Britten and Baylis was that he loved cinema: it was his only middlebrow pursuit. The Marx Brothers, Chaplin and Disney films all captured his imagination and tickled his schoolboy humour. And though he owed his sense of narrative mainly to literature (he remained a great lover of Dickens), his operas are full of crossfades and underscoring, of internal monologues and elliptical conversations, all taken from film.

When Elizabeth I dies at the end of Gloriana (1953), she hears in a series of flashbacks the spoken voices of those she has loved and destroyed. Billy Budd (1951) is even more cinematic, the action framed by a prologue and epilogue in which the captain of the Indomitable in old age recalls the tragic events of 1797, which are played out in the opera proper. It was perhaps inevitable that in the 1960s Britten would enthusiastically embrace the idea of filming Budd for television; shiny shoes and bad wigs apart, this film remains a compelling and successful marriage of art forms.

The borrowing of these cinematic ideas for the stage was one consequence of Britten’s work for the commercial industry and the GPO Film Unit in the mid 30s. This was his real operatic apprenticeship, where he speedily produced original scores for such iconic documentaries as Night Mail and the feature Love from a Stranger.

But it is more that after a relatively sheltered upbringing, as a student in London in the first years of the 30s Britten learned a visual-dramatic aesthetic almost entirely from cinema. And as the century’s most successful English opera composer, his influence on those coming behind him was considerable.

Today the distinction between opera and film directors has been blurred, from Patrice Chéreau in the 1970s to Terry Gilliam this decade. Audiences pay high prices to see broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera’s main stage productions in their local cinema (the contracts for these are cannily restrictive on which other operatic productions each cinema can screen). Yet these blurs and overlaps date back to the 30s, when two quite separate industries emerged and fought their individual identities – not yet recognising or admitting what they would owe each other.

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