A parable for our times?

'It was the first time I had seen an opera in which everyone on stage really knew what they were doing':

Opera Factory has never staged an opera by Britten before. On the face of it, Curlew River might seem an odd place to start, though I personally have very fond memories of it. In 1970, when I was at acting school in Sydney, the English Opera Group toured all three of the Church Parables to the city. I wouldn't say it was the theatrical experience of my years in Australia - Grotowski's Apocalypsis cum Figuris and Brook's version of The Dream were in a different class - but it was the first time I had seen an opera in which everyone on stage really knew what they were doing and why - and what they were doing was serving something more important than their own individual performances. Theatre was being made: it was great music, and you could not pull the theatrical part of the experience away from the musical. As a work, I found Curlew River considerably more powerful than the other two Parables, a fascinating meeting of Eastern and Western medieval music and theatre traditions, in an opera that was breaking new ground. By comparison, I recall The Burning Fiery Furnace as being a rather showy piece and The Prodigal Son as sanctimonious, though of course, 25 years later, I might feel differently.

My other operatic memories of the time include a wonderful performance of Boris Godunov by Neil Warren Smith, not one of the all-time great basses, but someone who, by being able to sing and act at the same time, suggested that opera might be an art form as well as a subsidised form of addiction.

Don Smith, a Queensland cane-cutter turned tenor, presented one of the paradoxes of opera, one of the Dionysian paradoxes of performance in general, in that he could give an entirely ludicrous performance of Manrico in Il Trovatore, before an audience (myself included) who understood not a word of what was going on, and yet move us all deeply in "Di quella pira" in an atavistic way that still sends shivers down my spine when I think of it.

And the biggest paradox is that not only did he sing it gloriously, he also, at that moment, acted it well too. He may not have been acting a character in any conventional sense, but at that point in time he adopted a persona - a tenor who meant every sound, if you like - that was quite different to the awkward, out-of-place figure in Carry On tights which he presented for most of the rest of the evening. And, without that assumption of another role, even the sound wouldn't have convinced.

My final operatic influence was Tito Gobbi; just from records I could tell he was doing something different. Simon Callow wrote recently in the Independent of how important Gobbi's performances were for him as a boy. My experience of him wasn't even in the flesh, but when I was 15 I wanted to be Tito Gobbi.

It was Colin Graham who had directed that premiere production of Curlew River, and when I first visited London he was in the process of attempting to turn Britten's English Opera Group into English Music Theatre. He gave me generous moral support for my own attempts to start Opera Factory a few years later. Now, when I look back on the English Opera Group's work, it is the sheer originality of Britten's vision of what opera could and might be that strikes me most forcibly.

Most of today's composers, if confronted with a success like Peter Grimes, would be rushing around the world networking, making sure that they were commissioned up to the eyeballs with Peter Grimes 2 and The Son of Peter Grimes. How many would have the wish, or the ability, to found their own company to make operas of a quite different kind, for totally different social conditions, effectively turning their backs on the conventional opera houses? And this process found a further development with the idea of the Church Parables.

Nigel Osborne once told me about the time he met Stravinsky in the 1960s: "But I wasn't meeting Stravinsky, titan of 20th-century music. I was meeting an old Russian composer who had written three famous ballets before the First World War and nothing as strong since." Perhaps it is like that with most artists until they have been dead long enough for us to look at them with new eyes. When I first came to this country, Britten was still alive - just. To me, an outsider, there didn't seem much point in doing his works. They were being done quite enough, and the performance tradition was still enormously and inevitably overshadowed by Britten and Pears.

I felt much greater sympathy with Birtwistle's Punch and Judy. Was it not the Britten establishment itself that had so disapproved of the first performance of Punch in Aldeburgh? Britten had become the establishment, and it was time for something new. But Britten's establishment is itself a part of the past now. Now there are just the pieces themselves. And how very new some of them look.

So why perform Britten's Curlew River in tandem with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas? Well, Anglican churches are not quite what they were 30 years ago, so even if the theatre is dying, it seems a livelier and a more honest place than the average church. In the theatre, both pieces are a bit short to perform alone. Dido is usually given with some other baroque work these days, with the apparent intention of proving that Purcell wrote the only short baroque opera worth staging today. The worst reason for doing it is that it is Purcell's birthday.

I first staged the two pieces as a double-bill, rather differently, 17 years ago for Opera Factory Zurich. This time, I spent a year or so casting about for a new work to do with Dido. Finally I came to the conclusion that these two masterpieces, with their two great women's roles (albeit one played by a man) - the Britten with a story that you can write down in three lines, the Purcell with enough story to satisfy any two full- length operas - share a peculiar musical and dramatic rigour, an austerity even. On the evenings we get them equally alive, audiences will have two main courses, two big experiences, neither of which need concede anything to the other. All they need do is bring their appetites with them.

n Perfs: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 Sep, 7.30pm QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171- 960 4242)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate