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)

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