Clasical: Once in a while the odd thing happens...

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Who would ever have guessed that Britten would write a `Lumberjacks Song' long before Monty Python?

Nick Kimberley follows the trail of the composer's only American operetta

Partly, but only partly to escape imminent war in Europe, Benjamin Britten sailed to North America in 1939. Shortly after he arrived in Canada, he wrote home, "I am certain that N America is the place of the future... & though certainly one is worried by a lack of culture, there is terrific energy & vitality in the place." Typical reactions of an emotionally buttoned- up middle-class Englishman, but Britten was happy to find himself in the New World. Later, in New York, he met up again with WH Auden.

The two had worked together in London, most famously on Harry Watt's 1936 documentary Night Mail, and on the song-cycle Our Hunting Fathers. It was Auden's decision to go to the States months before that prompted Britten to follow, and it was inevitable that they should collaborate again in New York.

What is surprising is that what they produced there should be so American, if not quite all-American. The work was Paul Bunyan, labelled at different times during its composition a "High School operetta", a "choral operetta", a "Broadway opera" and an "operetta for children". It was commissioned for student voices, and premiered at Columbia University in 1941. American critics were sniffy: Virgil Thomson, jealously defending his native turf, dismissed Auden's libretto as "flaccid and spineless", and Britten's music as "easily recognisable as that considered by the British Broadcasting Corporation to be at once modernistic and safe".

Britten thought the work might do better in another production, but in the event he put it away for over 30 years. Perhaps we should be grateful: if Paul Bunyan had been a success, Britten might never have written Peter Grimes and the rest. Yet, when he did finally return to it, after excerpts had been performed at the 1974 Aldeburgh Festival, he was surprised and touched by it. He made some revisions, and in 1976 BBC Radio 3 broadcast the first complete performance since its US premiere. The cast included not only Peter Pears as Johnny Inkslinger (Auden's ironic self-portrait), but also the country singer George Hamilton IV as the balladeering narrator (now there's an unlikely pairing).

The work has been seen and recorded since, without establishing itself in the Britten canon. That may change next week when the Royal Opera presents a new production by the American director Francesca Zambello. Britten has been something of an abiding presence in Zambello's career: her Geneva staging of Billy Budd has been seen at Covent Garden (where it won an Olivier Award), in Paris and Dallas; she has also directed The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Noye's Fludde. As she suggests: "Where so many composers down-play the librettist's contribution, Britten always respected the words he set, and because he was so careful about writing for the voice, he's a dream to direct. Not that any opera is easy to direct, but Britten always draws you completely into the dramatic situation with the simplest musical means: simple in that they're so suggestive of mood and atmosphere."

Although she wasn't asked to stage Paul Bunyan just because she's American, Zambello certainly knows the legend on which the opera is based. "Like all myths, it exists in many different versions. I have two children's books that I stole from my nephew, both telling the story of Paul Bunyan, but they're completely different. What's consistent in every version is that he was a logger who worked his way across the country, clearing the forests. Now we think of that as something bad, but in the 19th century, it wasn't. Forests had to be cleared so that people could farm, and the Bunyan story is an idealisation of the agrarian world. He was immense, physically and mentally, capable of chopping down trees with a flick of his hand and of eating 5,000 pancakes for breakfast."

A figure to put Desperate Dan to shame, but an unlikely character for the opera stage. In fact, he doesn't appear in his own opera, existing only as a disembodied speaking voice. Zambello sees this as an essential part of the work: "It brings a wonderful mythic sense. Obviously we could have a huge boot, or whatever, on-stage, but any physical representation feels hokey. All these 19th-century American myths - Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan - are tied up with the notion of taming nature. Being foreigners, new immigrants, Auden and Britten had a wonderful take on the culture behind the myth. They issue a kind of warning: `Be careful of nature, of animals, of man.' As always, the myth is a tool used to tell a story. If one day Paul Bunyan was an operetta, the next a music- theatre piece, and the next they thought they were doing it on Broadway, that's in part what gives it currency today, when we more readily accept all forms of music-theatre."

That shifting of forms runs through the very structure of the piece, so that we get a bit of blues, a bit of jazz, a bit of country; but there are also traces of Donizetti, of Brecht and Weill, even of Gilbert and Sullivan. And, though we may not want to make too much of a parallel, the theme is a variant on one that dominated Britten's operatic output: man's corruption of innocence. The last scene has Paul Bunyan's voice utter the warning: "Every day America's destroyed and re-created,/ America is what you do./ America is I and you,/ America is what you choose to make it."

"That's an idea deeply embedded in American thought," says Zambello. "It must have had a big effect on these guys - coming from a society dominated by a class system which fixes you in your place."

Auden made more of America than Britten (who sailed back to the UK in 1942, the germ of Grimes already working in his brain). Yet Britten's score for Bunyan is imbued with an open-hearted eclecticism that might be proto-American. Zambello admits, "It's not without flaws, but for a first opera, it's pretty fantastic. The music speaks so clearly to a modern audience. There are the American elements, but other parts, particularly the choruses, immediately say, `Peter Grimes'. More than any other Britten opera, it's an ensemble opera. Because he was writing for young performers, he didn't see any problem with having dozens of people around at every moment. In Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, the chorus is part of the action, but it's still a chorus; in Paul Bunyan, important characters emerge from the chorus. The orchestral music he wrote for the revivals in the 1970s was among the last music Britten ever composed, so the piece is both the beginning and the end of his operatic career. I've found that quite moving."

With one exception (Thomas Randle, the American tenor who takes the role of Inkslinger), Zambello's cast is British: "It's wonderful to work with singers who know what Britten went on to do. Their experience of his work suffuses the performance. We have them singing in American accents, because Auden had American accents in his ear, and a lot of the rhymes and scansion are based on American English, albeit a British perception of American English. The lyrics are so clever that it's hard to make sure that the audience gets it all, but even in his first opera Britten knew how to give the libretto an inner life. He'd already written substantial pieces, the Sinfonia da Requiem, the Violin Concerto and so on; and you can clearly hear his voice here. There's a wonderful chorus, for example, `Once in a while the odd thing happens/ Once in a while the moon turns blue' which is just so spectacular."

Britten later suggested that those lines were "about" Peter Pears, and certainly the relationship between composer and singer deepened (and may have been consummated) while they were in the States. No wonder Britten felt moved when he heard the opera again, decades after its first performance. Auden, meanwhile, had recently fallen in love with Chester Kallman. It's not at all an opera a clef, but seeing Paul Bunyan now, we may just rediscover the youthful thrill that Auden and Britten felt as they shared their discovery of three new worlds of love, of America, and of opera.

`Paul Bunyan': 5-6 Dec, Snape Maltings; 10-17 Dec, Shaftesbury Theatre, London WC2; 19-20 Dec, Corn Exchange, King's Lynn. All bookings: 0171- 304 4000.

Glyndebourne `Opera Bite' No 14, a cassette guide to both `Paul Bunyan' and `Albert Herring', pounds 5 from 0118 978 9303

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