On a visit to Japan in 1956, Benjamin Britten saw a Noh play called The Sumida River which made a huge impression on him. Some years later, when casting around for a means of bringing an operatic treatment into a church, he asked the poet William Plomer to transpose The Sumida River into a medieval English religious drama. The result was the first of the three Church Parables, Curlew River.

The work was an immediate success, so Britten and Plomer followed it with a second parable, based on a biblical episode, The Burning Fiery Furnace. And finally, in 1968, to complete their triptych, Britten and Plomer turned to the New Testament to retell the story of the Prodigal Son.

Economically though brilliantly scored for a small chamber ensemble, and employing the gamut of the male vocal range, the three Church Parables are highly atmospheric works in which a stark simplicity of means and a haunting power of expression combine to create an almost new form of music theatre. Yet, surprisingly, all three have never been staged in the UK on the same day - until now. An epic four-and-a-half-hour performance of Church Parables (with substantial intervals separating each opera) forms part of the Towards the Millennium Festival, a collaboration between Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and City of Birmingham Touring Opera (CBTO). Three directors - Toby Wilsher, Sean Walsh and Mark Tinkler - have been invited to bring their personal visions to each of the operas. And, though the Church Parables don't call for a conductor, the vital musical direction comes from CBTO's Principal Conductor, Simon Halsey.

This unique British premiere of the triptych starts with Curlew River (featuring Jeremy Huw-Williams as Ferryman, left), follows this with The Prodigal Son (actually written last), and climaxes with the most boisterous work, The Burning Fiery Furnace.

The results should form a ravishing musical and visual feast.

Duncan Hadfield

Britten's `Church Parables' can be seen at Birmingham's Symphony Hall (0121-212 3333) tomorrow at 4.30pm