Victorian Opera explains why Britten’s comic masterpiece was his most deeply personal work.
The Glyndebourne Festival has a proud Britten performing tradition, having staged and reprised almost all his operas since premiering The Rape of Lucretia in 1946. But the following year, Glyndebourne’s founder John Christie turned his nose up at the comic opera Albert Herring. He was reluctant to run it and apparently gave the condescending opening-night disclaimer, “This isn’t our kind of thing, you know.”
It has since become a cherished part of the Glyndebourne repertory, but, for Britten, the initial rejection must have stung: this was just the kind of small-mindedness that he riled against in the opera, and that Victorian Opera will address in its new production opening in July.
Albert Herring is a lesser-known work in his oeuvre, despite its exploration of themes that occupied Britten throughout his composing life. Albert is a painfully shy, awkward youth who works at the greengrocer in the small East Suffolk community of Loxford. The town is up in arms about its traditional May Day ceremony: this year there is not a single local girl wholesome enough to be crowned May Queen. Since Albert is unanimously deemed spotless, he has some unplanned time in the limelight as Loxford’s first May King and, to the dismay of the buttoned-up townsfolk, uses the opportunity to kick up his heels for the first time.
Director Talya Masel says that Victorian Opera’s production depicts the parochial English village in more universal terms. “If we made it too specific to one setting then the deeper vein of the message would be lost because people will say, ‘Oh, that’s not me.’”
For Britten, Albert’s story was a deeply personal, unflinching satire of morality, a coded expression of his own struggle for acceptance as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was still criminalised in England. That he wrote the title role for his partner, tenor Peter Pears, makes it even more so. Indeed, Victorian Opera conductor Tom Woods sees Albert Herring as Britten’s “revenge piece”, in which the other characters are the prejudices of the day personified.
“He had a wicked sense of humour. The local priest, the schoolmistress, the mayor and the local petty aristocracy all get treated extremely harshly by being made fun of. What’s brilliant about it is that it’s not funny for them; they take it all terribly seriously and it’s only those of us who see it from the outside who know how absurd it is.”
But it’s heartfelt as well. “The soul of the opera,” according to Woods, “is when Albert (played by Jacob Caine) comes home after May Day and really considers why he is the way he is, why he can’t escape from his mother. I think Britten took it very personally in the same way he took Peter Grimes personally.”
Although it is left ambiguous in Victorian Opera’s production, Masel doesn’t shy away from teasing out layers of queer subtext, regarding Albert as “a voicepiece for Britten.
“You can read a number of things into it, which we’ve talked about a lot in rehearsal. People in those days made out that women were the virtuous ones and that any kind of untoward behaviour of men, in particular homosexuals, was not on. But Loxford society is able to bend towards the idea of having a May King providing he was virtuous and good and clean.” Ironically, it is the villagers’ conservatism that forces them to loosen up about gender identity in a “wonderful twist that the May Queen is traditionally a girl’s role.”
The grave offences that disqualify the girls certainly wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today: one “exposes her ankles” and another was once seen opening her front door wearing only her nightie. But the director argues that “this story can be true of any time, any period, any place. There are groups within our society that have decided that this is the appropriate way to live your life, so we’re holding a magnifying glass to those people.
“Nowadays, dare I say I would encourage my children to go out and discover who they were. I wouldn’t be trusting my daughter with a virgin of 30!”
In today’s much more permissive society, how relevant is the message? “I think that society is swinging back to the right, sadly,” says Masel, “ so perhaps there’s more a need for this stuff again.”
She’s probably right. Just this week, controversy has erupted over a new opera in England, which faces cancellation because one of the characters is openly gay. Billy Elliot screenwriter Lee Hall has worked with composer Harvey Brough on a new work for Opera North. But an English primary school has threatened to pull 300 of its students from the production if the lyrics “I’m queer” and “I prefer a lad to a lass” were not excised. Like Albert Herring, the theme of the opera is tolerance and acceptance.
Earlier this year, a new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream caused uproar in London. Christopher Alden’s setting was a boys’ school: the blazer-clad students were the fairies; Oberon was portrayed as a predatory Latin teacher. None of this serves Britten’s reputation well when the composer was believed to be sexually attracted to young boys. In Albert Herring, Masel avoids labeling her subject so as not to “stamp on a view without giving the audience the space to decide for themselves”.
A performance of the Albert Herring in Australia is a rare treat for Britten fans. One wonders why its comic mastery and heartwarming themes are so underappreciated. Woods suggests it is simply because “there’s such a commercial imperative to sell tickets and people are terrified to put on something that’s slightly off the beaten track.”
In this respect, Victorian Opera has a great deal in common with the English Opera Group, the company Britten and Albert Herring librettist Eric Crozier set up in the 1940s, shortly before establishing the Aldeburgh Festival to perform their opera in a more sympathetic setting than Glyndebourne had provided. Woods believes “identical goals” exist within the two companies. “Britten was very egalitarian in the way he thought about the world. If you look at Herring, all the characters and all the musicians are more or less equal. It’s an absolute ensemble cast. It’s not like the first violins have an amazing part and the seconds don’t get much to do. He really spreads the orchestral writing around so that every instrument has an extended solo part at some point. I think that’s a really conscious decision.”
Individualism within egalitarianism, then, shines through in Britten’s ideology: Masel feels the message as strongly in the story as Woods does in the notes. “You ultimately need to be true to who you are because that’s how we’re made,” she says. “If you suppress it, it will always come back to haunt you, so you may as well discover who you are and enjoy that process.”
Does she herself take Briten’s advice? “There are the people that live inside the picket fence and imagine they have the correct moral code, and then the rest of us that travel around the outside going, ‘Shit, what’s that about?’”
“I often sit back as an artist and think, ‘I’ll never be inside the picket fence, hard as I might try! I speak too loud, my hair’s too curly.’ And that’s fine.”