War, Peace, and Synergy in Philadelphia

“He must not have ideas. It is his duty to be a soldier and, as a soldier, to obey,” shouts Miss Wingrave, reacting to the news that her nephew Owen is leaving military school to dedicate his life to peace and not war. Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave, adapted from Henry James’ novella of the same name, premiered on BBC television in 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War. This made-for-TV-opera is as much of a reaction to the turmoil of the 70s as it is a timeless dialog on war. What is patriotism? Who are the traitors? Who is right and good, and who is evil and wrong? What happens when the enemy suddenly has a face, a name, a family?

Julian Arsenault as Owen Wingrave; Curtis Opera Theater
Julian Arsenault as Owen Wingrave; Curtis Opera Theater. Photo: David Swanson

To celebrate the centennial of Benjamin Britten’s birth, the Curtis Opera Theater in association with Opera Philadelphia presents the great pacifist-composer’s most political and personal work. The character of Owen Wingrave is Benjamin Britten, the lifelong pacifist, the grown man longing for the innocence of childhood, and the outsider. Although the action of the opera concentrates on Owen’s action, Owen Wingrave is an ensemble opera and the opera’s overall themes of pacifism, conformity and sacrifice are communicated through the effect of Owen’s actions on his society. With Britten’s masterfully seamed score, replete with serialisms, exotic atonality, lyricism, and cinematic interludes, it is ideal artistic and educational vehicle for the young professionals studying at the renowned Curtis Institute.

The collaboration between Curtis and Opera Philadelphia (then Opera Company of Philadelphia) began over twenty years ago when, under the leadership of former General and Artistic Director Robert Driver, the company started to cast singers from Curtis in small roles. This paved the way for the current association between Curtis, Opera Philadelphia, and the Kimmel Center. “I had seen Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, and I really wanted Curtis to do it, but the venue we usually use did not have a large enough pit,” said Mikael Eliasen, artistic director of the Curtis Opera Theater and the newly appointed artistic advisor to Opera Philadelphia, “David Devan had recently joined the company, and we decided to put our forces together to make this happen.” As a resident of the Kimmel Center, Opera Philadelphia gave Curtis access to a more spacious venue that could accommodate a large, modern orchestra. Curtis provided the singers, orchestra and creative team while Opera Philadelphia handled the publicity and the marketing. Both companies benefit from the relationship; Curtis can give their students the rare professional experience of performing important pieces from the 20th and 21st century with a full orchestra, and Opera Philadelphia, a company which is quickly cultivating a reputation for innovative contemporary program, adds an essential edge to its season. Owen Wingrave is the sixth product of this synergism.

Julian Arsenault as Owen Wingrave; Curtis Opera Theater
Julian Arsenault as Owen Wingrave; Curtis Opera Theater. Photo: David Swanson

Owen Wingrave isn’t Britten’s most popular opera. Originally written for television, it is difficult to stage despite adjustments made by the composer to make it more stage-friendly. The challenge did not deter Eliasen. “I’m enthralled with the work, and, despite some enormous problems in staging, I think it is Britten’s masterpiece,” says Eliasen. “I wanted to bring in a director who would solve the problems in an innovative, not typically operatic fashion, which is why I chose Daniel Fish. He is edgy with a downtown sensibility that brings out the immediacy and poignancy of the opera.” In this, Daniel Fish’s operatic debut, the action is presided over by enormous military portraits inspired by the work of the definitive American photographer Richard Avedon. This striking set is taken directly from the scene in which Owen addresses the nine portraits of his ancestors, all military men who served their country without question. In Fish’s production, they represent not only Owen’s past but the collective past of a world searching for peace through constant war.

Owen Wingrave runs from March 13 – 17, 2013 at the Perelman Theater in Philadelphia. For ticket information visit Opera Philadelphia’s website.