On Valentine’s Day 2014 my partner was abroad and my friends were busy, so I decided to go out for a romantic evening with myself. I trawled the internet for a spare seat for a snazzy West End show, but all I could find was a single ticket for Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at English National Opera .
I’d never been to an opera before but I vaguely knew Peter Grimes thanks to a music teacher I had at school when I was 11. He had repeatedly played us a section in which a young boy falls off a cliff to his death. You could hear his screams as he bounced off the rocks. Morbidly fascinating for us and satisfying wish-fulfilment for the teacher. From what I’d seen of modern opera on TV, I anticipated atonal warbling, over-acting, discordant modernism and grey costumes. Maybe a couple of blokes in white suits standing in narrow shafts of light, a bowl of fruit on a wooden chair and a woman on her knees crying if I was lucky.
But still, a trip to the opera felt like it would be an adventure and a novelty, plus I could always bugger off at the interval if it was boring. So I bought the ticket. Boring it was not. And bugger off I did not. Just walking into the auditorium of the London Coliseum was worth the price of admission, like stepping into a giant Christmas bauble or on to the set of Amadeus. I felt the anticipation of watching an art form I’d never experienced before. Not a play or a musical but something in between, or beyond. And if you spend your life watching movies, as I do, there is an immediate thrill to hearing a live orchestra come to life.
When the opera began, so did my love of Britten. They don’t sell Revels at ENO but, if they did, I think I’d have sat there with the first one out of the pack melting between my thumb and forefinger, an inch from my open mouth, right up to the interval. I don’t have the technical language or knowledge to adequately describe what it is about Britten’s music that got under my skin. But it felt as though I was listening to the score of an extraordinary film. The music was sinister, atmospheric and descriptive. There was a gripping anxiety, a sense of suspense and unease.
The melodies were never obvious; they never seemed to repeat or develop in the way you might expect. I could follow patterns and hear hooks, but the compositions seemed to twist and flow in a way that constantly lead forward rather than resolving. The story was clear and gripping: a grumpy, taciturn fisherman in a Suffolk coastal village is on trial for the death of his apprentice at sea. He’s acquitted, but when he finds a new apprentice, the mistrust and suspicion of the villagers and a great storm combine to destroy him.
I felt as if I was watching a staging of a great unmade Hitchcock film scored by Bernard Herrmann. In fact, coincidentally or not, Herrmann and Britten lived and worked in almost exactly the same period. In the foyer during the interval I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen for 20 years. He’d composed the music for one of the terrible short films I’d made at film school in the early 90s. His music was brilliant; shame about my film. I asked him what he was doing there. Was he a Britten fan? “He was my godfather,” said my friend, who turned out to be the son of Sue Phipps, Britten’s longtime agent and manager. Wow, I’d worked with Britten’s godson and I didn’t even know it!
At the end of the performance, the entire cast – a whole village of people – walked to the front of the stage and sung Grimes’ name in unison, accusing and condemning him with a blast of force and fury. When I got home I found the tree at the bottom of my garden had blown down, inches away from crushing my house. There’d been a massive storm while I was in the theatre, but it felt as if the tree could have been blown down by the force of the chorus.
After that night, Britten kept popping up everywhere. I realised Moonrise Kingdom, one of my favourite Wes Anderson films, had Britten’s music all over it – particularly his community opera Noye’s Fludde and possibly the loveliest song of all time, Cuckoo, Opus 7 from Friday Afternoons. Give it a listen if you’ve never heard it before, it’s beautiful.
I discovered Britten had written a version of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the basis of one of my favourite movies, Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. We bought tickets to see a production at Glyndebourne. It was fantastic. Scary, spiky, spooky and thrilling.
Later I was in Los Angeles writing Ant-Man and saw banners all over town advertising a production of Billy Budd at the LA Opera House. I’d seen and loved the movie version with Terence Stamp, so I bought another solo ticket. I found myself in the front row sitting next to an elderly lady who was there on her own, too. We stared up in awe as the opera played out on the prow of a huge galleon which jutted out above us, then made friends in the interval. She asked me what I thought of the production. I said I thought it was fantastic, with one reservation. The singer they’d cast to play Billy Budd, who was supposed to be a dangerously attractive young man, looked exactly like David Cameron. Finding Cameron a little repulsive, that kind of took the edge off for me. “Who’s David Cameron?” she asked.
It was exciting to have an artist’s whole life’s work to explore, especially someone as prolific as Britten. That Christmas I spotted a performance of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols at the church round the corner. We went along. It was rough, raw and beautiful. Many of Britten’s works, especially those involving children, were purposely written for less experienced singers and are all the better for it.
In 2019 I took my mum to a production of Noye’s Fludde at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, performed by ENO along with school kids and singers from the local community. The children wore handmade animal masks and fiddled with their stockings while they sung. The audience was full of parents and teachers. It was like Moonrise Kingdom come to life – the whole thing was magical.
Meanwhile I had set up a Britten alert on Google so I’d be pinged about any new productions. Ping! On the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war, we went to see the War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall. Ping! Back to the ENO to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ping! To the Royal Opera House for Billy Budd again. In fact, ever since that first production of Peter Grimes, I’ve become a bit of a Britten addict.
Admittedly, some of his music is too peculiar and sophisticated for an opera dumbo like me. It helps a simpleton to have a book or a movie as a way in, or a meaty story and a spectacular production to hang the music on. But taking a chance on that single spare seat introduced me to a whole new world of art and enjoyment. The Royal Opera are about to stage Peter Grimes, directed by the great Deborah Warner. Ping! I’ll be there.