Parlando: The COC Blog


Heppner on Peter Grimes

by Suzanne Vanstone

Following his deserved ovations in the COC’s Tristan und Isolde last season, celebrated tenor Ben Heppner returns to portray one of the most iconic roles in 20th-century opera – Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten’s masterful composition of a tormented fisherman shunned by an unforgiving society is a favourite of Heppner’s, and he’s performed the role worldwide in over 40 performances in seven productions. In fact, as soon as the curtain comes down in Toronto in October, he is off to do it again in Vienna.

The role is a complex one to perform, balancing Grimes’s often raging persona with a softer, wounded man who, because of the death of his young apprentice, is forced to defend himself against those who have already decided his guilt. Heppner says, “If you try to soften him too much, he can appear whiny. You have to have the confidence to be disliked. Grimes is not a likeable character in many ways. From the beginning he comes across as being self-righteous, railing, ‘No. I want to explain myself in court. Don’t leave me to be judged by the court of public opinion,’ yet the whole time he is judged by the court of public opinion.”

Ben HeppnerHeppner says it takes courage at the outset of the opera to be your own man and not care what others think – particularly in the dramatic scenes in the pub and then in the hut. “In the pub, Grimes seems to be in some other space. He loves the brewing storm, while others think he is mad or drunk. Then in the hut scene, although he is rough and tumble with the boy, you suddenly realize how tender he is. He loves this boy and really wants to care for him. Somehow they have a mutual affection that works. And so at the end of the opera, when the curtain comes down, there is often silence from the audience. People are stunned. I think they are trying to figure out why they care about this man; perhaps they were wrong about him. I think it’s genius – you don’t have to be the most beloved character on stage to have that extraordinary effect on people.”

Heppner says the score has a feeling of film music and when he describes it to friends who don’t attend opera a lot and might have qualms about contemporary music, he reassures them that the music is very accessible. “It’s very descriptive, has some beautiful melodies and the music fits the action. It’s like Wagner contemporized – not such a heavy orchestration, but the colours Britten gets in the orchestra are amazing. This is really visceral writing – it just seems to grab you right in your heart and hold onto you.”

One of Heppner’s favourite moments is in the church scene when Grimes confronts Ellen Orford, a schoolmistress who is one of the few villagers sympathetic to his plight. “She is there to protect the boy and has some sort of relationship with Grimes, the nature of which, even after 40 performances, I am still unsure. It seems to have romantic elements, but I created a backstory for myself that perhaps she taught him how to read and he is very appreciative of that. The scene is filled with enflamed passions – on both sides. She approaches him very tenderly ‘Peter, tell me one thing…’ and he snaps, ‘Take away your hand. The argument is finished. Friendship lost. Gossip is shouting everything. To hell with your ambitions. God have mercy upon you.’ It’s a swirling microcosm of his various moods.

“I think Ellen sees something in him that she doesn’t see in the other men, something that really attracts her. She sees his interest in the outside world, and there are only three characters who have any vision of that – Captain Balstrode, Ellen and Grimes. If I use my own backstory of Ellen having helped him read, she has perhaps suggested things for him to study, so he has a connection with the outside world. Balstrode is a world-travelled sea captain and Ellen has actually, if not travelled, travelled through her books. They are the only people who have an outside perspective. Everybody else is locked into their society and their little town.”

Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013.

In portraying that insular town, director Neil Armfield sets the piece in a rehearsal hall, similar perhaps to Britten’s own Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh. Armfield says, “The music paints pictures not only of the sea and the land around The Borough, but also the spaces that separate people, and in those spaces we feel fear and mistrust, anger and love, hope and despair. I saw my job in this production as allowing the world that Britten creates so vividly in the music to play freely in the audience’s imagination, and I was at pains to ensure the experience of watching and listening to Peter Grimes not be blurred by too literal a representation of this world in the actual images created on stage. In a sense all of my productions in theatre have been about trying to share with an audience the experience of play that goes on in the rehearsal room before opening – to render that experience in a not entirely finished form, so that the minds of the audience are all engaged in finishing it together.”

Ben concurs. “I think Neil’s staging improves our understanding of the opera. I’ve done Peter Grimes both ways – with boats and nets, etc., and I’ve also performed it with very little on stage. The thing that this kind of approach does for the audience is unbelievable. It gets rid of all that other stuff and focuses in on the relationships between all the characters. That’s what it’s about. It’s an amazingly well written piece of drama. There is a real self-examination that occurs when you watch this opera and that is the best kind of theatre – it makes you think, it involves you, you’re caught up in it. That’s why people need to come to this – it’s such a great experience.”

This article is published in our Peter Grimes house program. Click here to read the original article online

Photos: (top) Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper; (middle) Ben Heppner. Photo by Kristin Hoebermann; (bottom) Ben Heppner as Peter Grimes in the Canadian Opera Company production of Peter Grimes, 2013. Photo by Michael Cooper.

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Canvases Come Alive: Set and Costume Designer David Farley Discusses La Bohème

By Suzanne Vanstone

Beloved Bohème. No matter how many times one experiences this iconic work, the extraordinary pull of Puccini’s music continues to draw us in. With 15 COC mainstage productions and numerous mini-Bohèmes on tour and in recital, outdoors and in, the company is once again proud to present this cherished opera in a brand new production.

Set and costume designer David Farley visited the COC this past summer to explore the theatre space firsthand. “I had only seen the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in drawings or photos so it was great to be able to walk the room and get an idea of sightlines, the quirks of the building, and things to watch out for as we approach load-in.” He also met with various staff in the COC’s production department to discuss sets, costumes, props, wigs and make-up. He wanted to give them insight into how the production works, potentially tricky things to watch out for and, above all, to get everyone excited and invested in the project.

La Bohème is often staged in the 1850s which is when Henri Murger’s literary work Scènes de la vie de bohème was written. But after some initial conversations, director John Caird and Farley agreed that while they still wanted a period piece, they preferred the 1890s – when the actual opera was written. “It is a prettier era costume-wise with much nicer silhouettes, and there was a much more vibrant arts scene in Paris at that time.” As Farley further researched artists living and working in Paris, he wanted to find the “real-life Marcellos” and quickly came to the conclusion that famed painter Toulouse-Lautrec fit the bill. “Toulouse-Lautrec was the one who was hanging around street corners sketching every last detail of real life – he has a wonderful energy to his work and would literally paint on any surface. There are acres of sketches and studies that he did – not very detailed, but they have a wonderful movement and life to them. They reflect the feel of the music in the opera which is so lush and vibrant.”

It is a natural fit for Marcello to represent the Parisian artists who frequent the cafés and sketch life as it swirls around them. Caird and Farley also posited that perhaps Marcello had been recording the lives of his capricious group of friends in his notebook. And perhaps we, the audience, are looking back and seeing this story through his eyes. Farley says, “We go from the garret, the artist’s studio, where we see Marcello’s sketches and canvases lying around, to the café and the street world that could then literally be created through the canvases that he has painted. With a few flown-in pieces the canvases form a collage, a vista of a street.” Art imitating life… imitating art.

In terms of the costumes, Farley said it was tricky finding references to everyday people and not just the fashion prints of the very high class as recorded in portraits. He wanted to know what people truly wore. In the course of his research he stumbled across work by photographer Eugène Atget from the early 1900s. Atget, obsessed by the changes that were happening in Paris through industrialization, wanted to record everything, taking hundreds of photos of the bread sellers, the sweet makers, the urchin kids on the street corner, the shop fronts – beautiful, detailed images of people in everyday wear. Using these photographs as his guide, Farley was able to create costumes of great diversity. Members of the chorus have their own individual looks and tell their own individual stories.

La Bohème is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera, and was first mounted in October 2012 in Houston. Having the chance to remount a production is a gift for a designer. “We always knew it was coming to Toronto and to this specific theatre, so we were able to keep that in mind in terms of sightlines and size of stage, etc. But it is wonderful to be able to revisit a show. No matter how well designed a piece is, there is always something that, once you see it on stage, you wish you had done a little bit differently – but there is just not time nor finances to go back and tweak it at that stage. We have so much of this Bohème working beautifully and we know that it has a good solid base, but to finesse those last few things and make them really right – it’s great.

“The Four Seasons Centre itself is a beautiful space and it’s a real treat to go into a purpose-built, new building. To see a modern performing space that has been designed so well and with such integrity is wonderful. The attention to detail is quite impressive and I am really looking forward to our show ‘sitting’ here and spending more time in this building.

Bohème is one of those pieces that is so well loved and enjoyed; it just ticks all the boxes. Falling in love, out of love, camaraderie, foolery, slapstick – Puccini runs the gamut and crams a little bit of everything in. You really can’t go wrong!”

Photos from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Bohème, 2013: (top) Dimitri Pittas as Rodolfo and Grazia Doronzio as Mimì. Photo by Michael Cooper; (middle) David Farley;  (front, wearing green coat) Cameron McPhail as Schaunard and (front right, wearing grey suit) Tom Corbeil as Colline. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; (bottom) Photo by Chris Hutcheson.

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The Mystery of Evil: Peter Grimes

By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer, and Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager

Discover Benjamin Britten’s startling 1945 opera — Peter Grimes

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Peter Grimes

In a sea-battered village on the east coast of England, a fisherman named Peter Grimes is suspected of murdering his young apprentice. But his crime – real or not – will soon be eclipsed by something more sinister: a nameless crowd united by hatred, out to persecute the lone outsider in their midst.

Finding Home, Away From Home
In April 1939, with fascism casting a long shadow over Europe, English composer Benjamin Britten relocated to America. While working in California, he discovered the poetry of George Crabbe, an English writer from the late 1700s. Crabbe’s bracingly realistic depictions of village life in Suffolk filled Britten with nostalgia and homesickness. And the story of a cruel Aldeburgh fisherman, included in Crabbe’s 1810 collection, The Borough, gave Britten the seed of his first full-scale opera. In reading Crabbe, Britten noted, “I suddenly realised where I belonged and what I lacked.” A year later, he and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, sailed home for England.

The poet George Crabbe was born in Aldeburgh, while Britten was born only a few miles from there in Lowestoft. The geography and landscape of the coastal region underpins their best work.

Many scholars regard Peter Grimes as an allegory about social oppression. On this analysis, Grimes’s “criminality” is not inherent to his character but arises from internalizing the judgement of others, from assimilating a particular view of himself held by a hostile majority. Struggles with social censure were a part of Britten’s personal life too: he was a homosexual, which was considered a criminal offence in Britain at the time, and a committed pacifist, which he remained even at the height of the British war effort.

(l-r) Danielle MacMillan as the Second Niece, Jill Grove as Auntie and Claire de Sévigné as the First Niece in the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Peter Grimes

The "Borough"
The tightly knit, close-minded townspeople who shun Peter Grimes are played by the chorus, along with a number of supporting performers. The advance of the crowd on Grimes is one of the most menacing and chilling scenes in all opera. Aided by our impressive COC Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus, Armfield handles the scene with a simple and highly effective manipulation of the set, which focuses the terrifying experience of crowds and power, into an unforgettable moment of breathtaking theatre. In Act II, the men of the Borough go off to track down Grimes in his hut while the women, including Ellen, Auntie and the Nieces, are left behind to ponder their position in this rough, male-dominated society. They sing the quartet, “From the gutter,” included at the composer’s insistence to provide “some softening, some change, some relaxation after the intensity of the march to the hut.” Its very specific sound world was directly inspired by the famous final trio from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911). In turn, Britten’s quartet inspired Leonard Bernstein – conductor of the first American performances of Peter Grimes – to similarly use the sound of falling flutes in the song “Somewhere” from West Side Story (1957).

The Outsider
Crabbe portrayed Grimes as an abusive sadist, unmistakably at fault for the deaths of his boy apprentices. Yet Britten’s opera reinterprets the character radically, makes him more sympathetic and renders his culpability a question up for debate. While he is still flawed and violent, in Britten’s opera Grimes is also a dreamer: a lonely and poetic soul, victimized by an intolerant community. In Act I, scene i, Peter Grimes sings the arioso, “What harbour shelters peace?” which includes the opera’s most famous leitmotif (recurring musical theme): an interval between two notes (technically, a “rising 9th”) whose very sound contains a hopeful, yet haunted quality. At this moment, the interval serves to communicate Grimes’s fleeting desire to integrate into his community by marrying Ellen Orford. By the time it returns at the opera’s conclusion, it has lost any connection to real life happiness. Grimes has lost his mind and intones the interval in a vain attempt to recall earlier “happier” times.

(at right) Alan Held as Captain Balstrode and Jill Grove as Auntie in the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Peter Grimes

Entering the Borough
Director Neil Armfield sets Peter Grimes in a village hall, one that’s probably not so different from the place where Benjamin Britten would have rehearsed the opera in England during the mid-1940s. It’s a space where members of the community meet, but it’s also a venue for performance and the creative process. This is motivated partly by Armfield’s own experience of final run-throughs in theatre: owing to the absence of scenery, rehearsals rely on the story’s essential ingredients – here, it’s Britten’s music – which engage our imagination with heightened intensity.

The costumes in our production are typical of British mid-century dress, communicating the adversities of the war years and the hardships of life in a fishing village.

Jakob Janutka as John, Peter Grimes’s apprentice, and Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford in the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Peter GrimesThe Saviour
The commission contract for Peter Grimes stipulated a female lead and so Britten created the character of Ellen Orford. He felt his piece needed a somewhat “typical” opera heroine; a woman to act as Grimes’s possible saviour. Act II begins with a yearning melody played by the cellos and violas which will subsequently be sung by Ellen when the curtain rises, beginning with her words: “Glitter of waves.” Later in the scene, the same tune returns as she endeavours to engage Grimes’s boy apprentice in conversation with the words “I’ll do the work, you talk.” The melody serves a dual purpose: it gives eloquent “voice” to the apprentice, which is a silent role, but also represents Ellen’s hopes (soon to be dashed) that she can save Peter Grimes and perhaps even form a family unit with the fisherman and his apprentice.

Dr. Crabbe
Another silent role in the opera is Dr. Crabbe. No such character is mentioned in the original poem but Britten’s opera lists him among the dramatis personæ. By creating an observer called Crabbe – the name of the poet who penned the source material – Britten might be giving a nod to the cross-generational process of artistic creation in which he was participating. Armfield’s staging embraces the Dr. Crabbe role; the silent character will be seen throughout the production, a near-constant observer of the goings-on in The Borough, especially during the famous orchestral Sea Interludes.

The Sea
Peter Pears, the first tenor to sing Peter Grimes, noted that Britten “imagined the sea as being in the orchestra so it was not necessary to see [the sea] on stage.” Britten personifies its destructive force in six orchestral preludes and interludes, which set the scene and mood, convey a specific psychological tone as well as indicating Peter Grimes’s state of mind. The Act II interlude is written as a “passacaglia: a musical form in which a small fragment is repeated over and over while other material is developed around it. In this instance, the fragment consists of a six-note phrase played pizzicato (plucked rather than bowed tones), first by the cellos and basses, and then with harp, 40 times. A gradual increase in the number of instruments and volume telegraphs the quickening dramatic tension as the village mob approaches Grimes’s hut.

;Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford (centre) in the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Peter Grimes


This article is published in our Fall 2013 issue of Prelude magazine. Click here to read the article online.

Photos: (top) A scene; (middle) (l-r) Danielle MacMillan as the Second Niece, Jill Grove as Auntie and Claire de Sévigné as the First Niece; (middle) (at right) Alan Held as Captain Balstrode and Jill Grove as Auntie; (middle) Jakob Janutka as John, Peter Grimes’s apprentice, and Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford; (bottom) Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford (centre). All images from the Canadian Opera Company's 2013 production of Peter Grimes. Photos by Michael Cooper.

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001