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Operas

Britten stands as one of the great twentieth-century operas composers


Scene from 2007 Aldeburgh Festival production of Death in Venice. Photo: Nigel Luckhurst.

Britten's operas form perhaps the most substantial and important part of his compositional legacy. Nearly all have firmly established themselves in the repertory and, as a whole, the series has come to be recognised as one of the most significant contributions to twentieth-century British music.
 

It was the popular success of his first full-scale opera, Peter Grimes, first performed in 1945, that established the future path of Britten's career as an opera composer. Tempting though it may have been, following this triumph, to continue producing works in the 'grand' tradition, Britten chose to take up the far greater challenge of exploring other avenues, and it is notable how relatively few of his subsequent works for the stage require the full resources of the large opera house, Billy Budd and Gloriana being the major exceptions. This trend reflects not only Britten's artistic preferences for economy and clarity (matched in the post-war years by powerful commercial imperatives) but also his strong belief in music education and a desire to bring what he once described as 'the most exciting of musical forms' to a wider audience.
 

The chamber operas - including The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw - deploy small  ensembles and are designed for the facilities of modest theatres, while the three so-called 'Church Parables' of the 1960s were composed to accommodate the specific acoustics and ambience of church performance. The two works for children, The Little Sweep and Noye's Fludde are designed to introduce young audiences to the conventions of opera within a readily assimilable context. In the television opera Owen Wingrave, Britten took advantage of this very public platform to make a powerful and passionate denunciation of war. His very last opera, Death in Venice, was clearly intended as a summing-up of his own life's work and crowns an operatic output of extraordinary depth and richness.