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Paul Bunyan

Operetta in two acts and a prologue. Op. 17 (1941, revised 1974-5)

Scene from 1997 ROH production. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore.

First performance

5 May 1941 Columbia University, Brander Matthews Hall, New York

First stage performance of revised version

4 June 1976 Snape Maltings Concert Hall

Paul Bunyan
, Britten’s first operatic venture, was written as a 'choral operetta’ for student performance. Troubled by dramatic flaws and negative reviews, Britten withdrew the work after the first performances in New York in 1941 and it was only revived (with a few revisions) in 1976, since when the work has entered the repertoire. It marked the composer’s largest, and only operatic, collaboration with WH Auden whose story of the legend of the giant lumberjack of American myth is set by Britten in a score of striking freshness and ingenuity. The musical influences run from Donizetti, through Gilbert & Sullivan and Kurt Weill to the blues and country-and-western, though this characteristically eclectic mix is melded into a highly individual synthesis that could be the work of no other composer. Although the ‘Broadway musical’-type structure is far removed from Britten’s later practice, the experience and example of writing Paul Bunyan clearly prepared the way for the more fully-realised achievement of Peter Grimes.