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Owen Wingrave

Opera in two acts. Op. 85 (1970)

Scene from the 2001 film version by Margaret Williams. Photo: MJW Productions. Libretto by Myfanwy Piper after the story by Henry James

First performance

16 May 1971, BBC2 TV

Owen Wingrave
was specifically conceived and composed as an opera for television. Although Britten had expressed reservations about the viability of opera on the small-screen, it was the highly successful filming of Peter Grimes for BBCTV in 1969 that convinced him of its possibilities and he subsequently took up the challenge. First broadcast in May 1971, the work makes use of several televisual techniques such as cross-cutting, montage and flashback - however, subsequent stage productions have proved the work to be no less viable in live performance than any other of Britten’s operas. Like The Turn of the Screw, the work is based on a story by Henry James: the story of a young man who, groomed for a military career, rebels against his family for whom soldiering is a way of life provided Britten with an ideal opportunity to make a public statement of his deeply held pacifist beliefs.

Far from being mere propaganda however, Owen Wingrave is a characteristically rich and multi-layered work, the supreme irony of Owen’s predicament being that in his battle with his own family, he shows himself to be just as much of a fighter as any of his warmongering ancestors. The opera’s scoring too is highly distinctive, with the symbolic prominence given to the large and varied percussion section clearly pointing the way forward to Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice.

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