‘Oh, I Am Fortune’s Fool’

CHAUTAUQUA – Most of us, at some period in our lives, have felt as though we were completely at the mercy of life – as though our choices and even our hardest efforts, didn’t matter.

Shakespeare’s Romeo cries out, ”Oh, I am fortune’s fool,” as he finds himself hopelessly in love with his family’s greatest enemy and both his friends and his enemies are determined to draw him into duels and murders.

As a history major, in college, I remember researching a paper about England’s William the Conqueror. In planning his famous invasion of England, in 1066, he set out from northern France with plans for what would happen should the winds carry him to each of seven different ports on the English coast, plus a Plan B for each of his captains, should they be blown past all seven.

It should be no surprise that feeling oneself completely with no control of one’s own life has been a major theme of literature of all kinds.

Next Saturday, at 8:15 p.m., the Chautauqua Amphitheater will come to life with one of the most effective portrayals of this theme: the opera ”Peter Grimes,” by British composer Benjamin Britten. I’d like to give you some background on the opera, to help you enjoy the performance even more, and to share what I learned when I spoke with the opera’s conductor and three of its principal singers, recently.

THE OPERA

The music for ”Peter Grimes” was composed by Britten, receiving its first public performance in the spring of 1945, as his country was finally emerging from the nearly daily bombing which had rained death nearly daily, for more than three years.

It is set in a small English coastal village, in the 1830s. Montagu Slater wrote the libretto, in English, based on a poem by George Crabbe, which is called ”The Borough.” Both Crabbe and Britten lived in the small fishing village of Aldeborough, albeit a century apart. That village has much in common with the settings of both the original poem and the opera.

Although Britten’s music and especially his opera are less frequently performed in the United States, than they are in most of the rest of the world, his first successful opera, ”Peter Grimes” is considered a regular part of the traditional opera repertoire.

Interestingly, it was Britten’s discovery of a magazine article describing the Crabbe poem about Peter Grimes, in a used book store in California, where he had been living for several years, which convinced the composer to return to his native England and to turn the poem into an opera. Born in 1913, for much of his life Britten had composed music which was respected by most critics and professional musicians, but which was not popular with the general public. In 1939, Britten and his life partner, tenor Peter Pears, had moved from Britain to North America. After experiments with Toronto, New York City, and other locations, they settled in California.

Not long after the war began, only a month after their arrival, Britten and Pears went to the British consulate, in Los Angeles, and asked how they could best serve their country. The ambassador told them that maintaining England’s reputation and way of life, in the U.S., which had not yet joined the war, was more useful to England than anything which they might actually do in England.

The men continued to live in California until the chance discovery of the poem dealing with Peter Grimes convinced them to take the dangerous path of crossing the submarine-haunted Atlantic, and returning to Britain. Britten would report that he had composed nearly all of the opera’s music in the United States, while making the arrangements for his return home, and while aboard the small ship on which they sailed back to England.

In Crabbe’s poem, the title character is a villain, a cruel and constantly angry man. Britten, though, saw him as a man trapped between two natural forces which were both so powerful that he was helpless to resist them. Those forces were the sea, from which Grimes fought to make his living as the captain of a small fishing boat, and the power of negative public opinion. Because he was a gruff man who had no gift for making small talk or dealing with the eccentricities of the people around him, Grimes was hated by the villagers, who were prepared to believe any negative statement about him.

The composer would make these two powerful antagonists into literal characters in his opera. The ”Four Sea Interludes” which are integral parts of the opera in which the orchestra portrays the moodiness and the power of the sea, are often performed in concerts and on recordings, by orchestras which perform only those instrumental interludes.

Another non-sung element of the opera’s score is a passacaglia, written to be performed during the second act, between scenes one and two. Grimes is the captain of a small fishing boat, although the cold, powerful North Sea makes it nearly impossible for him to both operate the boat and to do the mechanics of fishing. Too poor to pay an assistant, Grimes has taken young boys from the county workhouse as unpaid apprentices, but the work he needs from the apprentices is too much for their young hands.

Meanwhile, gossip in the village has begun to question why Grimes goes through so many apprentices. He must work bitterly hard, in order to live, but the gossip makes it more and more difficult to get even the little bit of help he gets from his apprentices. The Passacaglia is a musical portrait of Grimes’ ultimate attempt to escape from the joint grip of the sea and the village.

In recent years, the Chautauqua Opera Company has performed only two full operas per season. One – like ”Peter Grimes” – is performed only one performance, but in the Amphitheater, and the other in the company’s traditional venue, Norton Hall. The advantages of the Amphitheater performances are many. Among these are the much bigger size of both stage and orchestra pit, which allows for performances of operas which could never be performed with the small stage and smaller orchestra pit of Norton Hall. Another advantage is that if someone has bought a gate pass to Chautauqua, he may attend a performance in the Amphitheater at no additional cost. If he chooses to buy a ticket to an opera in Norton Hall, he must leave his Amphitheater ticket unused, and pay again for the opera, which cuts into the audience for the company.

A work the size of ”Peter Grimes,” which uses a large orchestra and has a very large cast, would be nearly impossible in Norton Hall.

The remaining production of the 2013 season will be performed in Norton Hall, July 26 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. It will be ”Falstaff,” based on Shakespeare’s ”Merry Wives of Windsor,” by composer Giuseppe Verdi.

THE CONDUCTOR

The Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra will be conducted, on July 6, by Steven Osgood. Any opera aficionado will tell you, that the conductor of an opera does far more than prepare the instrumentalists and keep singers and instrumentalists at the same place and the same time.

Among those responsibilities is that the different musical portrayals of characters are accurate and balanced, so that one character doesn’t fade behind another portrayal or that a singer doesn’t need to present anger, while the orchestra plays cheerfully in the background.

”Conducting ‘Peter Grimes’ requires that the orchestra portray what are probably the two most important characters: the sea, and the ill will of the villagers,” Osgood said recently. This is his first opportunity to conduct this Britten opera, although not long ago, he conducted ”The Rape of Lucretia,” by the same composer, and he is enjoying the special challenges which it presents to him.

”I look forward to moving this production into the Amphitheater,” he said. ”I have conducted some of the evening concerts in which the company’s apprentices perform with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, and I’ve come to really appreciate performing there. The Amp is warm and welcoming to both orchestral and vocal sound, and audience members who have never heard singers fill such a huge space with no amplification will find it a thrilling experience.”

Osgood suggests that members of the audience read the opera’s libretto, or ”at least a good summary of the plot,” because there is so much activity on the stage and only one opportunity to catch what is happening. ”I just hope nobody will try to get the original poem, ‘The Borough,” he suggested. ”Crabbe made Grimes a one-dimensional villain, so reading the poem can be very slow going. Britten and the librettist have opened him up, made him human and equipped him with things we can connect with.”

I made note that the libraries at Chautauqua and in Jamestown have obtained DVD recordings of the opera which might serve someone who is planning to attend, as well.

”What is so wonderful about ‘Peter Grimes’ is that Britten has composed the entire opera in layers of sound, telling the interaction of different stories with the ears, as well as the eyes. It’s a wonderful piece of music,” he said.

THE PROTAGONIST

The man singing the title role in the coming opera will be tenor Kevin Ray. Only 28 years old, he comes to Chautauqua from Houston Grand Opera, where in the past year, he has sung roles in ”Tristan und Isolde,” ”Il Trovatore,” and ”La Boheme.”

Ray sees his character as a man who does honest work, but who believes too strongly in the power of money. ”Grimes has always been something of an outcast, and he thinks if he can just get some money together that people will respect him and want to get to know him,” the tenor said. ”He is often scared by how much people hate him, who don’t really have any real reason to do so, but he is stubborn and defiant, and he thinks he’ll just work harder and earn more, and that will overcome the problem.”

The Chautauqua experience is not a new one for Ray, who, in fact, saw his first opera ever, in Norton Hall. ”In 2005, I was a student at the New York Summer School of the Arts, which is held in Fredonia. At the end of the season, we were bused down to Chautauqua for a master class, and to attend a performance of ”The Barber of Seville.” Born in West Point, New York, the singer was a baritone, in those days, but training and exercise have lifted his voice into the tenor range, and made it possible for him to sing some of the most challenging roles in all of opera.

Asked to analyze the audience’s reaction to the opera, he said that he believes that an American audience will root for a man who tries to do the right thing and is willing to work night and day to do it, although he thinks that people who have lived in England are more conscious of a belief that there is a certain way in which things ought to be done, and no other way is acceptable, so that might take some extra effort on the audience’s part to understand the villagers.

Ray considers the role of Peter Grimes to be located perfectly for his own singing voice, and hopes to get to continue performing it. ”I’ve had the greatest success in dramatic singing roles, so I was really grateful to have the opportunity to do it at Chautauqua.”

THE LADY

In the opera, Peter Grimes has a woman who believes in him, and who puts her own reputation on the line to stand up for him, against the village’s gossips. Her name is Elizabeth Baldwin, and she is not unfamiliar to Chautauqua Opera audiences, either.

”In 2006, I was one of the Studio Artists in the company,” she said. ”I played small roles in ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ and in ‘Suor Angelica.”

Is it enjoyable to return to the company as a guest artist, instead of in the young company? The soprano laughs at the question. ”You bet it is,” she says. ”The company is just bombarded with wonderful opportunities to learn and to be trained, but when you’re a guest artist, you can decide that perhaps you’ll attend the first, but then not the second.”

The soprano has been described by the San Francisco Examiner as ”Ferociously talented.” Within the past two years, she has sung with San Francisco Opera, at Virginia Opera, at Ravinia Festival, at Boston Opera, at Carnegie Hall, under the baton of James Levine, and at the Pariosse de la Cathedrale in Monaco, to name just a few.

”I’ve always loved period pieces, and I’m a big fan of ‘Masterpiece Classics,’ on PBS,” she said. ”My character, Ellen Orford is very much like the characters on those programs – all twists and bends. She is a widow whose children have died. She ekes out a living as a teacher, but she still has hopes that she might have a husband and a family. She sees Peter Grimes’ problems, but she sees the human being behind them, and she’s willing to put herself on the line in support of him.”

She finds that Britten has composed her role across a huge range of notes, from extremely high to powerfully low, and she is enjoying the challenging of doing it all, and doing it right.

”I’m lucky that the company here is so welcoming, and the cast is just getting along beautifully. I’m having such a good time, I can’t wait to share this opera with the audience,” she said.

THE POOBAH

Bass-Baritone Philip Cokorinos notes a surprising connection between his character in ”Peter Grimes,” who is a man called Swallow, and the comic character of Pooh Bah, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ”The Mikado.”

”Both of them are the big fish in a small pond,” he said, although emphasizing that Swallow is a far grimmer representative of the man who holds every office in town and who develops enormous power over people’s lives than is the Mayor of the Village of Titipu, from Gilbert and Sullivan.

Cokorinos has performed frequently, in recent years at Chautauqua Opera, and has a career which takes him all over the world, including 30 productions at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. The Los Angeles Times describes his voice as one of ”strength and heft,” and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution raved over his ”dark-hued bass which easily filled the hall.”

The Chautauqua production of ”Peter Grimes” has challenged the singer, because he was summoned on short notice, due to another singer’s indisposition. ”Three weeks’ rehearsal is a short time,especially for an opera such as this, which is so large and musically complex,” he said.

The singer sees his character as very important to the development of the plot, because the character of Grimes makes all the wrong decisions when it comes to dealing with Swallow, who wants to do what is right, but may not be capable of accepting a challenge to his decisions.

”The wonderful thing about this opera is that the music paints a thousand pictures to enrich and enlarge what the words say. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an opera is worth a thousand pictures,” he said.

Cokorinos praises Chautauqua Opera Director Jay Lesenger for the quality of the performing company, and notes that every member of the ensemble is capable of being a soloist. ”Britten writes such rich and wonderful music for the ensemble, and every one of them is capable of leading right out with it. I think the results are going to be spectacular,” he said.

”Peter Grimes” is going to be spectacularly sung with a spectacularly performed orchestra, with attractive and very talented principal artists and a chorus which is the envy of many better-known companies. If you miss the July 6 performance, you will have missed it, because it will play the Amphitheater, only once. I hope you’ll support something which deserves so much to be supported.

Culture is in danger in our country. If you try to look up ”Peter Grimes” in a computer’s search engine, it will try to direct you to ”Peter Griffin.”