Top Three Operas About Small Town Life

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It takes a village. In most areas of the world today, small town life includes cable television, cell phones and modern forms of transportation. But if you were born in a village a hundred or more years ago, chances are you lived your entire life in the same town coping with an extremely isolated existence – seeing the same people, going through the same problems, and never having the opportunity to know what the rest of the world had to offer.

In this edition of Opera in Brief, F. Paul Driscoll editor in chief of Opera News magazine, tells us about three operatic portraits of every day life in the mid 19th century.

1. Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten

Peter Grimes is about a fisherman who is an outcast in a small fictional village on England’s east coast in the first half of the 19th century. The characters in the village run the gamut from the local schoolteacher, Ellen Orford, to a woman known as Auntie who runs the local tavern. Auntie has two nieces who "comfort men from ugliness." There is a laudanum addict named Mrs. Sedley and various other men and women in this very small town. And they’re all united in their distaste and contempt for Grimes who is being investigated in the death of his apprentice.

“The issue of isolation is something that occupied Benjamin Britten for a great deal of his compositional life,” said Driscoll. “He was a homosexual and (as a result) I don’t believe Britten felt completely accepted in society. The fact that society can oppress an individual to the point that it becomes unbearable was a subject to which he returned again and again.”

When asked about his favorite Grimes interpreters over the years, Driscoll chose Britten’s lover and muse – the British tenor Peter Pears. He also named Jon Vickers and Philip Langridge as his personal favorites. And he rounded out his list with the American tenor who played the role at the Met a couple of years ago, Anthony Dean Griffey.

“From the gutter" is a quartet for Ellen Orford, Auntie and her two nieces. The women are brought together musically and we discover that they share an important connection. The men in the village have isolated the women from the decision making process. Ellen – no matter what she feels for Peter – is not a particularly powerful advocate for him or for the boys who work for him. And Auntie – even though she has this business that people patronize – is still is not completely respected. As the women contemplate their situation, they ask “Do we smile or do we weep or wait quietly till they sleep?”

 “From the gutter”, Heather Harper, Elizabeth Bainbridge, Teresa Cahill and Anne Pashley:

2. The Bartered Bride by Bedrich Smetana

This opera is about small town life in 19th century Bohemia. “There’s still a great deal of national pride in this music and this particular composer,” Driscoll said. The opera is regularly performed in the Czech Republic. “It’s a comedy,” he went on to explain. “It’s a comedy with heart, but it certainly is a comedy.” It’s about a boy and girl who want very much to be married. And though most operas end with a wedding, in this case, the celebration is at the beginning. “And we spend the entire opera getting the young people back to the point where they can finally be together!”

“Let us rejoice, let’s be merry”, Prague Philharmonic Choir:

3. A Village Romeo and Juliet by Frederick Delius

A Village Romeo and Juliet takes place in a small Swiss town in the 19th century. “It’s an unbelievably beautiful opera,” Driscoll told us, “but it’s a very, very sad one. The lovers are doomed almost from the very beginning.”

In “Ah, the darkness has come”, the young girl’s father has gone mad, and she has returned to her home to spend the night and relive her happy memories. Her father is no longer there and the house is about to be sold. The girl’s lover joins her and they end up dreaming together. "It’s a metaphor for the fact that they are united on the inside and the outside,” he said. “You hear echoes of Debussy. You hear echoes of Wagner. I think that the way the vocal line is suspended over the slightly sour sound in the winds makes it haunting….”

“When the two lovers eventually die,” Driscoll concluded, “they die beautifully to gorgeous music like Tristan and Isolde.”

“Ah, the darkness has come”, Elizabeth Harwood and Robert Tear: