The Curious Case of Benjamin Britten

By Christopher Rudolph

Originally published on Advocate.com April 23 2013 4:00 AM ET

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, one of the most influential classical composers of the past century. The gay composer’s works are being performed around the world to honor his centenary, and the upcoming performance of his opera Curlew River is a highlight of the year. Though his name may not be familiar to contemporary pop culture devotees, Britten’s compositions, which also include many symphonic works, are actually sought after by Hollywood and used in a variety of movies and television series, including last year’s Moonrise Kingdom.

Jacaranda, a music troupe based in Santa Monica, Calif., celebrates Britten with an April 27 performance of his renowned opera Curlew River. Patrick Scott, Jacaranda’s artistic and executive director, and Mark Alan Hilt, the music director — who are also life partners — thought it was fitting to stage Curlew River in the group’s theater space, a remodeled church, since the opera is so deeply rooted in religion. 

Curlew River was composed to be performed in a church by four male opera singers, a boy soprano, a seven-member instrumental ensemble, and a chorus of eight men,” says Scott. “Curlew River is in the top tier of Britten’s finest and most powerful operas, yet it is rarely heard and we can find no record of a previous performance in L.A.”

The original 1963 production of Curlew River had an all-male cast, and Scott and Hilt have not only followed that example, they have drawn the players from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.

“We have admired the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles for many years and know that there is a core of highly trained singers within the ranks who hunger for the challenge of interesting classical music,” Scott says of the casting. Scott and Hilt also asked Timothy Loo, their instrumental contractor, to assemble a largely gay orchestra.

Curlew River, an English retelling of a classic Japanese Noh drama, Sumida River, focuses on a madwoman arriving at the river bank and wishing to cross in search of her kidnapped 10-year-old son. She looks ragged and distraught, as though she’s homeless, Scott says, but she is actually a widow of noble birth. The famous tenor Peter Pears — who was both a frequent collaborator of Britten’s and his life partner — played the madwoman in the original production. Scott notes that Curlew River continued a long line of roles for Pears “where repressed homosexuality is a theme as well as loss of innocence and the challenges of being an outcast.” The widow will also be played by a male actor in Jacaranda’s new staging.

While famous in opera circles, Britten is still overlooked as a gay trailblazer in his native Britain and most other parts of the world. Yet his operas, including Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, and Death in Venice, which all deal with suppressed gay feelings, make Britten one of the most notable gay composers of the 20th century, Scott says: “There is no other composer in the history of music who so consistently expresses a gay sensibility and themes, especially in the operas, than Britten.”