Opera 'Albert Herring' reflects composer's life as a gay outsider

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Benjamin Britten.

Art reflects life and, quite often, art’s content reflects the life and nature of its creator. That’s certainly the case with “Albert Herring,” the comic chamber opera by English composer Benjamin Britten. 

“Herring,” composed on the heels of Britten’s more serious works “The Rape of Lucretia” and “Peter Grimes,” is no mere musical piffle. The tale of the young innocent set apart from the community in which he lives reflects Britten’s experience as a gay man living and working in mid-20th century England, according to William Florescu, artistic director of Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera and director of his company’s upcoming production of the work.

“Although it’s a comedy, it still addresses Britten’s lifelong operatic habit of examining the outsider’s place in society,” Florescu says. “For me, what sets it apart from his other work is that he really makes use of archetypes here to a large degree, whereas, in his other operas, the characters are much more iconoclastic.”

In “Albert Herring,” the protagonist is chosen to be the May King in his home village of Loxford, Suffolk, after it’s discovered that none of the girls in town are pure enough to be May Queen. Teased for his timidity, Albert pines for Nancy, who already is dating Sid. The pair spike Albert’s lemonade with rum, and he returns home from the May Day festivities alone and quite drunk. Frustrated by his lack of companionship, Albert sets out for a night of debauchery, paid for with the May King prize money. He returns home the next day a more worldly young man.

The opera’s characters, especially Albert, are emblematic of the composer’s own self-image, Florescu says. While Britten wasn’t exactly closeted – he lived and worked with his life partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears, for most of his career – the composer had a strong wish to be a part of the English mainstream.

“There are parallels because Britten, like the characters of Albert, Peter Grimes and Aschenbach in ‘Death in Venice,’ his final work, exist in some ways outside of society,” Florescu says. “However, I think more accurately, Britten, like his characters, lived within the norms of society, while suppressing aspects of himself.”

The son of a Suffolk dentist and a talented amateur musician, Britten blossomed early and proved to be a prolific composer not only of opera, but also choral, orchestral, solo vocal and even film music. He studied piano under Arthur Benjamin, collaborated with W.H. Auden and was friends with Aaron Copland. His opera “Peter Grimes” propelled him to international fame at age 32. “The Young Person’s Guide to Orchestra” remains one of his most popular works.

In 1937, Britten met Pears, who became his collaborator and life partner. The pair traveled to the United States during the early years of World War II, returning to Suffolk in 1942. Britten wrote “Albert Herring” in 1947, and the work premiered at the Aldebaugh Festival, which Britten and Pears helped establish, in 1948. New works by Britten were featured at the festival every year until his death from congestive heart failure in 1976.

Although Britten never hid his relationship with Pears – and in fact wrote many works precisely with the tenor in mind – he had trouble accepting his sexual orientation. 

“Britten experienced a lifelong struggle between his homosexuality and his interest in being solidly within societal norms,” says Florescu. “From my reading, I think that he longed to maintain, or perhaps regain, lost innocence, and the character of Albert is a good synthesis of this.”

“Albert Herring” may be a comedy, but the narrative runs as deep as that of any tragedy in the operatic canon, reaching the core of the human condition, according to Florescu. The Florentine’s production, with new sets by Noele Stollmack and costumes by the Milwaukee Rep’s Holly Payne, will feature the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Rodell Rosel in the title role.“This will be Rodell’s third time with us, having appeared in ‘The Magic Flute’ in 2009 and ‘Susannah’ in 2011,” Florescu says. “He has played important comedic parts in his previous performances, but this will put him front and center. I would also say that every role is a lead, and I think we’ve assembled an extraordinary cast.” For those in the audience who might also live outside the mainstream, the opera may share some of life’s lesson while enabling them to laugh at themselves.

On stage

The Florentine Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring” runs March 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, and 17 at Vogel Hall in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, please visit www.florentineopera.org.