Benjamin Britten Operas

British composer Benjamin Britten wrote some fo the finest English operas to date. Learn of his life and operatic works.

Benjamin Britten's operas created a new style of English opera. Not since the operas of Handel did the English operatic audience hear such innovation and creativity in operatic scoring. Read this article to learn of the life and operatic works of Benjamin Britten.

Benjamin Britten was born in 1913 in England. (Ironically, this is St. Cecelia's day.) His father was a dentist, and he was the youngest of four children. He was educated locally in his town of Suffolk in violin, viola and piano. He entered the Royal Conservatory of Music in 1930, where he studied with John Ireland and Arthur Benjamin. Early influences on his work were Stravinsky, Mahler, Berg and the writing of W.H. Auden, a social critic of the time. In 1939, Britten wrote his first opera score, Paul Bunyan, to Auden libretto. The opera was not highly successful, following a move to America, but his next few operas were very acclaimed. He wrote Peter Grimes in 1945, The Rape of Lucretia in 1946, Albert Herring in 1947, The Turn of the Screw in 1954, and Death in Venice in 1973. Among these hits were other, penetrating operas that showed his talent.

The operas of Britten are penetrating for many reasons. One is their content. His themes range from demon possession to doomed ideals, historical re-creation to a revamping of the "village fool" concept. One of his operas, Owen Wingrave, was even created for television alone. The second reason for his success is their accessibility. His operas were performed in English making them widely popular through England and America at the time. Finally, Britten's operas were focused on many social concerns. Britten was an open homosexual, and his themes are often those of spoiled innocence and the role of the outcast.

Britten's musical style is part of the reason that his operas were so acclaimed. From his orchestral work he took a broadened sense or melodic variation and harmony, 12-note elements and a heterophonic style of music based on the Indian raga. Britten was a master of poetic text painting, or the illustration of words in a libretto through music. His general style did not conform to any established paths. His War Requiem, a famous symphonic work, consisted of three choirs of singers, and a Baroque orchestra.

Britten's operas were a turning point in English operas. Considered the next big thing since Handel, Britten's works have moved from Covent Garden to opera halls all over the world, including the Met and the Sydney Opera House. Britten, along with his lifetime companion Peter Pears, attended several performances of his work before his death in 1976. He was awarded the English Order of Merit, Queen's honors, and a Life Peer award, one of the highest honors a composer can receive.

For the beginning Britten listener, I would recommend his first and most popular opera, Peter Grimes. For further viewing of his works, I would suggest the operas The Rape of Lucretia and Death in Venice. They give a good representation of how Britten's operatic works changed through his life.

© High Speed Ventures 2011