Composer Benjamin Britten wrote “Owen Wingrave” for an unconventional stage: television. The opera premiered in 1971 on Britain’s BBC2 and has only rarely transitioned to the live stage in the 40 years since. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Britten’s birth, Curtis Opera Theatre is presenting a new production of the little-seen piece in association with Opera Philadelphia and the Kimmel Center.
To guide Curtis’ new production, artistic director Mikael Eliasen enlisted the irreverent theater director Daniel Fish, who has offered new twists on classics by the likes of Shakespeare or Rodgers and Hammerstein, and found inspiration for new works in unlikely sources, such as the films of Nicholas Ray or the novels of Jonathan Franzen. “Owen Wingrave” will be his first opera, but Eliasen nevertheless found him the perfect candidate.
“Because the opera was conceived for television, there are a number of problems in doing it onstage that are tricky to solve,” Eliasen says. “I chose Daniel because of those difficulties, and he’s found some fantastic solutions. I think probably one would call it an edgy production, but it’s been wonderful having him here making everybody think in a very different way about what theater is.”
The production will make use of video, a technique that Fish has used in the past. It will also call on some more conventional resources, such as the voices of the Philadelphia Boys Choir.
Aside from the appeal of celebrating Britten’s centenary with one of the composer’s more obscure works, Eliasen was attracted to “Owen Wingrave” because of its topicality. Based on a short story by Henry James, the opera deals with the title character’s resistance to following in the footsteps of his military family. “Britten was a great pacifist,” Eliasen says, “and this is a piece about why we continue to kill each other. It’s extremely relevant in today’s world as we read the papers and see wars going on everywhere.”
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