Benjamin Britten 1913 – 1976
Opera in two acts
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the story by the same name (1893) by Henry James
First broadcast May 16th 1971 BBC Television, London
First performance May 10th 1973 Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London
Sung in English with German surtitles
Owen Wingrave, the last of the Wingraves
Narrator / Ballad Singer
Miss Wingrave, Owen’s aunt
Mrs Julian, a widow
Kate, her daughter
General Sir Philip Wingrave, Owen’s grandfather
About the Piece
Owen Wingrave, based on Henry James’ story, is about how an isolated, honourable individual clashes with an officially sanc …
Owen Wingrave, based on Henry James’ story, is about how an isolated, honourable individual clashes with an officially sanctioned spirit of militarism. Owen comes from a 300 year old officer dynasty. The central character reflects Britten’s own experience in war time, when he gave vent to his pacifistic views to an administrative commission.
War was raging in Vietnam when Britten began composing the opera in 1969. Protests against war were escalating all over the world. Right from the beginning the musical characterisation of the family portraits conjure up sabre rattling and clinking sporrans. Walter Sutcliffe’s treatment of this unusual chamber opera keeps close to the work’s origins in television. The stage design allows the scenes to change in almost film-like format. This production was such a success when it first opened at the Bockenheimer Depot that is now being revived for the first time, in the Opera House.
Owen confesses to Coyle, his teacher, that he intends to reject the military career expected of him. Coyle is unable to persuade Owen otherwise and unwillingly agrees to break the news to Owen’s aunt. She orders that Owen be sent to Paramore, the family home. Owen, meanwhile, reflects on his decision and his desire to follow the path of peace. Owen arrives home, resolved to face his living family and the ghosts of his ancestors. The family spend a week reminding him of his duty, his heritage. The Coyles join the family for a dinner, the purpose of which is to humiliate and undermine Owen, and make him see sense. Owen tells Coyle a ghost story, showing him the actual room it relates to. Owen is summoned by his grandfather.
The Coyles try to convince Kate, Owen’s betrothed, to show Owen some sympathy. Owen announces that he is being disinherited. All retire to bed, except Owen, who reflects on what he is losing, what he is gaining and on the peace he has found. He is visited by the ancestral ghosts but summons the courage to reject them. Kate appears. Owen asks Kate to come with him but she refuses. They argue, and Kate denounces Owen as a coward. The only way to prove her wrong is to face his deepest fear and spend the night in Paramore’s haunted room…..