On Why Peter Grimes Is Worth Every Note


I am slightly obsessed with the score for Benji Britten’s Peter Grimes. It does a great many of the things that I wish all opera could do but stubbornly refuses to or can’t. Luckily for all of us, we have an upcoming opportunity to experience a concert performance by The Vancouver Symphony.

I must confess, I don’t actually consider myself an opera fan. It’s a genre that fills me with conflict. When it’s good, it’s the most amazing thing in the world. When it’s bad, it’s melodramatic and painful to sit through. Or worse. It’s also a possibility that my love and hate vacillations put me firmly on the opera fan spectrum. Most of them are similarly tortured by how good it can be and how difficult it is to get there.

Peter Grimes is a score that captures me so easily that I am rarely even tempted to escape its clutches. As far as opera goes, I consider it to be quite accessible. If you’re new to opera, you should be prepared to have your boundaries challenged as the music and subject matter are quite heavy. But there’s also a lot about it that makes it accessible to opera neophytes. A warning to readers: some plot spoilers follow.

The music is a very hooky.


Opera always strives for melody but it doesn’t always care about hooks. I assure you that, as confident as I am about the fact that I mostly wear pants, I am equally confident that melodies and hooks are very different. A melody is a sequence of musical notes that has some kind of internal logic to it that satisfies in some way. A hook can also be that, but it can also be a subsection of a melody or barely even a melody at all.

The chorus of Ke$ha’s, “tik tok” is a hook – but is it a melody? Barely. If it weren’t for the auto-tune you probably wouldn’t even realize she was mostly only singing one note.

Rivers Cuomo of Weezer has arguably one of the great melodic gifts in rock music – and a great gift for hooks as well. It’s very much on display in the iconic, “Buddy Holly”.

Samuel Barber wrote a behemoth hook delivery when he wrote the Adagio of his string quartet. But his music is peppered with hooks. A famous passage about two and a half minutes in to his violin concerto (Played here by Isaac Stern) is a pile driver to the nucleus of our listening apparatus.

Peter Grimes is full of hooks: the four interludes that interpolate the whole work; the a-cappella duet after the opening court scene; Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria; the recitative patter in the pub scene; the mob scene; Mrs. Sedley’s chromatic aspersions; and who could forget “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing”?

The story and characters are plausible.

Storyline.gifEarly opera is almost obliquely about gods and goddesses god-ing and goddess-ing. So much so that when Mozart burst forth with operas about the servant class snarkily making their masters look like fools it caused a bit of a scandal. However an element of the fantastical persisted with Mozart’s operas. People didn’t really behave like you would expect people to behave and situations that arose didn’t really run their course in a believable way.

This break with reality works on the opera stage because the whole medium is a bit fantastical. However, it’s a little jarring to modern listeners who have been raised on film. This modern audience can be quite critical of the believability of their fiction and when they bring that savvy to the concert hall it can make a connection to the music more challenging. I can certainly sympathize. I mean, how many times have you confused a close family member with a complete stranger because they wore a different hat? Many of Mozart’s operas rely on the audience’s ability to accept a complete lack of realism at the drop of a hat in order to move the story forward.

This just isn’t so with Peter Grimes. The story stands on it’s own as far as believability and depth (#NoSpoilers)

It takes full advantage of opera’s unique story telling powers

Instead of providing a tableau of songs for us to absorb, the opera takes advantage of the medium itself to help tell the story in ways other mediums couldn’t easily duplicate. Or if they did, they would look silly; like a goose wearing a neck tie, or a trombonist without a case of beer in their hand.

In the first act, when we’re fresh off hearing Britten’s instrumental storm interlude, we’re treated to the residents of the Burrough taking shelter from the storm in a local tavern. Every time a character comes in the door, we hear the storm music from the interlude rage until the door slams shut. If this were film, we would have a CGI hurricane bellowing through the door but as this opera – the orchestra BECOMES the storm.

Also in the tavern scene is Peter’s “Now The Great Bear” aria in-which we get a glimpse of Peter’s internal turmoil. The music is one of the most moving passages in the whole opera. It’s a very unique piece of music that features an Eflat pedal tone that hovers in the air for what feels like just long enough before dropping. When the piece is over, the other patrons of the tavern admonish him for being drunk and Auntie’s Nieces sing that his song is “sour” on the same pedal tone featured in the aria. We, the audience, hear Peter’s torture but the townsfolk are hearing a man ranting and raving like a lunatic.

Later, when the residents of the Burrough form a posse to hunt down Peter, the curtain comes down on the them calling his name in one of the loudest fortissimo’s in all of opera. When we eventually meet up again with Peter on the beach, he’s gone completely mad. The sounds of the posse can be heard off stage but the harmony is altered and the dynamic much more subdued. The posse could be far away, or it could be a reflection of Peter losing his grip with his reality.

If you’re reading this, it’s in a language you understand.

englishThis is actually a bigger deal than you think, but if the vast majority of opera is in a language other than your native tongue than it’s no wonder you wouldn’t connect with it. There’s something about the connection of meaning to sound as it leaves someone’s mouth that makes it more special to us. And if it weren’t special, why would we bother with singing at all? To their credit, performance organizations try to overcome this hurdle with the addition of a live textual translation, but it’s not the same.

The simple act of looking away from the stage to figure out what’s going on jars you back into reality – putting you back in a concert hall instead of the music on stage. They’re helping us understand what going on but they’re not always helping us connect to the voice of that person in that moment. The only way around the problem is to know the language and be there in the moment. And we really ARE talking about a moment here, in the span of time it takes you to look up and comprehend a translation, you’re gone. It’s a frustrating problem that doesn’t really have a simple solution.

The Vancouver Symphony performs a the music from Peter Grimes on Saturday, June 9th and 11th at 8pm at the Orpheum Theatre. I’ll be in the second row.