A private and public opera: Mark Wigglesworth on conducting Owen Wingrave

Opera is at its best when it is intimate. That is not surprising, given that the earliest operas were written to be performed in a small room. They were quintessentially chamber operas – the journey towards grandiosity only arising from the competitive spirit of the promoters. So when Britten was commissioned to write an opera for television in 1969, what seemed a modern concept at the time was in some sense simply a return to the origins of the art form itself.

A room is a space for thoughts not speeches, for eye contact rather than hand gestures, and the absence of a large public creates a more private experience. Owen Wingrave is not a chamber opera, but on television that is how it comes across, and in staged performances this spirit should still be present. The heightened intensity and subtler flexibility of chamber music mean that though the physical scale may be smaller, the emotional range can be wider. David Matthews’ reduction of the work’s forces does not result in a reduction of the work’s force.

John Lennon’s remark that ‘if everyone demanded peace instead of another television set, then there’d be peace,’ would have pleased Britten. But although he did not own a television, Britten understood its possibilities instinctively. It can tackle big subjects without having to proclaim them from the rooftops – a suitable combination for a passionate yet shy man.

The notion of an audience being one or two people on a sofa just a few feet away lies at the heart of the opera’s simplicity. There is no need for the performers to project to the back of the balcony. Everyone is in close-up all the time. James’ story, Piper’s text, and Britten’s music draw the audience in with a magnetism that is harder to realize in live theatre.

Certain practicalities inevitably get in the way. One of those practicalities is the orchestra. In theatrical terms, an orchestra cuts across the drama, and even with the most sunken pits there is a significant channel to be bridged. It can be a challenge for directors and conductors to marry the emotional and physical presence of the orchestra to the purely dramatic needs of the story as whole. But in a television opera the orchestra is invisible, the barrier has gone, and the singers and audience enjoy an uninterrupted connection. Although, as singers, the performers have to listen to the orchestra for musical reasons, as characters, they must be deaf to the soundtrack of their hearts and minds. The score leads the audience to think and feel, without being a crutch on which to rest an interpretation.

We are of course performing in an opera house (of sorts!) but our approach can be true to the conception and motivation behind the original composition. To pretend that the work is on a larger scale than it is, could lead to it feeling as though it’s actually a smaller piece than it is. Britten was a supreme deliverer of the ‘less is more’ theory and his ruthless economy expresses all the powers that Owen has to fight against, as well as all the inner strength he summons up to do so.

Television can bring people together while still keeping them apart. And before video recorders, and on-demand viewing options, the experience was a simultaneous and collective one. Over a quarter of a million people saw the original broadcast of Owen Wingrave. Considering a London run of Peter Grimes gets at best a total of around 15,000, the comparative outreach is staggering. Yet in any given home, it must have felt like merely a handful watching. There was no sense of what other people might be thinking, no pressure to pass comment over an interval drink, nor even any need to applaud at the end. I suspect the idea of highly individual responses multiplied many times over appealed to Britten. The medium of television offered a perfect forum for an opera that, like so many of his works, deals with how individuals relate to the pressures and expectations of their society. Television connects people, yet still allows them to be free.

Mark Wigglesworth © 2014