Opera in two acts (duration 1 hour 45 minutes)
Libretto Myfanwy Piper, after the story by Henry James
A quick introduction
When was it written?
April 1969 – August 1970. The first performance was on 16 May 1971 as a BBC2 Television broadcast.
What’s it about?
This opera, Britten’s first for 9 years, is a pacifist story about a young man who rejects his family’s military traditions and refuses to go into the army. But the family home – Paramore – turns out to be inescapable, and he dies suddenly in a locked room, believed to be haunted.
What does it sound like?
The orchestral writing has an urgent, sometimes sinister quality. But the opera has some very lyrical passages, including a ballad at the start of Act 2 which relates the brutal tale of Wingrave ancestors, and some skilful vocal writing for the three female characters in the opera.
Watch & listen
Did you know?
1. Britten’s only opera written directly for television.
2. It was filmed, at Britten’s insistence, at The Maltings rather than in a BBC Studio.
3. It is Britten’s second adaptation of a Henry James story. Both Owen Wingrave and the earlier The Turn of the Screw have a supernatural theme.
4. The opera was commissioned by the head of BBC2 at the time: Sir David Attenborough.
5. At the HighTide Festival in 2016 the Britten-Pears Foundation put on a production of ‘Paramore’ (named after the haunted house in the opera) which included elements of James’ original novella, his own theatrical adaptation of the story (The Saloon) and extracts of the opera. It took place in the grounds of the Red House.
Time and Place: London, Paramore, late 19th century
Act 1. At Coyle’s cramming establishment in London, Owen and his friend Lechmere are learning the strategy of battle. At the end of the lesson, Owen declares that he cannot go through with a military career. Coyle is angry but agrees to break the news to the Wingrave family for whom soldiering has been a way of life for generations. At the haunted country house at Paramore, Owen is rounded on by his aunt Miss Wingrave, his fiancée Kate Julian and her mother. The elderly head of the family, Sir Philip Wingrave, who fought at Bhurtpore, is similarly outraged.
Act 2. In a Prologue, a ballad singer narrates the tale of the young Wingrave boy killed by his brutal father for refusing to fight over an argument with a friend. Sir Philip disowns Owen, depriving him of his inheritance. Kate humiliates Owen by flirting with Lechmere. After everyone has gone to bed, Owen, left alone, reflects on his predicament and reaffirms his passionate belief in peace. Kate comes looking for him. She taunts him with cowardice and dares him to sleep in the haunted room. Owen agrees and Kate locks him in. Lechmere is concerned for Owen’s welfare and alerts Coyle. Kate is heard sobbing from the doorway of the haunted room. The family rush to the scene. Sir Philip pushes the door open to find Owen dead on the floor. The ballad singer’s voice is heard once more.
For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.