Operetta in 2 acts and a prologue (duration 2 hours)

Libretto by WH Auden

A quick introduction

When was it written?

November 1939 – April 1941. The first performance was on 5 May 1941, at Columbia University, Brander Matthews Hall, New York.

What’s it about?

Britten’s first stage-work is based on the American giant, mythical folk-hero Paul Bunyan. Bunyan doesn’t appear physically on stage, but his miraculous exploits are told by a Narrator in a series of ballads. The main action takes place in a forest involving a variety of characters, including lumberjacks, cooks, cowboys, and postal-workers – plus a chorus of geese and cats. While Paul is ‘making America’, this motely crew gets on with the business of forging its own American dreams.

What does it sound like?

The musical styles in Paul Bunyan are hugely varied, including blues numbers, soulful ballads (such as ‘Tiny’s Song’, mock advertisements, and moving choruses. Some of the music echoes his work for theatre, radio and film before the war. He did not really compose in this style again.

Watch & listen

Did you know?

1. Britten and WH Auden worked on the opera while sharing a house in Brooklyn, NY with burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee.

2. Some of the Paul Bunyan ‘stories’ are not from oral history, but were created for commercials in the early twentieth century. Although Bunyan is a figure from American folklore, he was also appropriated by the Red River Lumber Company in their advertisements.

3. Very close to the premiere, Britten composed the beautiful ‘Tiny’s Song’ for the woman cast in that role in the first production was an excellent singer. She was Helen Marshall, a member of the Elizabethan Singers, a choir Pears had formed in New York.

4. The first production was not well-received by the press: ‘Mr Britten’s work in ‘Paul Bunyan’ is sort of witty at best. Otherwise it is undistinguished’ (Virgil Thomson). It was not performed again for over 30 years.

5. Britten revised the work when recovering after heart surgery in 1974. It was performed in complete revised form at Snape Maltings on 4 June 1976, the first time the full opera had been heard in the UK.

The plot

Time and Place: The United States of America, early times.

In the Prologue, Four Young Trees are heard rebelling against their elders’ complacency. Three Wild Geese enter and prophesy the birth of Paul Bunyan, who will clear the forest to make way for civilisation, at the next blue moon. In the First Ballad Interlude, the Narrator relates the story of the birth and early life of Paul Bunyan.

Act One. In a clearing in the forest, the lumberjacks appear. A Western Union boy enters with a telegram recommending Hel Helson as head-foreman. Bunyan hires him along with two cooks, and a book-keeper, Johnny Inkslinger. The Second Ballad Interlude then tells the story of Paul’s marriage to Carrie, the birth of daughter Tiny and Carrie’s death. After complaints about the standard of the food, Inkslinger employs Hot Biscuit Slim as cook. Bunyan returns to the camp accompanied by Tiny who attracts both Inkslinger and Slim. Tiny goes off to help in the kitchen, to Inkslinger’s regret.

Act Two. Helson is put in charge of the camp and is urged to challenge Paul’s leadership. Paul and Helson fight as Tiny and Slim declare their love. Helson loses and, presumed dead, is carried off to a mock-funeral march. Coming to his senses, he turns on his cronies. The Third Ballad Interlude tells of Helson’s reconciliation with Paul, the love of Tiny and Slim and the spread of Paul’s achievements. At a Christmas Eve party, Inkslinger announced that Slim has found a position at a Manhattan hotel and is to wed Tiny, while Helson is off to Washington. The telegram boy returns with a message summoning Inkslinger to Hollywood. Paul’s work is accomplished and he bids goodbye, telling his friends that America is what they choose to make it.

For information about performing forces and where to buy/hire a score please visit the publisher pages.