The opera from Let’s Make an Opera, an entertainment for young people (duration 45 minutes)

Libretto by Eric Crozier

A quick introduction

When was it written?

April-May 1949. The first performance was on 14 June 1949 at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.

What’s it about?

This is an ‘opera within a play’ – it an be prefaced by Let’s Make an Opera, which shows the children and grown-ups creating the opera themselves. The children of Iken Hall in Suffolk help a young chimney sweepboy, Sam, to escape his villainous sweep-master.

What does it sound like?

This is one of Britten’s ‘community’ operas with lots of different levels of participation, including audience participation. The musical language is charming and accessible, and the ‘orchestra’ simply consists of piano, percussion and string quartet.

Watch & listen

Did you know?

1. This is Britten’s third opera to be set in Suffolk and his first specifically for children. The setting is Iken Hall, near Snape, which was at the time the home of the Spring-Rice family.

2. Most of the child character names were borrowed from the Gathorne-Hardy family, five of which were the offspring of Fidelity Cranbrook, the Chair of the Aldeburgh Festival. The opera is also ‘Affectionately dedicated to the real Gay, Juliet, Sophie, Tina, Hughie, Jonny and Sammy – the Gathorne-Hardys of Great Glemham, Suffolk’.

3. As in the choral work St Nicolas (composed the previous year) there are ‘audience songs’ as part of this work. Britten used audience songs again in his next children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde.

4. One of the props in the original production was ‘Dobbin’: the Britten family’s own rocking horse. This is currently on display in the Red House gallery in Aldeburgh.

5. Britten completed the composition draft in two weeks.

The plot

Time and Place: Children’s Nursery of Iken Hall, 1810

Scene 1. The housekeeper Miss Baggott shows the sweep-master Black Bob, his assistant Clem and the new sweepboy Sam where they must start. Black Bob and Clem send the tearful Sam up the chimney and leave him to it. But he gets stuck, and his cries are heard by the children of the house, Juliet, Gay and Sophie Brook, and their visiting friends John, Hugh and Tina Crome. Having rescued the filthy little boy from the chimney they decide to rescue him from the sweep too. First they make it look as if Sam has run off, then they hide him from Miss Baggott and the returning sweeps. Afterwards, when the coast is clear, they let the Cromes’ kind-hearted nursery-maid Rowan into their secret.

Scene 2. Together they wash, feed and clothe Sam and plot how to get him back home. The children hear Sam’s sad stories about being sold to the wicked sweep, Bob. Juliet stages a fainting fit in order to distract attention from Miss Baggott, and they manage to hide Sam in a hiding place.

Scene 3.  The next morning Rowan and the children hide Sam in the trunk they are taking with them and smuggle him out of the house.

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