Modern take on parable of pacifism

Opera Collective Ireland’s staging of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Owen Wingrave’ will strike a chord with more than just music lovers, writes Cathy Desmond

TOM CREED is directing Owen Wingrave, the new production by Opera Collective Ireland
of Benjamin Britten’s 1970
two-act work. The Cork native, who cut his teeth directing student productions at UCC, has since been busy establishing himself on the opera scene.

When Paris Opera and Opera Collective independently programmed Benjamin Britten’s opera, they both approached Creed. A collaboration between the behemoth French house and the fledgling Irish company was the serendipitous outcome. Forged in La Bastille with an Irish production team, for the Paris Opera Academy, Creed is looking forward to bringing the work to Ireland with a new cast of young Irish singers.

Britten’s parable of pacifism based on a 19th century ghost story may be his biggest challenge yet. Owen Wingrave is the second of Britten’s Henry James story adaptations. While the Turn of the Screw is often done, Owen Wingrave is seldom programmed.

Although originally set in the Victorian era, don’t expect to see any olde-worlde costumes. “In general in my staging I am interested in looking at the works from the vantage point of the present and to imagine them taking place in a world that looks like the one that we live in now.”

Earlier this year, he set Handel’s Acis and Galatea not in pastoral plains but in a rural Irish pub in the mould of a Tom Murphy play. Among his other productions were a staging of Puccini’s Suor Angelica set in a 1980s Magdalene laundry

When Owen, a young man in the face of 10 generations of military service, declares he is not going to war, there are tragic consequences as he confronts the ire of his family and the ghosts of his ancestors.

Britten’s anti-war statement was informed by his own personal experience. He faced public opprobrium when he fled to America in the 1930s to avoid being drafted.

While Britten was processing his anti-war sentiments amid the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Creed has his own contemporary resonance to draw on.

“Ten days before my first meeting in Paris, the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan took place. I sat on the plane and read the libretto again. The words seemed familiar. The arguments that Owen’s family use to turn him away from his decision to leave the army were very close to the arguments I’d heard on the news the previous week as David Cameron led the House of Commons into voting to join air strikes in Syria. Armies, and Britain in particular where the work is set, are still sending young men off to die in global conflicts.

“As we developed ideas for the production other things were brewing. It seemed to me the vote for Brexit was an older generation voting against the interests of a younger generation.

“At the same time we had an election campaign in the USA where for me a kind of toxic nationalism was leading people to be drawn to a certain type of presidential candidate. This is the context in which we can imagine Owen Wingrave.”

The musical director is Stephen Barlow, who directed the inaugural Opera Collective production, Rape of Lucretia also by Britten.

Creed believes it will appeal to a theatre-going audience as well as music lovers. “We are trying to make something that feels ‘right-now’ — to create a way for an audience to engage directly with this opera written in 1970 based on a 19th-century story through the lens of a contemporary world — a world in which Brexit is building walls around Britain, and America is trying to pull itself back from the grip of the right, and young people are taking a stand.”

Opera Collective Ireland, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, presents the Irish
premiere of Owen Wingrave by Benjamin Britten at the Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Sept 9; Everyman Theatre Cork, Sept 13; and O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin, Sept 16


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