March 19, 2012
NEC Presents Boston Premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan, April 14—17
Artistic Director Stephen Lord Conducts First Main Stage Production
with NEC at Paramount Theatre; James Robinson is stage director.
Libretto by W.H. Auden Reflects Creators’ Optimistic View of America
For his first main stage production as Artistic Director of Opera Stephen Lord will conduct the Boston premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan, in four performances, April 14—17 at the Paramount Theatre. James Robinson, Artistic Director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, is the stage director. The recently renovated Paramount, located at 559 Washington St. in downtown Boston, is a new venue for the Conservatory, which has most recently been staging opera in the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
Based on the folk tales about the gigantic lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe, the 1941 operetta—as Britten styled it—has a libretto by W.H. Auden. In two acts and a prologue, the drama is at once humorous and playful but with a serious subtext in which America is portrayed as the great hope for the world. It reflects the creators’ gratitude and optimistic view of America at a time when they, as pacifists, were taking refuge here during World War II. According to the original program book notes, Britten and Auden “conceived of Paul Bunyan as a projection of the collective state of mind of a people whose tasks were primarily the physical mastery of nature. This operetta presents in a compressed fairy-story form the development of the continent from a virgin forest before the birth of Paul Bunyan to settlement and cultivation when Paul Bunyan says goodbye because he is no longer needed, i.e., the human task is now a different one, of how to live well in a country that the pioneers have made it possible to live in.”
The musical setting has a populist accessibility and incorporates a variety of American styles, including folk songs, blues and hymns. Some commentators have likened it to musical theatre
Paul Bunyan will have four performances with two casts, April 14, 16, 17 at 8 p.m. and April 15 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20, $16 for students/seniors, 2 for 1 with WGBH Member ID Available on line or by calling 617-824-8000.
For a video preview, click here.
For further information, check the NEC Website or call the NEC Concert Line at 617-585-1122.
W.H. Auden's preface to the libretto:
Paul Bunyan by W. H. Auden
Most myths are poetical history – that is to say, they are not pure fantasy, but have a basis in actual events. Even in its dreams, the human mind does not create out of nothing. The anthropomorphic gods of folk-legends may, for example, in many instances, represent memories of invaders with a superior culture; these, in their turn, should a further invasion occur, may be demoted into giants and dragons. The fantastic elaborations are an expression of the psychological attitudes of men toward real events over which they have no control. Further, myths are collective creations; they cease to appear when a society has become sufficiently differentiated for its individual members to have individual conceptions of their tasks.
America is unique in being the only country to create myths after the occurrence of the industrial revolution. Because it was an undeveloped continent with an open frontier and a savage climate, conditions favorable to myth-making still existed. These were not, as in most previous civilizations primarily political, the reflection of a cultural struggle between two races (though Bunyan does fight the Indians) but geographical. In the New World the struggle between Man and Nature was again severe enough to obliterate individual differences in the face of a collective danger.
Appearing so late in history, Paul Bunyan has no magical powers; what he does is what any man could do if he were as big and as inventive; in fact, what Bunyan accomplishes as an individual is precisely what the lumbermen managed to accomplish as a team with the help of machinery. Moreover, he is like them as a character; his dreams have all the naïve swaggering optimism of the nineteenth century; he is as Victorian as New York.
Babe, the blue ox who gives him advice, remains a puzzle; I conceive of her quite arbitrarily, as a symbol of his anima, but, so far as I know, one explanation is as valid as another. Nor have I really the slightest idea why he should fail to get on with his wife, unless it signify that those who, like lumbermen, are often away from home, rarely develop the domestic virtues.
Associated with Bunyan are a number of satellite human figures, of which the most interesting are Hel Helson, his Swedish foreman, and Johnny Inkslinger, his book-keeper. These are eternal human types: Helson, the man of brawn but no brains, invaluable as long as he has somebody to give him orders whom he trusts, but dangerous when his consciousness of lacking intelligence turns into suspicion and hatred of those who possess it; and Inkslinger, the man of speculative and critical intelligence, whose temptation is to despise those who do the manual work that makes the life of thought possible. Both of them learn a lesson in their relations with Paul Bunyan; Helson through a physical fight in which he is the loser, Inkslinger through his stomach.
In writing an operetta about Bunyan, three difficulties arose. In the first place, his size and general mythical characteristics prevent his physical appearance on the stage – he is presented as a voice and, in order to differentiate him from the human characters, as a speaking role. In consequence someone else had to be found to play the chief dramatic role, and Inkslinger seemed the most suitable, as satisfying Henry James’s plea for a fine lucid intelligence as a compositional center. Inkslinger, in fact, is the only person capable of understanding who Paul Bunyan really is, and, in a sense, the operetta is an account of his process of discovery.
In the second place, the theatrical presentation of the majority of Bunyan’s exploits would require the resources of Bayreuth, but not to refer to them at all would leave his character all too vaguely in the air. To get round this difficulty we have interposed simple narrative ballads between the scenes, as it were, as solo Greek chorus.
Lastly, an opera with no female voices would be hard to produce and harder to listen to, yet in its earlier stages at least the conversion of forests into lumber is an exclusively male occupation. Accordingly we have introduced a camp dog and two camp cats, sung by a coloratura soprano and two mezzo-sopranos respectively.
The principal interest of the Bunyan legend today is as a reflection of the cultural problems that occur during the first stage of every civilization, the stage of colonization of the land and the conquest of nature. The operetta, therefore, begins with a prologue in which America is still a virgin forest and Paul Bunyan has not been born, and ends with a Christmas party at which he bids farewell to his men because now he is no longer needed. External physical nature has been mastered, and for this very reason can no longer dictate to men what they should do. Now their task is one of their human relations with each other and, for this, a collective mythical figure is no use, because the requirements of each relation are unique. Faith is essentially invisible.
At first sight it may seem presumptuous for a foreigner to take an American folk-tale as his subject, but in fact the implications of the Bunyan legend are not only American but universal.
Until the advent of the machine the conquest of nature was still incomplete, and as users of the machine all countries share a common history. All countries are now faced at the same and for the first time with the same problem. Now that, in a material sense, we can do anything almost that we like, how are we to know what is the right thing to do an what is the wrong thing to avoid, for nature is no longer a nurse with her swift punishments and rewards? Of what happens when men refuses to accept this necessity of choosing, and are terrified of or careless about their freedom, we have now only too clear a proof.
© 1941 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.
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