Op. 85 (1970)
Opera in two acts
Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the story by Henry James
Setting: London, Paramore, late 19th century
Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
First performance: 16 May 1971, BBC2 Television
Owen Wingrave (the last of the Wingraves): Baritone
Spencer Coyle (who runs a military cramming establishment): Bass-baritone
Lechmere (a young student with Owen at Coyle’s establishment): Tenor
Miss Wingrave (Owen’s aunt): Dramatic soprano
Mrs Coyle: Soprano
Mrs Julian (a widow and dependant at Paramore): Soprano
Kate (her daughter): Mezzo-soprano
General Sir Philip Wingrave (Owen’s grandfather): Tenor
Narrator (the ballad singer): Tenor
Colonel Wingrave (an apparition): Silent role
Young Wingrave (his son, an apparition): Silent role
Distant Chorus: Trebles
2 flutes (doubling piccolo)
2 clarinets in A & B flat (II doubling clarinet in E flat and bass clarinet)
2 bassoons (II doubling contrabassoon
2 trumpets in C
2 tenor trombones
Timpani (doubling tom-tom, suspended cymbal, vibraphone)
3 percussion: side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, 2 woodblock, 2 whip, 2 large suspended cymbal, small suspended cymbal, cymbal, small gong, tom-tom, xylophone, vibraphone, block, large gong (tam-tam), bell in A, tambourine
Side drum, bass drum, suspended cymbal
A reduced ensemble version by David Matthews is also available
What’s it About?
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.
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.
Find out more
A study day on the opera, which took place during the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival and featured members of the original cast and orchestra.