Op. 17 (1941, revised 1974-75)
Operetta in two acts and a prologue
Libretto by WH Auden
Setting: United States of America, early times
Duration: 2 hours
First performance: 5 May 1941, Columbia University, Brander Matthews Hall, New York
First stage performance of revised version: 4 June 1976, Snape Maltings Concert Hall
Narrator: Baritone or tenor
The voice of Paul Bunyan: Spoken part
Johnny Inkslinger (book-keeper): Tenor
Tiny (Bunyan’s daughter): Soprano
Hot Biscuit Slim (a good cook): Tenor
Sam Sharkey (a bad cook): Tenor
Ben Benny (a bad cook): Bass
Hel Helson (foreman): Baritone
Fido (a dog): High soprano
Moppet (a cat): Mezzo-soprano
Poppet (a cat): Mezzo-soprano
Andy Anderson, Pet Peterson, Jen Jenson, Cross Crosshaulson (four Swedes): 2 Tenors, 2 Basses
John Shears (a farmer): Baritone
Western Union Boy: Tenor
Quartet of the Defeated: Contralto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass
Four Cronies of Hel Helson: Baritones
Heron, Moon, Wind, Beetle, Squirrel: Spoken parts
Three Wild Geese: Soprano, 2 mezzo-sopranos (Prologue only: these roles may be doubled with those of Fido and the two cats)
Chorus of Old Trees: SATB
Four Young Trees: SSTT
Chorus of Lumberjacks, Farmers, and Frontier Women: SATB
2 flutes (II=piccolo)
2 clarinets in B flat (II=alto saxophone)
2 trumpets in C
Percussion: Triangle, cymbal, suspended cymbal, side drum, bass drum, woodblock, tenor drum, xylophone, glockenspiel, tambourine, gong, vibraphone, coconut shells
2 fl (II=picc), ob, 2 cl in B flat (II=alto sax), bass cl, bn—2 hn, 2 tpt in C, 2 trbn, tuba—timp (=perc), perc (trgl, cymb, susp cymb, sd, bd, wb, td, xyl, block, tamb, gong, vibr, coconut shells)—harp, pf (+cel)—str
The Ballad Interludes are accompanied by guitar (or banjo), with solo violin (doubling the tune) and double bass (pizzicato) ad. lib (or other appropriate instruments).
An alternative version of the opera with the accompaniment rescored for two pianos and percussion (1 player) by David Matthews is also available.
What’s it About?
Paul Bunyan tells the mythical story of the legendary giant American folk hero.
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.
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 1976, the first time the full opera had been heard in the UK.