Op. 49 (1949)
The opera from Let’s Make an Opera, an entertainment for young people
Libretto by Eric Crozier
Setting: Children’s Nursery of Iken Hall, 1810
Duration: 45 minutes (with Let’s Make an Opera,
First performance: 14 June 1949, Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh
Black Bob (a brutal sweep-mater): Bass
Clem (his son and assistant): Tenor
Sam (their new sweep boy, aged 8): Treble
Miss Baggott (the housekeeper at Iken Hall): Contralto
Juliet Brook (aged 14): Soprano
Gay Brook (aged 13): Treble
Sophie Brook (aged 10): Soprano
Rowan (the nursery-maid to the Woodbridge cousins): Soprano
Jonny Crome (aged 15): Treble
Hughie Crome (aged 8): Treble
Tina Crome (aged 8): Soprano
Tom (the coachman from Woodbridge): Bass
Alfred (the gardener at Iken Hall): Tenor
Piano (four hands)
Percussion: timpani, bass drum, side drum, gong, cymbal, triangle, castanets, large and small woodblocks
An arrangement for piano duet, with or without percussion, is also available
What’s it About?
The Little Sweep can be prefaced by the play Let’s Make an Opera, which shows the children and grown-ups creating the opera they have supposedly written.
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.
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.