Grateful thanks to Jacki for allowing us to film at Orford Church.
Britten’s 1958 opera is one of his most enduringly popular and has been performed thousands of times all over the world. It was originally conceived as an educational project: the TV channel Associated Rediffusion approached Britten to write an opera for schools, hoping to film him during the creative process. But as operatic bass Matthew Rose (a regular ‘Noye’) describes in this week’s film, it evolved into much more of a community project. The music was deliberately conceived for a range of abilities, from professional to amateur (including audience participation in the hymn-singing), and particularly for children to take part in something challenging but achievable. For the first production, schools from all over Suffolk were bussed into Aldeburgh to audition and later to rehearse. As Colin Graham, the producer of the premiere, wrote:
Some of the forces required by the opera are now legendary: the handbells from Leiston Modern School, which heralded the appearance of the rainbow; the percussion group from Woolverstone Hall, with its set of slung mugs for the raindrops which start and end the storm; the recorders from Framlingham College which vie with the wind; the bugles from the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, which play the Animals in and out of the Ark and end the opera so poignantly. And the Animals themselves, of course, who were auditioned (coincidentally in the presence of Aaron Copland) from schools right across the County of Suffolk.
It was also the first piece Britten completed after moving to The Red House in Aldeburgh, carving out as much composition time as he could in between discussions with the builders about central heating.
But while it was very much a ‘Suffolk’ opera in its conception and early productions, it has proved to be one of Britten’s most internationally appealing works, performed in venues as surprising as Belfast Zoo, appearing as the central dramatic episode of Wes Anderson’s 2012 film Moonrise Kingdom and – featuring in this week’s film – inspiring the Isango Ensemble’s 2013 interpretation Unogumbe, sung in Xhosa and filmed on location in South Africa. Each production in its own way reflects the ethos of the original: to give children a chance to participate in a piece of contemporary opera, and to involve the community in the whole performance. As Paul Kildea writes, ‘It is a mad circus when it gets going, but it embodies Britten’s thoughts on the vital role of serious music in the community and in children’s education.’