Why I’m not signing the petition to reinstate Pears’ name to the Britten Foundation

Dropping Benjamin Britten’s partner’s name Pears from a soon to be merged organisation managing the composer’s estate has caused people to get hot under the collar. But it’s not evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

First, the issue.

There’s a petition doing the rounds. It was reported in Gay Star News. Also in the East Anglian Daily Times.

The Britten-Pears Foundation is merging with Snape Maltings in a business development which should really have happened years ago and which benefits both the Britten estate, the Aldeburgh Festival and the Snape operation.

But there’s a problem: the new name for the organisation post-merger isn’t the Britten-Pears Foundation like it used to be, but the Benjamin Britten Foundation.

Gay men are up in arms, so too a number of straight people.

Why? Because Pears – Britten’s lifelong partner and creative muse – isn’t referenced in the future-focussed branding.

A few people registered surprise, some unease (myself included) when the announcement was made. But a few others have run with it, set up a petition. That kind of thing.

The claim? That Britten’s homosexuality is being ‘straight-washed’. The petition’s originator is clear that he doesn’t think that was the intent , but still the claims are made. Dropping Peter Pears from the name of Britten’s estate is evidence of ‘straight-washing’.

Ben Baglio, from Aldeburgh, who launched the petition added: “Britten and Pears’ relationship meant a huge amount to gay people everywhere.
“They were an ‘out’ couple in an era where it was illegal. It seems a bizarre decision to me.”

East Anglian Daily Times, 19 April 2019

Just so that we’re clear, Britten and Pears were far from an ‘out’ couple when the pair were alive. Being ‘out’ as we know it today would have been regarded as a massive risk.

That they lived together was something of an open secret and a reflection of local attitudes relaxing at the time. But being out would have risked arrest.

In addition, speak to anyone who lived in the town when Britten and Pears were alive and stories would be recounted with predictable dewy eyes. Both of the men would have been described as ‘friends’. A running joke ensued amongst the students who visited the Britten-Pears School in the late nineties: a local euphemism begging for ridicule.

As a gay man myself you’d surely expect me to be signing up, banging the drum and making arrangements for the march. Maybe I’m just a shit homosexual. Maybe I’m letting the side down.

But Pears isn’t being ‘dropped’. His name, role, or equivalence isn’t being exorcised. He’s not being overlooked. Noone’s being denied.

Leading on Britten’s name isn’t evidence of low-level homophobia. The two organisations are merging. Implicit in that is the assumption that at some point even Britten’s name will drop from the name.

As far as I can see, what Snape and Aldeburgh need to do is raise the profile of Britten. They need to drive more people to the location the composer adopted as home. Of course, Pears plays a crucial part in Britten’s output and his worldwide reputation, but the likes of Snape and Britten Foundation aren’t selling their product to those in the know, whether they’re classical music enthusiasts, experts or locals.

They’re reaching out to the people who haven’t considered visiting Britten’s home, or the Snape Maltings site. Those people are going to be unaware of who Britten was, and by extension completely unaware of who Pears, his partner, was.

And sure, whilst Pears inspired much of Britten’s work, his legacy – his estate – is Britten’s achievement, fuelled by various muses of which Peter Pears was undoubtedly his most significant. Not featuring Pears in an organisation’s name isn’t a conspiracy, isn’t homophobia, and doesn’t need a petition to turn around either.

Completing on Britten and Pears’ vision

Benjamin Britten’s home – The Red House – and the iconic concert venue he established at nearby Snape Maltings are to merge.

One of the biggest challenges for the original Aldeburgh Foundation (which then became Aldeburgh Music in the early 2000s and in recent years just ‘Snape Maltings’) has been the existence of Britten’s legacy in both the coastal town of Aldeburgh and the nearby village of Snape.

One single location makes branding events, seasons, venues and various other endeavours a much easier marketing process, compared to the challenge of managing the messaging for separate destinations across split sites, in some cases run by separate organisations with different funding streams. Confusing messages result.

Merging the Britten-Pears Foundation with Snape Maltings to create one organisational entity – the Benjamin Britten Foundation – helps a great deal.

Snape Maltings Concert Hall

In its own right, Snape Maltings has undergone a considerable transformation since the tenancy for the entire site was finally acquired from site owner Jonny Gooderham seven or eight years ago. Since Roger Wright‘s arrival on the scene, the Snape site has expanded its operation to include a range of retail, accommodation, and catering activities. Now there are more reasons for more people to visit Snape. Good business sense.

There’s an expanded vision too – explained to me a couple of years back by one excited staffer – that established the Snape buildings as a destination for exciting thinking collaborations, over and above music performance and talent development.

So this intention to merge both Snape and the Britten-Pears Foundation (the Red House) does then make perfect sense. Part of a business development story that has taken a long time to make happen.

Britten and Pears’ home, The Red House in Aldeburgh

I recently met with the Chief Exec (now Executive Director) of the then Britten Pears Foundation (though I might add – I knew nothing then of what was planned). As she explained what work goes on at the Red House, I recognised how the vision for Britten’s former home had changed considerably since I last worked in Aldeburgh.

Back then, the Red House was a scholarly location, access granted according to your educational credentials and publisher-endorsed research needs. There were one or two events for the select few. The then General Manager of the Aldeburgh Foundation even lived in one of the converted outbuildings. Twenty years after Britten’s death and ten or so after Pears’, the Red House was there but couldn’t be touched. At least that’s how it seemed.

Inside the Britten-Pears Archive – a new building opened in 2012

Now the Red House is a destination in its own right. It’s projected as a National Trust location without being part of the National Trust network. The vision is about reaching out to those outside of the classical music and opera world, illustrating Britten’s contribution to the county of Suffolk. Using the Red House as a gateway for those who have never even heard of Britten, let alone his music.

That shift in vision is refreshing. In truth, I quite liked the austere aspiration the Red House exuded back in 1997. But in a place like Aldeburgh, to have struck out and implemented change is quite some achievement. It’s a surprisingly conservative environment. It would be easy to succomb to years of convention.

In this way, bringing the two organisations together is a consolidation of that strategy. It means that resources are pooled between the two sites. More can be done, and more can be offered, more efficiently. It realises Britten and Pears’ original intention too.

Although personally I’m uneasy to see that Pears’ name is lost from the new entity’s name, I’m pleased to see that Snape existing programmes – the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme and the Britten-Pears Orchestra – will still carry his name. There are, I understand, further plans afoot to celebrate Pears’ contribution too.

Read ‘Inside the Red House’ – a tour of Britten’s home from 2012

Review: Guildhall School of Music’s 2019 production of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream

Ambitious programming, some strong voices, and a brilliant set. The direction didn’t always support voice projection. Bottom, strong.

I didn’t especially enjoy the Guildhall’s Midsummer Night’s Dream production last week. It’s probably best to just come out and say it straight off the bat.

This was ambitious programming, the challenge of which was undoubtedly met by the striking set design which did much to make use of Silk Street Theatre’s considerable perhaps even intimidating space.

It seems incredible to think that the first performance of the work in 1960 was in Aldeburgh’s Jubilee Hall – a much smaller space than that at the Guildhall’s theatre. The restricted available space undoubtedly will have influenced Britten’s composition in terms of resources. I had for example always considered MSND a chamber opera like Lucretia or Herring. Yet, in the Silk Street Theatre, the production gave the work a larger scale symphonic feel.

This wasn’t altogether successful. There were some moments the direction had positioned solo voices were positioned at the back of the raked stage, sometimes characters singing side on to the audience. From time to time diction was lost and the orchestra dominated.

The set design probably didn’t help in this regard. A design which reduced the active stage area may well have imposed restrictions on the direction which in turn may have supported the voices a little more.

Collin Shay (Oberon) caught my ear quite early on. A demanding role it seems to me which exposes the performer right from the off. What I appreciated most in his performance was the way it developed throughout the production. Though a confident presence on stage, I did wonder whether nerves had got to him initially. Subsequent appearances saw his delivery get progressively stronger.

Those scenes featuring the Rustics (for those unfamiliar with Britten and Pears’ libretto this is where Bottom has his starring role) were when energy was resolutely on stage. The ensemble was tight, rich, and warm. Collective confidence brought their scenes to life.

Christian Valle (Bottom) played a distinctive character. Unorthodox, daring but also charming. William Thomas (Quince) proved a suitable foil making Bottom’s awkwardness lovable.

Performance attended: Wednesday 27 February 2019
Picture credit: Clive Barda

Review: Noyes Fludde at Blackheath Halls

This performance could have passed me by if it wasn't for a tweeted picture taken by the Community and Engagement Manager at Blackheath Halls on the day of the first performance. Blackheath is a 10-minute walk away from where I live and work. I'm glad I got a chance to see the production too.

This was an emotional performance that touched all the necessary nerves, lanced boils, and triggered the tear ducts. Director Harry Fehr's work on Benjamin Britten's much-loved children's oratorio demonstrated inventiveness and ingenuity.

Bright bold coloured costumes and big scale props made good use of the spacious interior of the hall which, combined with a performance area surrounded by orchestra and audience on raked seating, created a immersive community feel.

In this way design, lighting and direction elevated Britten's work. Sometimes the clunky naivity of Britten's stark scoring combined with approximated singing can make for a disconnected experience for the audience. But not here. Music was all around us, youngsters mingled with adults to create a highly descriptive piece of storytelling. 

There were times when the orchestra swamped the mid-ranges of the semi-chorus, especially the mid-range solos where undeveloped voices struggled to be heard. But in these cases it was the sentiment conveyed by non-verbal communication that carried everybody through.

Michael Sumuel used his rich bass tones to great effect, filling the interior without dominating the mix. His was an inclusive performance, so too Jessica Walker voicing God. The Gossips – six decadent characters coordinated in sickly pink – were a hoot.  

What really impressed me in this production was the strong connection (and the blurred lines) between amateur and professional, this in part down to the deliberate pairing of professional orchestra (Multi-Story Orchestra) with Blackheath Halls & Multi-Story Community Orchestras- neighbouring areas of London joining forces and making the world just a little bit more human for an hour or so on a warm spring day. 

The stars of the show were undoubtedly the raven and dove puppets – magical creations using bike helmets and dowling rods covered in shredded plastic bags that floated gently over chorus and orchestra. A big nod to Puppetry Designers Kaeridwun Eftelya and Stephanie Elgersma for their work here.

I've found the world demanding, hostile, and hugely disconcerting this week, especially today. Blackheath Halls Opera and the Multi-Story Orchestra went a long way to helping me conclude the week in a much better frame of mind. 

Britten's Noye's Fludde runs until Saturday 8 April with performances on Friday 7 at 7pm, and Saturday 8 at 2pm and 7pm, at Blackheath Halls. Tickets £12.

The picture used in this post was taken from the Twitter feed of Blackheath Opera's Artistic Director Rose Ballantyne. It has been used without permission.

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Review: Celebrating English Song / Roderick Williams / Susie Allan / English Song

Launched last week, SOMM’s latest release features the exquisite pairing of baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Susie Allan in a ravishing selection of English song by Britten, Butterworth, Finzi and Vaughan Williams.

I can’t recommend this recording enough. Some tracks in particular grabbed my attention.

The atmosphere created by Susie Allan at the keyboard is deftly maintained by Williams’ warm delicacy who creates something electric right from the start of Butterworth’s 6 Songs for a Shropshire Lad. Just be sure to approach Is My Team Ploughing when you’re sure you’re emotionally stable – a painfully touching listen.

John Ireland’s uplifting Great Things is the perfect contrast before a sequence of heady introspection. Vaughan Williams’ mellow Silent Noon is another favourite on this album. Everything sounds breathtakingly effortless, both at the keyboard and in the voice – a rare recording achievement discernible even through laptop speakers.

Benjamin Britten’s The Salley Gardens is a triumph in simplicity and focus. But be warned, the final track – Ivor Gurney’s Sleep – will break your heart.

Quite an incredible listen from beginning to end.