In his 2008 production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, director John Doyle examines one of opera’s most intriguing outcasts and the community that judges him. By Ellen Keel
In his hometown of Hastings, England, John Doyle celebrated stormy evenings by walking out onto the stone pier and crying “Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!” into the wind and waves. It was his personal and humorous tribute to one of the opera’s most chilling choral moments. Little did he know that he would one day be invited to direct Benjamin Britten’s operatic masterpiece for the Met.
“When Peter Gelb asked me to do it, my response was virtually to fall off the sofa I was sitting on,” Doyle recalls. A humble reaction, considering some of the accomplishments and acclaim he’s racked up over the years—including a Tony Award for Sweeney Todd in 2006.
Given the choice of repertory in which he’s distinguished himself, it might seem as if Doyle were drawn to stories about outsiders. But it’s the attributes that make them outsiders that fascinate him as a director—and the fact that audiences end up caring about them in spite of or because of their flaws. “You can’t spend an evening that’s called ‘something about somebody’ if you don’t care about them on some level or another,” he insists. “You care about Othello, you care about Macbeth, and so on and so forth. People with imperfections are interesting.”
Peter Grimes, often considered to be Britten’s greatest opera, presents audiences with a tragic hero in this classic tradition. Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, do not make him the brutal villain he is in the work’s source material—a chapter from “The Borough,” a poem by George Crabbe—instead creating one of the most complex characters in opera. Although two boy apprentices die while in his custody and he is accused of abusing them in many ways, it’s never spelled out in the libretto whether Grimes has committed any crime; what the audience believes is almost entirely dependent on how the character is portrayed.
The wide range of tenors who have taken on the role since the opera’s premiere in 1945 attests to its rich ambiguities. The originator, Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, had a light, lyric voice, but tenors with heftier voices have also enjoyed notable success. Each can play to his vocal strengths to emphasize different aspects of the character, such as poetic introspection, bullying brutality, or latent madness.
The Met’s new production featured Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role, soprano Patricia Racette as the sympathetic schoolmistress Ellen Orford, and Donald Runnicles on the podium. With a voice that encompasses both lyricism and power, Griffey has made something of a specialty of this demanding role, as well as of another operatic outcast, Lennie in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. But despite Grimes’s outsider status, Griffey feels audiences nevertheless connect with his plight. “All of us, regardless of whether we want to admit it or not, can relate to Grimes in certain aspects of our lives,” the tenor says. “We all want to be loved and accepted. Grimes feels he has to prove something to society— he actually says, ‘I’ll win them over!’ I think it’s important to reach out to others who are not like us. Sometimes we’re so fast to judge.”
That said, Grimes’s treatment of the boys is certainly not above judgment. “The things that he does in the story or may have done in the story are, indeed, questionable,” says Doyle. “That’s what makes the piece magnificent—that you’re not dealing with a god or a goddess.” Equally human and flawed is the community that judges Grimes and makes an outsider of him. Far from mere observers to Grimes’s tragedy, the brilliantly characterized chorus and supporting cast are a driving force in it. As Grimes himself complains in the opera’s prologue, “The case goes on in people’s minds. The charges that no court has made will be shouted at my head.”
Though Doyle felt that the isolation of the community was an important factor in their behavior, he instantly recognized certain patterns as universal. “There are many small communities where you have the same feelings—of being watched or judged or questioned, through your history or your family or how people have viewed you since you were a child. It’s hard to get rid of for the rest of your life. I have memories of that as a kid. There would be people in the town who were looked upon as ‘bad people’ or ‘wrong people’ and so on.”
Instead of turning for inspiration to the Scottish highlands, where he grew up, however, he looked to his home at the time: Hastings, a fishing town on the southern coast of England. “Everybody knows everybody else,” he says of the town. “There can be wonderful opportunities for everybody to come together in the pub, as they do in this opera, to hide from the storm. Those are things that are still very much part of the community that I live in.”
Doyle is especially drawn to the look and feel of the town in winter. “I love going down to the bleakness of the seaside, the grayness and the grimness. It’s that aspect of it that we’ve applied to this production.” He encouraged his collaborators—set designer Scott Pask, costume designer Ann Hould-Ward, and lighting designer Peter Mumford—to visit Hastings so they could form their own impressions of the setting. “It was so much better than me showing them pictures,” he reflects. “I wanted it to be their version of the influence that I’d put into it. When people come and see the opera, they’re not going to see Hastings. It’s the atmosphere of that place, rather than the place itself.”
The 17th-century net huts that stand on the beach there made a particularly strong impression on Pask. Doyle puts them in context: “In terms of what would have been the community at that time, they are skyscrapers, in that they’re three or four floors high—tall, thin wooden buildings in which the nets were hung and in which people would sleep and live as well. Fish were sold from them, so they were kind of utilitarian.” Pask, who has turned the imagery of the shingled net huts into a series of walls, which are the primary elements of the set. “These walls do, in the course of the evening, close in,” Doyle explains.
“And hopefully, you will get the feeling that you would in an English pub, of everybody standing so close together that they can’t move. You have a feeling that people can’t get away from each other, the feeling of a man being pressed against a wall by people. Also a sense of people looking through walls—faces in the walls—and a world that closes in on a person.”
In this enclosed world, Doyle feels that the only escape should be the sea—but one that is also full of danger. Positing that “the only way to recreate the sea is to go and see the sea,” he shied away from a literal recreation and hopes instead to give a sense of it as a liberating presence. “As a form of theatrical staging, I don’t see it as a particularly realistic or naturalistic world, but something more psychological,” he explains.
Hould-Ward applied a mix of realistic, naturalistic, and psychological elements to her costumes. Based on actual clothes worn in 19th-century fishing communities, they are tweaked to include elements of the natural world—particularly the birds that are such an inescapable part of English fishing life. Doyle is very aware of their presence in his own town. “The squawking and the shrieking is very powerful, and angry sometimes. That has something to do with how we approached the look of some of the pieces. The hats are not unrealistic, but they’ve got almost beak-like features, giving the sense that they could peck. There’s a nightmarish element.”
Costume designs by Ann Hould-Ward
Doyle is the first to admit that it’s a very bleak world he’s created. “If you put money into the scenery, it can look spectacular if you’re working with good artists. But that’s not always what the root of the story is,” he argues. “The root of the story can and should maybe happen on a bare stage sometimes. I strive to make the storytelling as truthful as I can.”
Whether the subject is a play or an opera, this notion is at the core of Doyle’s approach to directing: It’s a story to be told. He finds Peter Grimes richly gratifying in this regard. “It’s a highly theatrical piece, but equally, it is a piece that could happen and does happen every day. We meet, we judge. We even try people on television nowadays.” At the same time, he is aware of the unique challenges opera presents. “Opera requires certain physical qualities, ways of using the body that are not how you or I would be on the street.” He aims to find the balance between the extraordinary process of singing and an ordinary physicality that will make the performers more touching and the story more truthful.
In this pursuit, he recognizes Britten’s music as one of his chief allies. Along with the unforgettably idiomatic vocal writing, the orchestral music in the opera has a life of its own. The atmospheric “Sea Interludes” and “Passacaglia” that break up the opera’s scenes have even entered standard orchestral concert repertory. “This music evokes hundreds of images for me,” Doyle marvels. “I can hear a religious element, and there’s passion and anger and repression. And those Interludes are probably some of the finest things ever written for the world of opera. I find it extremely accessible and very much from the soul and the heart.”
Ellen Keel is the Met’s Senior Radio Producer.