Benjamin Britten's Musical Masterpiece, War Requiem
Part 1: Interview with Tenor, Paul Groves
The Lyon Opera House in France opened its 2017-2018 season by commemorating the WWI centennial with the powerful, intense WWI masterpiece War Requiem by British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). A pacifist, Britten was deeply affected by the horrors of WWII, by the brutal destruction of Hiroshima and had always wanted to create a musical composition calling for peace among all humans. He finally got the chance in 1961 when he was commissioned to compose the dedication for the new Coventry Cathedral in England, which was reduced to ruins during the WWII bombings of November 1940. Known for both its traditional and innovative writing, Britten organized War Requiem in three layers: the conventional requiem of liturgical mass with a chorus, orchestra, and a soprano; the sound of individual human voices with a tenor and baritone reciting Wilfred Owen’s poetry, accompanied by a chamber orchestra; a chorus of children accompanied by an organ. In the middle of the Cold War, as Germans were building the Berlin Wall, Britten aimed to bring together soloists from three “belligerent” nations: a Russian soprano, an English tenor, and a German baritone.
Britten is one of the greatest lyrical composers of the twentieth century and, and according to the director of the Lyon Opera, Serge Dorny, Britten's exceptional sense of narrative and drama demanded a theatrical performance. For the centennial performance in 2017, Lyon decided to invite the Japanese actor and director, Yoshi Oida, to lead the performance alongside Italian conductor, Daniele Rustioni. Oida claims that Britten’s War Requiem is not just about WWI; it is universal and speaks to him particularly since he witnessed the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during WWII. In talks and interviews, he encourages spectators to view the work through the eyes of children, who are not only strangers to adult conflicts, but also victims. He says that the young singers of the Lyon Opera play an enormous role in War Requiem’s staging. Unlike the other singers in the show, who wear WWI-era clothing and uniforms, the children who sit on the side of the stage during the whole performance are dressed in modern clothing. They act mostly as spectators as if watching a history lesson, but at times they get up to sing and interact with the soloists and the stage.
WWrite had the opportunity to sit down with Paul Groves, the tenor, and Yoshi Oida, the director to talk about the piece. We’ll hear this week from Groves. Next week’s WWrite’s blog post will feature Yoshi Oida’s interview. Here’s Paul Groves:
WWrite: Britten’s War Requiem focuses on the British and German experience of WWI. What did director Yoshi Oida, a Japanese artist, bring to what appears to be a European-centered narrative?
Paul Groves: Yoshi Oida, occasionally, would tell us about Japan. He is from where they dropped the bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and he was 12 years old at the time, so he remembers it very well. He explained that after the war, “the Japanese Emperor just said ‘Ok, we lost the war, and now we're just going to everything the American way’ and there wasn’t ever a question. I never saw my mother or any of her friends blame the Americans. We never blamed them for anything. We immediately thought that we had lost and now we’re going to live this way.”
And I never even thought about this.
The argument I’ve always heard was that so many more Japanese and Americans would have died if the bomb hadn’t been dropped. But who knows? I had always heard war stories about Europeans and Americans, but I never thought about the Japanese point of view.
WWrite: While both of you know Europe very well, neither you nor Yoshi Oida is European. He's Japanese, and you're American. What are some of the ways that you, as an American, have made this European–and in some respects, Japanese– representation of WWI meaningful to you?
Paul Groves: So much of what I know about war comes from my family, who were in WWII in Europe and Korea. My mother’s oldest brother flew 35 missions over Berlin. He was a pilot for a B-17. And then he became MIA in Korea, and they never found him. My mom was a teenager at the time. And the biggest problem about his disappearance was never knowing for sure what happened. Ten years ago, or so, my mom's sister sent a picture she had found of people in Korea and thought that it was him. My family is still talking about it, and today my uncle would have been over 100.
Before this opera, I had read several books about WWII but never anything about the Japanese. A member of my sister-in-law’s family was a Pacific Island fighter, and he was in the Bataan death march, and he made it all the way. Then, he was taken prisoner, and when I asked my sister-in-law about it, she said this family member never talked about it. It was only after he died when his friends came to her and said, wow, it was amazing what he went through.
My dad remembers WWII because he was born in 1930. But my parents only came to Europe after I started working there. They took their first trip when I was singing in Berlin, and I took them to Paris and London. But Berlin was their favorite trip. Seeing those same places where that whole regime took place under Hitler was amazing to them. Doing projects like War Requiem for me makes family history come out.
And, this particular representation mixes up Britten’s original intentions for the soloists. The baritone is supposed to be a German, the soprano a Russian, and the tenor a British man. The soprano is Russian, Ekaterina Scherbachenko. However, the baritone, the German soldier in the opera, Lauri Vasar, is from Estonia, which is a country that was brutally occupied by the Soviet Union for many years. I am supposed to be an English soldier, but I’m American. I have known a lot of conductors who won’t hire me for this piece because I’m American even though my last name is Groves. So, somewhere along the line, I was English! And I’ve become well-known for my English diction, whatever language I sing in, I try not to sing English with an American accent. I’ve done a lot of English stuff, like Elgar and if you added an American accent to any of it, it sounds like Broadway. So, I try not to do that. I’ve been held back a lot of times from this piece, War Requiem because I’m not English. So, when this casting director asked me about it a year ago, I said yes because I love this piece. And, also my country was involved in WWI. However, for the baritone, it is very difficult to have someone who doesn’t speak English because of the poetry in the piece by Wilfred Owen. Hearing it for the first time, it’s difficult to understand, especially when all the words aren’t very clear. So, the baritone part is never successful for a German person who doesn’t speak excellent English.
And you can interpret this casting in many ways. There's a lot of subtexts just in the choices. Americans and Russians were allies in both world wars and then afterward they became fierce enemies. Lauri Vasar, the baritone, is supposed to be German, but, in reality, comes from a formerly-occupied Soviet country. In many direct and indirect ways, the friend/foe lines are blurred in Oida’s War Requiem. And, Oida puts a lot of references to WWI and the Holocaust into his interpretation.
Like Oida, I’ve always considered this piece neither German nor English. America was involved in this war too. I think it is a comment on all war in general, but I consider that war – any war we’ve ever had – is futile, especially for the people fight them. I did my homework for the show. I read many books to find out what it’s about, what the composer was thinking at the time and, luckily for us, we have a lot of information about what Britten was thinking about why he wrote this. I could say that, as an opera singer, I’m a mimic and the research I did for this was no different than other pieces, like Parsifal. But, in reality, this piece has more meaning for me because I know people who have been in war and who have been affected by it. What’s interesting about this requiem–and that’s hard to say because there have been so many requiems–is that Britten adds two soldiers, war poetry, and war events, which is entirely untraditional. To meld all these things together proves Britten’s genius.
WWrite: Did you have input in the staging?
Paul Groves: Paul Groves: I had quite a bit of input in the staging. Yoshi Oida is an actor himself, and we've discussed these kinds of things too. He said that he wanted much of what I did to come from me. He didn't want to dictate every move. He gave us pretty clean slates. He would say "I'm going for this in this scene, and I would like to have a crescendo to move to the next point,” but that was it. It was a collaboration.
One of the places in the piece where I had influence happened during the scene when the wife of the dead British soldier comes out and puts flowers on the coffin. I play the friend of the soldier, and I come out to see her. And, at first, we talked about me being bitter about the death and the war, and frustrated. Yoshi said that I was supposed to mad at the whole world. But I told him that I had already done that in some of the other scenes. And, in this scene, I wanted to be more emotional about my friend there and talk about what Wilfred Owen says about the fields of France being home to the dead, about my friendship with him, the things we shared. And I think by not being angry here makes the tragedy more tragic.
Sometimes we have narratives about war that we can’t get rid of. We think it has to only be about anger and violence, but there isn’t just one story of war. There are stories of redemption, beauty, and friendship, but that’s not what we’re used to hearing. Soldiers live on after their deaths.
WWrite: Were you influenced by any other war stories when researching this role?
Paul Groves: Roger Waters from Pink Floyd is one of my good friends. He wrote an opera about 12 years ago called Ca Ira.It’s about the French Revolution, and I recorded for it. It's a proper opera although it's kind of like The Wall, but with operatic voices and the London Symphony. He made a movie of the last tour he did of The Wall–he’s on a new tour now–and 80% of it is the actual concert and 20% of him starting in London and driving to his father’s and his grandfather’s graves. His grandfather was killed in WWI when his father was one year old, and his father was killed in WWII when Roger was one year old. So, he takes his children and talks to them about war and reads the poetry of war as they travel. I went to the opening in New York a few years ago. It’s an hour and 45-minute film and 20 minutes of it takes place at these British cemeteries where they are buried. One is in Italy and the other in France. The music is fantastic, but that extra 20 minutes makes it especially touching.
Also, when I watched Ken Burn’s documentary film on WWII, The War,I was surprised to learn about all the guys that went down to sign up for the Navy because they said it would be less violent than being on the ground. And, when they got down there, they said that someone talked them into joining the Marines. And most of them said that it was the best thing they had ever done in their lives. Then they went away for three years, and it must have been horrible, but now they look back and say it was the best thing they had ever done. It's amazing.
I talk about war all the time with friends my age. I am so glad I never had to go through that. But, if had to, I would have.
WWrite: This opera not only involves children in the performance but also includes educational outreach initiatives for children who come as spectators. Opera is not an easy genre for children to appreciate. What are some of the ways you've helped French children understand Britten's War Requiem?
Paul Groves: They do something here in Lyon, which is something I’ve never seen at any other opera company I’ve worked for– there are so many kids. Last week I did a talk after the opera for about 150 high school students. And for a lot of them, it was the first time they had seen an opera or been to a concert for classical music. And they had so many great questions, and they asked not only about singing but also about the story and what we were going for. Last night the first 5 or 6 rows were filled with kids – and they were whistling. It was amusing because the conductor, who is Italian, was very confused because, in the Italian opera, whistling is booing. He came out for his credit call, and he asked me why they were whistling. They’re kids. I’d like to think they liked it as much as a rock concert.
And this is the exciting thing – a lot of my fellow singers say that they were introduced to opera in junior high school. Their teacher took them to the Metropolitan Opera for a performance and they were interested in it then and that’s what sparked them to be singers. Every time I’ve done a dress rehearsal in Europe, it has been for a children’s audience. For me, it’s always our best show because when we interview the kids afterward, we find that, even with Lohengrin or something that lasts 4 hours, they sit there and they're interested in it. They're never bored.
Excerpts from War Requiem, Opéra de Lyon 2017
Date: October 13, 2017
One of the great American tenors of his generation, Paul Groves continues to enjoy an impressive international career performing on the stages of the world's leading opera houses and most prestigious concert halls.
Paul Groves began his 2017/2018 season in the performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem with Opera de Lyon, followed by performances as Faust in a concert production of La Damnation de Faust with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After performances in Beethoven's Symphony no. 9 with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Paul will be seen with the Metropolitan Opera as Danilo in Susan Stroman's production of The Merry Widow. This will mark the 25th season Groves has been invited to return to the Met since his debut with the company as Steuermann in Der fliegende Holländer. Later on this season, he will perform with the Prague Philharmonia in Haydn's Creation with Maestro Emmanuel Villaume conducting. Soon after, the two will continue their season's collaboration when Paul Groves travels to Texas to perform as Wilhelm Arndt in The Ring of Polykrates with the Dallas Opera. Finally, to close out his season, Groves will perform in Das Lied von der Erde alongside Sasha Cooke at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
Highlights of recent seasons for the American tenor include a rare role debut singing Alessandro Cesare in Cavalli's Eliogabalo with the Opéra national de Paris, his first performances in the title role of Wagner's Parsifal with the Lyric Opera of Chicago led by Sir Andrew Davis, appearances as Admète in Gluck's Alceste with Madrid's Teatro Real, Nicias in Massenet's Thais with the Los Angeles Opera, and Pylade in Iphigénie en Aulide with Theater an der Wien. An avid concert performer, Groves' previous season was filled with debuts and return engagements with symphonies across the United States. Throughout the 2016/2017 season, he was seen performing Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Indianapolis Symphony, Berlioz' Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony under Charles Dutoit, as well as Stravinsky's Perséphone with the Oregon Symphony. For the full biography of Paul Groves, click here.