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Carolina Performing Arts Blog

Spotlight On Curlew River

// Oct 22,2014

By Charlotte Jackson

Britten’s Curlew River seems to defy classification in more ways than one. Britten’s unexpected fusion of medieval English liturgical drama with contemporaneous Japanese Noh theatre of the 16th century is just the beginning. The music of Curlew River has been described as everything from church opera, to “opera,” to simply a work. People seem to tiptoe around calling Britten’s work an opera, sans quotation marks. Perhaps for good reason, as it has no conductor, a sparse chamber orchestra, and was composed solely to accommodate the specific acoustics and ambiance of a church performance.

Although it’s arguably a discussion of semantics, I believe too often our narrow definition of opera takes credit away from the rich artistic and musical tradition these innovative productions take upon themselves. Moreover, it can make it difficult for us to make the connection with the abundant history of listening to drama set to music over the past 400 years. Curlew River can, in terms of grief and emotionally charged music, sit right beside Verdi’s Rigoletto, if you will.

To add any works of our time to the operatic canon, we might consider painting with broader strokes. If we spotlight Verdi and Puccini and “exclude” the late 20th and early 21st century we leave a gap in the timeline of opera history, and don’t offer these works the high esteem and heritage they’ve built themselves upon. However you categorize Curlew River, the common thread will be that the human experience is told through music and drama and, I might be a little biased, but nothing beats that.

Charlotte is a Music Performance and French double major. This means she’s spent the past four years singing opera, reading French literature, or doing both simultaneously if she’s a little behind.