The Curious Case of Benjamin Britten

L.A. celebrates the centennial of the brilliant “chamber opera” composer


Centennials are a common cause for celebration but in the opera world they’re especially momentous. In addition to the 200th birthdays of operatic heavyweights Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of British composer Benjamin Britten’s birth.

Britten, not to be confused with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic man-child protagonist Benjamin Button, was a gifted composer and pianist credited with transforming modern English opera. He is best known for Peter Grimes, an allegory of homophobia told through the dark tale of a small-town fisherman accused of murder (informed by his own experiences as a gay pacifist in World War II-era England).

Lauded both during his life and after, Britten amassed an oeuvre of more than 100 works, not only in the realm of opera. Though the man himself spent much of his life in his native Suffolk his music explored the world, drawing inspiration from English Baroque compositions, Japanese Noh dramas, and Balinese gamelan music. Britten eventually settled into what became his signature spare musical style, “chamber opera,” operatic pieces that didn’t require a full orchestra.

To celebrate the Britten centenary, many of the classical composer’s orchestral, choral, and solo vocal pieces will be performed throughout L.A. County in the coming months as part of L.A. Opera’s Britten 100/LA commemoration. The performances, which kicked off this past weekend, will continue well into 2014, but a slew of them are happening around L.A. this month.

Saturday, June 8, 2013
The Angeles Chorale presents “A Royal Affair,” a concert featuring musical pieces related to England’s royal family including Britten’s Jubilate Deo. 7:30 p.m., First United Methodist Church Pasadena, 500 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. $25.

Sunday, June 9, 2013
You can have your pick of Britten-centric events this Sunday afternoon: a performance of the song cycle Les Illuminations at Thayer Hall in L.A. at 3 p.m. ($28), vocal performances of Britten’s Cabaret Songs and several choral works at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena at 4 p.m. ($15), and a chamber music performance of two of his pieces at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills at 5 p.m. ($20/$10 students and seniors).

Sunday, June 23, 2013
Pieces by Britten, Mozart, and Mendelssohn will be performed by string performers of the Pasadena Schubertiade. 4 p.m., 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. $15 general/$25 reserved.

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