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Last modified: Thursday, March 25, 2004

World-renowned director sets sail on new voyage with IU Opera production of "Peter Grimes"

Photo by: Ken Howard

Colin Graham, who has directed a record 55 world premieres, will guest direct the IU Opera Theater production of "Peter Grimes." Graham directed the premieres of the last eight operas written by the illustrious composer Benjamin Britten.

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- His resume includes more than 400 opera, theater and television productions. He's directed a record 55 world premieres, including the premieres of the last eight operas written by the illustrious composer Benjamin Britten.

So when Colin Graham guest directs the Indiana University Opera Theater production of Britten's Peter Grimes -- which will be April 9, 10, 16 and 17 at the Musical Arts Center on the Bloomington campus -- one might expect he'd be in for smooth sailing. Yet the 72-year-old Englishman knows that his fifth time directing Britten's most famous opera marks a new voyage into uncharted waters. It's the first time he will lead the opera for a university company.

"Every single person is fresh to this opera," Graham said. "It's a voyage of discovery for them, and the way we're working together is a voyage of discovery for all of us."

Peter Grimes is born

Graham is excited to be introducing Peter Grimes to a new generation of performers and audience members. Britten's first major opera, Peter Grimes debuted in 1945 in London, shortly before the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War. Based on a long poem written by 18th century English writer George Crabbe, it is the story of a gruff fisherman living as an outsider in a small, coastal village known as the Borough. As the violent and tragically flawed Grimes tries to fend off vicious rumors about the death of his apprentice at sea during a storm, Britten's central theme -- of the individual against society -- emerges. This theme pervades many of the composer's works, since Britten considered himself to be a social outcast, Graham said.

"Peter Grimes" is considered to be Benjamin Britten's masterpiece.

Audiences instantly accepted the opera upon its London premiere, signaling a new beginning in English opera. Peter Grimes features a complex central character and well-defined subsidiary characters as well as a powerful score, featuring six "sea" interludes that are often performed in concert by themselves. The music "matches the drama on stage perfectly," said IU Professor of Music David Effron, who will conduct the IU production. "It's very challenging to the performers, and yet there are moments of great melodious sections and incredible dramatic movement. It's a great piece because it's a combination of sophisticated singing and music and drama at a very high level."

"There wasn't anybody who composed music that sounded quite like this and was that difficult for opera houses as Britten did," Effron added. "He also was a great singer's composer, someone who really understood the voice as did Verdi and Wagner. There's a lot of natural conversation."

Mark Duffin, who is one of two singers who will play Peter Grimesin the IU production, praised the composer for his ability to write a piece of music that is meticulously constructed, yet packed with emotion. "It's almost like going to a play that happens to be sung and has an amazing soundtrack, because it's so organic in that sense," Duffin said. "It's a brilliant thing about Britten. The music flows like normal. The emotions and speech patterns really ring true, and yet there's not a note out of place."

The sea also plays a central role in Britten's opera. A "means of life," its huge waves batter and slowly erode the village's coastline. "I've been there. People fear for their lives. It's very frightening," Graham said.

After its debut, Peter Grimes quickly moved on to other theaters, including New York City's Metropolitan Opera, where it was first performed in 1948. Today, the opera is considered to be Britten's masterpiece.

About the composer

Britten, who died in 1976, is considered to be the leading British composer of the postwar period. His catalogue includes operas, ballets, chamber music, songs, folk song arrangements and choral works. Despite switching among many styles of music and tackling a diverse range of subject matters, Britten remained faithful to the theme of the individual versus society. Graham believes this theme is as relevant in today's times as it was when Britten was composing.

"(Peter Grimes) is extremely relevant, especially at this particular moment in time when America is becoming very puritanical," Graham said, citing the recent controversy swirling around the issue of gay marriage. "The same goes for the community in this opera. Here you have a dreamer and a visionary and people don't accept him. His first apprentice dies and he basically becomes an outcast. The people are so puritanical just like so many people today, and yet they all have vices worse than his. They are all fallible.

"We all have a weak side," Graham continued. "Everybody has something he's not proud of in his background."

"As Colin says, this is not opera, this is not music, this is life," Effron said. "And that's true. It's about real people."

Britten, who, along with his collaborator and lifelong companion, Peter Pears, was a pacifist and conscientious objector during World War II, may not have had much in common with the more forcible Grimes. Still, he sympathized with the fisherman, a nonconformist struggling desperately to fit into a society not ready to accept him, Graham said. "Britten was a peaceful man who came under frequent scrutiny, yet he never hid his relationship with Peter Pears. He, himself, felt like an outcast. He built walls around himself and built walls of friends around him."

About the director

Graham's association with Britten began in 1953 when he went to work for the composer's English Opera Group as an assistant stage manager. He served as director of productions for the English Opera Group from 1963 to 1975 and worked with Britten on all but one of his operas.

Mark Duffin worked with Graham on the world premiere of Bright Sheng's Madame Mao at the Santa Fe Opera last year. He has performed in several Britten operas, though he has never done Peter Grimes. The 34-year-old Seattle native praised Graham for his insider knowledge of Britten and theatrical approach to the composer's works. He also credited Graham with helping him learn the leading role and understand the "big picture" as painted by Britten.

"What's spectacular about doing Grimes with Colin is that he knows the score inside and out, has a great take on every character in this piece, knows all about the history, the place it's set and the orchestration. He brings a perspective and an insight (to Britten) that doesn't exist anywhere else except with Colin Graham. Imagine if you could do a Puccini show with someone who worked with (Puccini) a million times. That type of perspective gives an extra credence to Colin himself," Duffin said.

Graham made his U.S. debut in Santa Fe in 1974 with the American premiere of Britten's Owen Wingrave. Four years later, he joined the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where he remains as artistic director. Under his leadership, the Opera Theatre has become one of the country's leading opera houses and has staged several premieres, including the U.S. professional premiere of Britten's Paul Bunyan in 1984.

Graham has worked for the Metropolitan, Washington, Minnesota, Omaha, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Fe and New York City operas as well as the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Opera Pacific. In recent years, he has directed the world premieres of Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998) and Conrad Susa's The Dangerous Liaisons (1994) for the San Francisco Opera and John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) for the Metropolitan Opera. All three operas were televised by the Public Broadcasting Service.

In 1994, Graham directed a new production of Britten's Death in Venice for the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden for which he also designed the setting. The production was named "Best of the Year" in both the New York Times and New York and was nominated for an Olivier Award in London.

Graham specializes in the training of young opera singers and has worked and taught at the Yale University Opera Studio for several years. He is currently writing a training handbook for opera singers.

Ticket information

Tickets are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center Box Office (open from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday), all TicketMaster outlets, by phone through TicketMaster at 812-333-9955 and online at The second Friday performance offers a reduced ticket price and open seating.

More information about the IU Opera Theater can be found at

Showtime information

Peter Grimes will be performed on April 9 and 10 and again on April 16 and 17 at the Musical Arts Center. All performances begin at 8 p.m. and are preceded by free Informances at 7 p.m. on the Mezzanine level.