Benjamin Britten's Curlew River at St Giles, Cripplegate: Madness, grief and the inspiration of Noh

Britten's Curlew River, a "church parable" which is currently being performed at St Giles, Cripplegate in the City of London, was inspired by a surprise encounter on a trip the composer took to Tokyo in 1956.

I’ve just returned from the dress rehearsal of Curlew River at St Giles Cripplegate in the City of London. This moated church was originally built in the 12th century and is now enclosed by the concrete towers of the Barbican Centre.

It’s a strange island outpost but an apt setting for one of Britten’s most unusual and – I think I’m right in saying – least performed works.

It’s an opera about a mother who has lost her child. It’s sung by an all-male cast and consists of just a few characters: the mother (called ‘the madwoman’ because she is wracked by grief); the ferryman; and the traveller.

It’s a very simple story: the madwoman arrives at the bank of the Curlew River. She’s in a state of distraction and begs the ferryman, who’s dismissive of her plight, to let her come on board. In desperation, she explains she is searching for someone, and eventually the ferryman relents.

As they cross the river, the ferryman explains that this day is an important anniversary. A year ago a boy died by the Curlew River, having been abandoned by his cruel master. The boy’s tomb is now a site of pilgrimage.

As the ferryman tells the story, it becomes apparent that the boy who died is the madwoman’s son. On disembarking from the boat, she is taken to the graveside to say a prayer for his soul. At the end of the opera, the boy appears to the assembled company and blesses his mother.

Britten called this small-scale opera a church parable and wrote it to be performed in Orford church near his home at Aldeburgh. The first production was in 1964, but the idea for Curlew River had been planted in the composer’s mind eight years earlier – in Tokyo.

On a world tour with his partner Peter Pears in 1956, Britten had stopped off in Japan and seen a fifteenth century Noh play called Sumidagawa or The Sumida River.

Britten’s first reaction to the play was to laugh. As Britten scholar Mervyn Cooke points out, Britten may have found the distinctive warbling of the singers reminiscent of Spike Milligan’s Eccles in The Goon Show.

But Britten’s initial embarrassment was supplanted by deep interest. It was clear to him that his experience of the Noh play would form the basis for a work of his own.

Before he could get round to it, however, there were other projects to tackle – in particular the War Requiem, an incredibly elaborate choral work commissioned for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. After its completion he sought a change of direction and Curlew River provided the outlet.

Like Sumidagawa, Curlew River has a small number of soloists and a chorus. Like the Noh play, it is sung by an all-male cast, wearing masks and acting the story through sparse, stylized movements. The libretto of Curlew River was closely based on an English translation of Sumidagawa; and Britten used flute, drums and bells to inflect the score with the air of Japanese music.

This, however, is the where the comparison ends. Britten took the story of Sumidagawa and transposed it to the East Anglian fenlands. He also framed the story as a medieval mystery play, and replaced the Buddhist reference points with Christian ones. Monks enter the church singing a plainsong chant and the abbot, at their head, announces that they are going to act out a story.

As the monks remove their habits and disperse about the stage, the three main characters emerge: the madwoman, the ferryman and the traveller. In this production, they are played by Ian Bostridge, Mark Stone and Neal Davies, and directed by Netia Jones.

On paper, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that Curlew River is difficult to stage. It’s not big enough for an opera house and tricky to pull off in a theatre. It’s a bizarre fusion of mystery play and Noh play, and comes with a wodge of notes by the first director Colin Graham, prescribing rules for how it should be performed.

But in Netia Jones’ interpretation, which pays no heed to past productions and concentrates purely on the emotional core of the story, the opera feels startling resonant and true.

It’s extraordinary that Britten should have written a work of such power based on a Japanese play which he could hardly have understood as he was watching it. But perhaps this is the experience he intends us to have in the audience of Curlew River. The characters are like abstract cut outs – open to interpretation, almost like vessels to be filled by the voices of the singers, shapes onto which we can project our imaginations.

The director Netia Jones suggests this idea to us by projecting monochrome film footage onto a blank, white stage. The madwoman, dressed in a long black robe, appears neither male nor female: she simply represents a figure of grief, rather than a character in any realistic sense. Ian Bostridge’s tall, ethereal physical presence intensifies the effect; you completely forget that he is a man playing a woman’s role.

The fact that the story is being acted out by monks who are themselves played by singers implicates the audience in the drama all the more fully. By recognizing that the drama is just a construction we are, conversely, more aware of its connection to real life.

Very little actually happens in the opera, but the relationships between the characters are closely observed. It takes a long time for the madwoman to persuade the ferryman to give her a place in his boat. He enjoys ridiculing her crazy behaviour and mocking her pretensions.

While the ferryman is unmoved by the madwoman’s condition, the traveller is more immediately responsive to her plight, and the chorus, who represent the other passengers, are easily swayed in either direction. Only when it’s revealed that the dead boy is the madwoman’s son does the ferryman show pity and lead her to the boy’s grave.

As the ferryman turns to makes preparations for the return crossing and the other passengers proceed with their journeys, there is a horrifying moment when it seems that the fragile bonds of sympathy that have developed between the characters will once more evaporate, leaving the madwoman to contend with her grief alone.

The ferryman hasn’t time to stop for long before making the return journey. The traveller is (as he tells us) continually on the move. Even the characters themselves will shortly revert to being monks and turn their backs on the story they’ve just brought to life. But the madwoman has nowhere to turn. She remains on stage and in our imaginations, calling for our sympathies. 

Britten’s first church parable does not offer us Christian consolation, despite its ending. It allows us to experience the rush of hope in the madwoman’s heart as her child is heard faintly singing. But the child’s benediction is not echoed in the music. The plainsong that closes the opera is exactly the same as the chant we hear at the beginning.

Are we to be left with this disturbing feeling of circularity? Perhaps. But perhaps a change has occurred in the audience’s minds. The effect of Curlew River is to heighten our sensitivity and enlarge our sympathies, not just for the plight of the madwoman but for the people she represents.

Curlew River will be performed as part of the Barbican Britten Festival in London on 14 - 16 November.

Curlew River is also the subject of a Radio 4 programme, produced by Isabel Sutton, on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30 on 19 November. The programme is a Just Radio production.

St Giles, Cripplegate, between the Brutalist towers of the Barbican Estate. Photograph: Getty Images.

Isabel Sutton is a radio producer and journalist.

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Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date

The more mainstream Beyoncé becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Beyoncé has long been associated with empowerment. From her Destiny’s Child days to B’Day to 2013’s self-titled album, instructions for empowerment are everywhere. Make your own money, and don’t let any man take it from you. You are beautiful, and you should feel empowered by your beauty. You can be successful on your own, but a relationship can be empowering, too. Your existence is powerful, in all its forms.

Beyoncé has always sung primarily to an audience that is black and female, which is essentially what transports so many of these songs from generically feel-good to genuinely radical, even if this difference is often elided on the dancefloor.

As a black woman making art for other black women, Beyoncé has often functioned as a cultural linchpin for movements of gender and racial equality before she has explicitly attached herself to them: “Beyoncé” and “feminism” were used in the same sentence long before she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or stood in front of a giant neon sign blazing “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs. And she and her husband Jay-Z were entwined with #BlackLivesMatter before she included graffiti reading “STOP SHOOTING US” in one of her music videos.

But Beyoncé has continually surprised audiences with her readiness to engage explicitly with these complex issues in more experimental forms as her impossible success continues to snowball: in a kind of inversion on the traditional narrative of white male punk musicians selling out, the more mainstream she becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Formation, her newest single, which dropped on Saturday, takes Beyoncé into territory that feels simultaneously familiar and untrodden. It’s a trap-influenced, synthy track brimming with distinctive reminders of her black Southern upbringing and her phenomenal success. Lyrics about black self-love, the pulsing undercurrent of Beyoncé’s entire career, take on new significance in how explicit and familial they are: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Financial gain as a challenge to oppression – an implication of so many of her songs – finds new, more direct, expression: your “best revenge is your paper”. All these words take on greater significance dressed as they are in such potent visual imagery: Beyoncé stands on top of a drowning police car in New Orleans and fans herself in period clothing in a pregnant, ghostly house reminiscent of Beloved’s 124. Without a doubt, this is Beyoncé‘s most radical release.

It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé makes links between music and political change in her music itself, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because music has personally empowered Beyoncé to have a kind of cultural and financial success that most people (of any race) could only ever dream of, allowing her to challenge cultural norms in becoming a symbol of independence, sex appeal, authenticity, achievement, blackness and femininity, within a racist society that often sees those traits as incongruous. (This is made explicit in the lyric, “You just might be a black Bill Gates”: world-changing levels of success are still seen as white and male.)

Metaphorically, because Beyoncé‘s music has united black female bodies in organised movement for years (think the Single Ladies” dance). She plays with this in Formation: the line “Get in formation” is an instruction for empowerment. With its punning echo of “get information”, it calls on you to get ready to dance, and to resist. As Dr Zandria F. Robinson notes, it is “a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance, [...] formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement”.

The moment of pause is particularly significant because it is so often dangerous – something that the video for Formation” illustrates in its shots of a young black boy dancing, then opening his arms outstretched, in front of white riot police. They pause before raising their own hands. The poet Claudia Rankine once told me that these silent moments are important because of their potential danger: the calm before the storm. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds [...] is all of white supremacist history building up. You [can] end up on the other side of that with a dead body.”

Beyoncé has used her own moment of suspense productively – fans and critics noted her “deafening silence” on racial equality, asking where her Instagram essay or impassioned tweets were when her audience needed them. Instead, she took the time to craft a thoughtful, nuanced, forceful anthem made by and for black women that will doubtlessly be consumed by audiences indiscriminately around the world (and Jay-Zs streaming service Tidal simultaneously donated $1.5m to #BlackLivesMatter).

A woman often criticised for her enthusiastic engagement with capitalism (like Rihanna, whose “prosperity gospel” is beautifully explained here by Doreen St Felix), Beyoncé has, in characteristic style, used Formation to demonstrate how the master’s tools can sometimes be used to dismantle the master’s house from the inside. As Britt Julious writes, “As long as we live in this world with these systems, the best manner of disrupting, of surviving, of taking what’s yours is using the same methods they might have used on you. Beyoncé knows what she’s doing. Who else could bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.