Written by: Mansel Stimpson
A discussion with Tim Hopkins as he stages Owen Wingrave at Covent Garden’s Linbury Theatre…
There was a time when Gloriana was Benjamin Britten’s most neglected opera, but its place has now been taken by Owen Wingrave. Although staged by Covent Garden in 1973, it had originally been conceived for a different medium, that of television, and was premiered on BBC2 in 1971. For some directors tackling this piece now, those facts could be daunting, suggesting that the stage is not its true home. Not so in the case of Tim Hopkins, however. A scenic designer and film-maker as well as being a director with a special interest in mixed media works and in the latest technology, he regards this invitation to consider Owen Wingrave afresh not so much as a challenge but an opportunity. It excites him the more because he sees certain parallels between the world today and that period towards the end of the 19th-century that produced the short story by Henry James on which this opera is based.
“I got a fellowship in 2001 with the National Endowment Society of Technology and Arts. That was because I had been involved in work with a technological stamp, an investigation of the uses for moving images inside the traditional art-form of the stage. I had used two small films made on Super-8 in the production I did for the Royal Opera of The Golden Cockerel and earlier still when directing Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert for English National Opera, a work in which there is a story within a story, I had expressed that through a combination of 35-millimetre film and primitive shadow puppetry. Even before the most recent discoveries, I was always as a director navigating the relationship that existed between what represented the technological environment of the 19th-century and earlier – which gave birth to most of what we call opera – and the new technologies of the 20th-century, the primary cultural by-product of which is cinema. Those tensions fascinate me.
“In terms of the wider world, however, we were and are now in the teeth of a massive technological revolution to do with digital media. The effects of it are potentially so wide-ranging that I don’t think we can really see what they are yet and what cultural forms will emerge. That’s why I find similarities with that other modern period between, say, 1890 and 1915. Just as in those days cameras had been built but no-one was sure where that would lead, there’s now a whole lot of stuff out there, born of a combination of technology and economics and of changes both cultural and physical, that provide fresh tools which enable artists to manipulate sound and image. Yet it seems to me that we haven’t so far found a D. W. Griffith, someone who in this new context can tell us what the grammar is. But this is particularly exciting in my own sphere because historically the ambition of opera was to bring together different expressive elements: sound, image, picture, sculpture, music, acting. The avalanche of change we see around us now adds to those possibilities and in my work I’m trying to see tradition through the prism of modernity even to the extent of representing through the new technology some of the anxiety and ambivalence that we feel about it. It’s like going out into the Wild West and discovering an evermore-distant horizon. The further you go the more exciting it becomes, but in that new space you may find that you’ve lost the sense of where you’ve come from and, having gone there, we can’t go back.”
Looked at in this context, Owen Wingrave may seem to belong to the past. Tim is, however, very aware that when the work was created Britten was being innovative in writing for what was the mass medium of its day, a phenomenon that through the box in the corner was bringing directly into the home all sorts of information and which provided visualisation of actual warfare. Young as he was having been born in 1963, he recalls the impact of direct images of the war in Vietnam. He correctly distances himself from the view that ‘Wingrave’ offers a debate about pacifism but I am surprised that the centre of his focus in this production is not on the opera’s advocacy of Britten’s own pacifist beliefs. For me Wingrave first and foremost shows the titular character taking a stand which, whether ultimately successful or not, is the only hope for mankind in a world where man’s propensity for violence needs to be challenged.
I should perhaps in view of the opera’s comparative neglect mention for those unfamiliar with it something about the story before quoting Tim further. It concerns the hostility that Owen as the scion of a military family has to face when he relinquishes his anticipated career as a soldier and speaks up for pacifism. As in the case of The Turn of the Screw, James’s text provides a ghost story, but the real concerns go deeper and the conclusion of both works offers a resolution that is clear-cut on the surface but complex and troubling in its significance. In Britten’s opera Owen, partly to prove that he is not a coward, spends a night in a haunted room in the family home and is found dead in the morning. The text indicates however that he has confronted not a mere ghost, however fearsome that might be, but the anger of the world, the horrible power that makes men fight. Such a conclusion could be seen as negative – he dies – but not least on a moral level it is positive in that what takes place can be said to represent the most that any individual can do.
Tim is certainly not unsympathetic to these issues: “It’s not that I don’t personally agree with that stance: I do, obviously. I don’t think that war is a good thing. However, while that element of the piece is much talked about, I feel that the story around which that belief, that passion, is wrapped has a different kind of centre. My first responses to the piece were connected to genre. There is the idea of failing power, of human disintegration, and there’s the ghost story. The latter is a form much linked with the end of the 19th-century which ostensibly was a highly rational time, the known world never more known or more fully mapped and scientifically understood. But at that point there’s a kind of reaction to all that: somehow the unknown becomes really, really important and special. That produces the ghost story, but often it’s the inner life that is being explored there. It’s about projecting the inner life outwards and Freud is another important part of it all.
“In Owen’s case he makes his key decision, one that makes him different from the rest, early on in the piece and his pacifist views create the conflicts in a story that becomes a portrait of psychological disintegration. That for me is what drives the piece. Each member of the family is in a sense a casualty of war. So many in the family have lost someone close to them: a son, a father, a fiancé, a brother. The Wingraves have endured dreadfully and to live with that, to anoint their sacrifice with meaning, they expect Owen to live up to it. Owen’s stand forces them to look at this because if accepted what he is saying would require them to un-pick all the accommodations with grief that they’ve made over the years. Without fully realising it he is detonating all this.
“It’s also the case that Owen can be aggressive, so with him practice and principle are not always the same. The end of the story is genuinely mysterious because it’s kept within the ghost story genre and we don’t know what happened, how he died. You could say that conflict wins, and it’s certainly the case that the family destroy themselves by effectively destroying Owen: they’ve done it by putting him in a position where his only course is to face death in some, mysterious way, perhaps at his own hand. Instead of preserving the Wingrave family as intended, they’ve done the reverse and the family now faces oblivion. There are all sorts of black ironies here.”
As one takes aboard Tim’s thoughts about the piece, another irony emerges. This is an opera which was dismissed initially by some critics as being too simplistic, too obviously a pacifist tract, and yet there is so much here to consider either on seeing this production or by listening to Britten’s own recording of it (Decca). I have to say, too, that having witnessed an astonishingly positive and emotional response to the work when it was staged at Aldeburgh just after the Falklands War, I wonder if Tim is underestimating the power with which Britten expressed his pacifist beliefs. Tim may be introducing camerawork into this staging while retaining the period setting for the story itself, but the sense that this is a work relevant to us today could come most strongly from the work’s pacifist passion that may ironically be said to hit the audience between the eyes. When Owen asserts the beliefs he has formed, he does so in words that might have been written with Tony Blair and the Iraq War in mind: “Obey! Believe! Accept! – But the orders are wrong.”