What happens in Venice, stays in the canon

What happens in Venice, stays in the canon

Alan Bennett‘s latest National Theatre play The Habit of Art spurred more interest in an opera that is already firmly in the operatic canon, Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. The play was simulcast in movie theatres across the world earlier this year and if you missed it you ought to get a DVD when it becomes available. It brings together W H Auden and Benjamin Britten for a tension-filled chat about the opera Britten’s working on, based on the novella by Thomas Mann and involving a man obsessed by a boy. The encounter is imaginary — it seems that Britten never considered Auden as a potential librettist for the Death — but the history between the two men in the play isn’t.

Richard Griffiths (Auden), Adrian Scarborough (biographer Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings (Britten), in the Habit of Art, National Theatre London
Richard Griffiths (Auden), Adrian Scarborough (biographer Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings (Britten), in the Habit of Art, National Theatre London

There is plenty in the play for the lovers of Britten’s music. The strategically placed audio excerpts from Peter Grimes and his other works are an important part of the play, but there’s also a lot of lively give and take between the two about Britten’s way of working, his place in the western music canon, his de facto husband Peter Pears (who, as we hear more than once with a tone of foreboding, is at the moment far away, “in Toronto”) and his coping with his inner censor. “Death in Venice! Imagine what Strauss would do with that,” says Auden/Fitz wistfully on one occasion. “Yes, sea is your thing, isn’t it,” it occurs to him how to classify Britten on another. In one particularly heated exchange, he urges Britten to drop the mythological mystification, Apollos and Dionysuses and all the high brow obfuscation about lost innocence when it’s really all about boys to begin with. He urges Britten to admit to himself that it is all about boys, and that that is just as good.

Worth reading is Alan Bennett’s own account on why he wrote the play, what sources he used and why he believes himself to be closer to Britten, and even the visiting rent boy, rather than Auden. UK’s National Theatre also posted a short clip from the documentary about the two lives and the play, which contains many gems. (If you go here and click on Alan Bennett Short Film, you’ll get there. NT is keeping its clips close to its Flash chest.)

Benjamin Britten on Lowestoft sea wall, 1929. Photo: Britten-Pears Foundation
Benjamin Britten on Lowestoft sea wall, 1929. Photo: Britten-Pears Foundation

The Canadian Opera Company is putting on Death in Venice in mid-October this year, with Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach. Oke already performed in the role in many productions to acclaim (“Ever since Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson…” and so on). There is a photo gallery on the COC site of a Opera Lyon production with Oke, but in thumbnail size. The audio files — yes, those still exist on some websites, and COC has yet to discover YouTube — are from an earlier Death conducted by Steuart Bedford, with the English Chamber Orchestra, Members of The English Opera Group and Peter Pears as Aschenbach. Bedford will conduct the upcoming COC production.

Meanwhile, here’s a reportage from the recent gorgeous Staatsoper Hamburg staging:

6 thoughts on “What happens in Venice, stays in the canon

  1. Believe it or not, the COC does have a YouTube channel! Admittedly, it’s rather tricky to find and not heavily used or promoted. And there are YouTube videos for a couple of upcoming productions, like Cenerentola.


    I’m certainly intrigued by the play – Death in Venice is a work I’m not very familiar with, either as a book or an opera, and I’m a big Auden fan. Thanks for pointing it out!

    1. It’s a re-stage of a production that premiered 2007 at the Aldeburgh Festival, the same festival where Death in Venice was first performed. It was very well-reviewed at that time and the concept – very minimalist – looks fascinating. I’m looking forward to it myself!

  2. Hey, that YouTube channel is a step in the right direction.

    You would have enjoyed Bennett’s Auden. They’re about to start touring the play with the original cast, but I doubt they’ll cross the Atlantic. I do hope the NT gets it on DVD eventually.

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