Photo (C) Erik Berg

"Norway has a strong connection to the ocean, much like Ireland and England, and Billy Budd is the ultimate opera about the power and beauty of the sea."

Annilese Miskimmon, Director of Opera for Den Norske Opera and Ballet, Oslo.

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd moves to Oslo

Annilese Miskimmon has been Director of Opera for Den Norske Opera and Ballet in Oslo since August 2017. Born in Northern Ireland, she is a passionate supporter of new work and has overseen a variety of productions across Europe. Hedda Høgåsen-Hallesby is one of Norway’s most talented dramaturges operating in Scandinavia today. Both have worked on the first performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd in Norway, originally performed in London in 1951, and in this interview they talk to the British Council about the production.  

What have your respective roles been when working on this opera?

H - Annilese is the Director of the performance, responsible for the staging of Billy Budd, and working closely with the set and costume designer Annemarie Woods and lighting designer Paule Constable. 

A - As the dramaturge for the opera company, Hedda Høgåsen-Hallesby has assisted the artistic teams with their interpretation of the opera, as well as leading the work of communicating the work through textual analysis and presentations to our audience.

Is Britten well known in Norway?

H - Benjamin Britten is well known in Norway; he was born the 20th century and his works are frequently performed world-wide. Peter Grimes has been performed a number of times, first in 1965 when the production was directed by Joan Cross who also sung the part of Ellen Orford at the world premiere. More recently, The Norwegian National Opera has presented The Rape of Lucretia and a staged version of War Requiem. All these productions were well received. However, our performance of Billy Budd is actually a Norwegian premiere. This is quite remarkable, for the opera is one of his best known works.

Why does his music resonate with Norwegian audiences?

H - It’s hard to tell why Norwegians in particular like Britten’s music. I think there is something in his compositions that appeals to many people, regardless of their background or nationality. It might be a combination of the greatness that we hear in his sublime “sea interludes” coupled with the sensitivity in his portrayal of human emotions. Or maybe it is down to the fact that the composer didn’t belong to a particular school or tradition: he combined established operatic tradition borrowed from Wagner and Verdi with the modern expressionism of contemporary composers, and introduced other influences from film, musicals and jazz.

What was the main impetus behind bringing Billy Budd to Norway?

A: I wanted to choose something that would have a connection with this particular place. Oslo’s opera house feels like a ship – the first time that I walked into this remarkable building, I looked straight through the foyer out into the sea. Norway has a strong connection to the ocean, much like Ireland and England, and Billy Budd is the ultimate opera about the power and beauty of the sea. I also wanted to bring something to the house that was a Norwegian debut, and that inspired the orchestra and the chorus – the male part of it, obviously, as Billy Budd is an opera that features only male voices. The desire to challenge the technical team to create something unique inspired my decision, as did the need to share something with the audience that they hadn't experienced before.

Has the Opera House attracted attention from a wider spectrum of audiences, given the opera’s themes of masculinity and homosexuality?

H - We hope that Billy Budd will attract a wide range of interested spectators, regardless of their sexual orientation. Even though both the librettist Forster and the composer Britten were gay, and Billy Budd is about forbidden feelings in a very masculine context, this opera is not a ´gay opera´ per se. It is an opera about being human and the potential conflict between personal emotions, laws and regulations. These are things that all human beings encounter in their lives. 

Can you tell us more about the costumes and set design by Annemarie Woods?

A: Woods is an outstandingly sensitive and intelligent designer, and an expert at creating a wholly believable atmosphere through her sets and costumes. She has been able to negotiate the ‘naval world’ around which this opera is developed in a way that is as modern as it is enigmatic. Like our highly esteemed lighting designer Paule Constable, Woods is also a wonderfully collaborative colleague. She always inspires those who work with her, and the result is incredibly ambitious and beautiful productions.   

If you were to bring another opera by Britten to Norway, what would be it be and why?

A: A Midsummer Night's Dream is very close to my heart, not least because I am an English Literature graduate! A lot of operas are inspired by Shakespeare, but I think that Britten is the composer who gets closest to capturing the essence of the original text through music. The Turn of the Screw is also a masterpiece of gothic and psychological suspense. These operas are smaller than Billy Budd in terms of the scale, but they have as much dramatic impact.

Annelise, you worked in the UK and Denmark before Norway. How has this previous experience fueled your imagination?

A - In Denmark I also lived by the sea, and that felt very important. I'm obviously drawn to the coast! I’m Northern Irish but I studied and have worked a lot in England, so I'd essentially describe myself as a cultural anglophile. A lot of my inspiration as a child growing up in Northern-Ireland was not only the Irish but also the English literary tradition. 

What do the Norwegians make of opera and the high arts compared to the UK and Denmark?

A - Norwegians are very open-minded about opera because their opera tradition has developed relatively recently. It is very exhilarating to have such a sophisticated but equally open-minded audience. 

Are there any Norwegian musicians – classical, jazz or folk – that you’d like to see performed in the UK?

A - One of the greatest opera discoveries is Lise Davidsen, a wonderful, young Norwegian soprano, who is now beginning to perform in the UK. She has also performed at Glyndebourne, and I highly recommended hearing her sing.

Photo (C) Erik Berg
Photo (C) Erik Berg

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