Owen Wingrave
  • Benjamin Britten. Opera in two acts. 1970.
  • Libretto by Myfanwy Piper, after the short story by Henry James.
  • First performance by the BBC, London, on 16th May 1971.
CHARACTERS

Owen Wingrave, the last of the Wingraves

baritone

Spencer Coyle, running a military crammer

bass-baritone

Lechmere, a student at Coyle’s crammer

tenor

Miss Wingrave, Owen’s aunt dramatic

soprano

Mrs Coyle

soprano

Mrs Julian, a widow and dependant at Paramore

soprano

Kate, her daughter

mezzo-soprano

General Sir Philip Wingrave, Owen’s grandfather

tenor

Narrator, a ballad-singer

tenor

In Coyle’s study Lechmere is enthusiastic about his military studies, but Owen Wingrave now feels unable to follow his family’s military traditions. In Hyde Park Owen is glad to have told Coyle, but at the same time Coyle is telling Owen’s aunt of her nephew’s decision, to her anger. The Coyles, at home, try to persuade Owen to change his mind, but his aunt has summoned him to the family home, Paramore. Owen arrives there to face general hostility. The Coyles and Lechmere arrive, in the hope that something may be done to change Owen’s mind, but he remains adamant, now maintaining that to declare or wage war should be made a criminal offence. In the second act the Narrator sings the ballad of an earlier Wingrave boy who disgraced his family, was taken to his room and was killed by a blow from his father, later found dead in the same room. Their ghosts still haunt Paramore. Owen, in an interview with his grandfather, is disinherited. He addresses the family portraits, now having found peace himself, and confronts the ghosts. Kate taunts him with the bravery of Lechmere, who would sleep in the haunted room for her, and Owen declares himself willing to rebut the charge of cowardice by spending the night there. In the final scene Lechmere expresses his anxieties about Owen. Kate goes into the haunted room, and finds Owen there dead.

Owen Wingrave was written as a television opera, but can be and has been staged in the theatre. The choice of story reflects Britten’s own pacifist principles. The opera opens with a view of the Wingraves, their traditions and their family portraits, stressing the Wingrave military background in an instrumental illustration of each of the 11 portraits, leading finally to Owen himself. The 12 notes of the chromatic scale, sounded together in chords, open the work, and the accompanying chord for each portrait adds one note, until the 12th is reached, for Owen. The writing, like that of The Turn of the Screw, with its 12-note theme, is not serial but generally tonal and diatonic. Comparison has been drawn between Owen Wingrave and Billy Budd, since both operas are essentially concerned with the evil of violence and the cause of peace.