Stephen Lord gets emotional when he talks about Benjamin Britten's first opera, "Paul Bunyan." Lines of narration spoken by the opera's main character sum up for Lord a uniquely American quality that Britten and his librettist, W.H. Auden, managed to depict:
Every day America's destroyed and re-created, America is what you do, America is I and you. America is what you choose to make it.
“Even now, I'm choking up,” says Lord, who is director of opera studies at New England Conservatory. "Paul Bunyan" is his first mainstage production since taking over the opera studies program in September 2010. Amazingly for a piece written more than seven decades ago, this will be its first Boston performance.
Lord first conducted the work in 1984, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where he is still music director. He chose the opera for NEC for a variety of reasons. Britten conceived it as an operetta for high school voices, and though its difficulty seems to lie beyond that level, it makes an ideal piece for conservatory students. “The vocal demands, while hard, are not superhuman hard,” he says during a phone interview. And the large number of roles means that "everyone has something to do."
But more than anything, Lord chose "Paul Bunyan" because Britten and Auden's retelling of the lumberjack legend captures something about this country that he finds lacking today. The opera tells how Bunyan assembled a crew of loggers who bonded together to clear the American forest and make it habitable for humans. The vision of America as a place of unity and shared goals, says Lord, has all but disappeared.
“In this election year,” he says, "in this year of people bantering and hating each other, and horrible political rhetoric, nasty on both sides of the aisle, no matter where you sit — we're all sick of it. And this piece is about America, and what America is and what America can be."
Admittedly, it can be hard to keep track of the political message in an opera that has singing trees, singing animals, and what Lord calls “a lot of silliness.” But its undertone is serious, and more than a few lines carry astonishing contemporary relevance, such as this quatrain from the opera's closing scene:
From a Pressure Group that says I am the Constitution, From those who say Patriotism and mean Persecution, From a Tolerance that is really inertia and disillusion: Save animals and men.
It's surprising that this vision of America was created by two Brits who had come to America in 1939. The opera was composed partly during a time when the two were living in the same house in Brooklyn. Among its notable features, the title character speaks his part, and he never appears on stage, giving him a godlike presence.
“Paul Bunyan” was something of a flop on its first performance at Columbia University in 1941. In the New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson called Auden's libretto “flaccid and spineless and without energy,” while Britten's music "is sort of witty at its best. Otherwise it is undistinguished." Britten withdrew the piece soon after, and it was revived shortly before his death, in 1976.
What's become clear, 70 years after the premiere, is how adept Britten was at absorbing American musical traditions. There are echoes of Broadway, folk, and country music, as well as one superb blues number — the “Quartet for the Defeated” in Act I.
And, as Lord points out, several facets of Britten's mature operas are scattered throughout "Paul Bunyan." The gossiping trees in the prologue remind one of the rumor-mongering townspeople of “Peter Grimes.” The end of the piece consists of “chords that move and slowly change,” Lord explains. “And you realize that at the end of ‘Billy Budd’ he does the same thing, only five times longer.”
But ultimately, Lord is so convinced by “Paul Bunyan” that, in his estimation it can stand perfectly well on its own. “You hear so many people's first operas, and then you hear this. It's just genius, that's all.’