When Benjamin Britten wrote “Noye’s Fludde,” his operatic setting of the story of Noah, the ark, and the flood, in 1957, he intended it for performance in a church setting — “not in a theatre,” he pointedly wrote in a note to the score. It is community music in the best sense, with parts for professionals and amateurs, adults and children, musicians and congregation. It proved especially popular in this context during last year’s Britten centenary, and Boston audiences will have a chance to experience it this weekend, with two performances at Trinity Church in Copley Square, by the combined forces of the Trinity Choristers and the Boston City Singers. Baritone David McFerrin and alto Katherine Growdon take on the parts of Noah and his wife; Kirsten Cairns directs.
Yet for a piece meant for the church, the opera has had a surprisingly strong resonance outside it. Even before the centennial, it was given new visibility by its place in Wes Anderson’s 2012 film “Moonrise Kingdom.” The two child protagonists, Sam and Suzy, meet at a production of “Noye’s Fludde,” and the climax of the film happens at a performance of it a year later. Anderson, at a press conference, said that his own experience in the opera as a child was an essential ingredient in the movie’s genesis. “That music is something I’ve always remembered, and made a very strong impression on me,” Anderson said. “It is the color of the movie in a way.”
A more recent film takes the piece in an even more unusual direction. “Unogumbe — Noye’s Fludde” was made last year by the South African theater group Isango Ensemble, which takes Western artworks and re-creates them in ways that speak to the country’s township culture. In the case of “Noye’s Fludde,” that means the vocal parts are sung in Xhosa, Noah is a woman and his “wife” a man, and the score is played by an ensemble of percussion instruments. The 33-minute film is a delight, and the setting in a South African township gives the story an extra quantum of moral force.
Benjamin Britten: “Noye’s Fludde”, Directed by Kirsten Cairns
Though “Unogumbe” (Xhosa for “deluge”) has not yet been picked up for international release, it was an official selection for the Toronto International Film Festival last year, as well as for this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Mandisi Dyantyis, Isango Ensemble’s music director, said in a phone interview that the group was hoping wider distribution would follow.
The idea, he said, had come from the Britten-Pears Foundation itself, which was looking for groups to take on projects during the centennial year and had liked some of Isango’s earlier work. The group looked at a few of Britten’s works and decided on “Noye’s Fludde” in part because of its biblical roots, “so everyone can relate to it. But it’s also a story of great hope, and so when we looked at it as a company, we sort of instinctively gravitated toward that.”
The most radical change in “Unogumbe” from the original is the gender switch. “A lot of families in South Africa, they’re tended to by women,” Dyantyis explained. “We wanted to highlight the fact that a lot of kids in South Africa are brought up by single mothers.” In the film, Noah’s husband is a drunken layabout who almost can’t be bothered to board the ark — now a submarine-like contraption — and save himself.
“It’s an easy thing to say, ‘the father this, the father that,’ ” Dyantyis added. “But in many instances, men don’t pull their weight. And we wanted to show that.”
Asked what kind of story “Unogumbe” is telling, how it makes “Noye’s Fludde” relevant for their culture, Dyantyis said, “We look at the world today, with the excess of everything, and people who have a lot and people who have nothing, that gap. And we sort of looked at it like, if God would come today, clearly that’s one of the things God would sort out. The waste — there are people who are watering their gardens, stuff like that, whereas [another] person doesn’t have enough to drink. So maybe God is irritated with waste, with global warming, with all these things that are happening. And that’s why he would bring the flood.”
As for the music, it sounds shockingly natural when arranged for marimbas and other percussion instruments. Dyantyis said that he tries to stick as closely to the score as possible, and in doing so, “a lot of things will fit themselves in.” He teaches his arrangements to members of the ensemble both by ear and by writing out notated parts — whatever method will best convey the urgency of the narrative.
“We get into the story. And we make the story important, we make what we want to say about this piece of music important. And in teaching the ensemble, I always try to preserve this, to say, sing [this part] like this. At the end of the day, you should tell a story when you’re singing it.”