In Act 1, Sid tells Albert that “Living without a regular supply of pleasures like these is hard to support…” After the year we’ve been through, we can all identify. We’ve given up our regular supply of so many pleasures: eating in restaurants, hearing a concert, even sitting with friends. Sid suggests that all Albert needs to do to enjoy the pleasures of life is to overcome his shyness, break away from his mother, and get out there. That’s easy for Sid to say; the pleasures Sid enjoys include trout fishing and chasing girls. But what if the pleasures that Albert longs for don’t fit neatly within the confines of what society defines as acceptable?
The imaginary society of Loxford in our opera has some pretty limited definitions of acceptable. Britten and Crozier gently poke fun at the rigid morality of Lady Billows and the town leaders as they manage to convince themselves that absolutely no young women of the town are virtuous enough to be crowned May Queen. Albert Herring, a strange, young man who works hard and never ventures out of the green grocer he runs with his mother, is the only person deemed sufficiently moral. However, Albert’s quiet life may be the only choice available in a society that does not allow him to to authentically express himself.
Britten himself might have understood what it meant to be forced to live a lie. When he conducted the first performance of Albert Herring in 1947 with his life long partner, Peter Pears, singing the title role, homosexuality was against the law in the United Kingdom. The dominant culture of the time, much like the dominant culture in our fictional Loxford, demanded conformity to the norm, but artists, much like Albert Herring, are hard to keep in a closet. Britten and Crozier crafted a subversive tale about the experience of being denied one’s authentic voice and the feeling of breaking free. They drop clues throughout for those in their audience who are paying attention while keeping their opera unassailably proper. Britten scholar Michael Wilcox points out that Swan Vespa matches and whistling were both used by homosexual men and women in the 1940s to secretly signal to each other. Both play a prominent role in Albert’s decision to push past the set dressing of the town he lives in and explore the wider world of pleasures he longs for.
In 1947, returning to normal after a challenging time, Britten saw a world about to undergo major, generational change. We can identify with that as well. Who gets to decide what is and is not acceptable? To what extent are we going to allow historic privilege and tradition to define the dominant culture? Who gets cut off from a regular supply of pleasure when some people are not allowed a voice?
While this may sound heavy, Albert Herring is a comedy. Britten and Crozier take a loving look at a collection of people who are insecure, fallible and trying to do their best in their community. The adults cannot move beyond the fake walls they’ve put in place, but the young people see possibility. Today, as we return to the things that gave us joy before, let this opera reminds us that everyone is entitled to a steady supply of pleasures like these.
Doug Scholz-Carlson, Director