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Music by Benjamin Britten

Libretto by Eric Crozier

based on Le rosier de Madame Husson by Guy de Maupassant

First Performance June 20, 1947, Glyndebourne

Study Guide and Student Activity Guide

for Pacific Opera Victoria’s Production
February, 2013

PRODUCTION PATRON: Michael Morres Pacific Opera Victoria

500 – 1815 Blanshard Street
Phone: 250.382.1641
Box Office: 250.385.0222

NRS Foundation McLean Hamber Stewart
DAVID SPENCER Moss Rock Park Koerner
Albert Herring
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by Eric Crozier, adapted from a short story by Guy de Maupassant
First Performance June 20, 1947, Glyndebourne

Dress Rehearsal, February 5, 2013, 7 pm

Performances February 7, 9, 15, 2013, at 8 pm. Matinée February 17 at 2:30 pm
At the Royal Theatre
In English with English Surtitles
The performance is approximately 2 hours, 40 minutes, including one intermission.


Cast in order of vocal appearance
Lady Billows ....................................................................................................... Sally Dibblee
Florence Pike ..................................................................................................... Susan Platts
Miss Wordsworth .............................................................................................. Charlotte Corwin
Vicar Gedge ....................................................................................................... Peter McGillivray
Mayor Upfold .................................................................................................... Michael Colvin
Police Superintendent Budd ............................................................................. Giles Tomkins
Emmie ................................................................................................................ Emlyn Sheeley
Cis ..................................................................................................................... Cassandra Lemoine
Harry .................................................................................................................. Ajay Parikh-Friese
Sid ..................................................................................................................... Phillip Addis
Albert Herring ................................................................................................... Lawrence Wiliford
Nancy ................................................................................................................. Stephanie Marshall
Mrs. Herring ..................................................................................................... Rebecca Hass
Harry (Understudy) ........................................................................................... Harrison Munschutz

Artistic Director ................................................................................................. Timothy Vernon

Conductor.......................................................................................................... Leslie Dala
Director .............................................................................................................. Glynis Leyshon
Set and Costume Designer ................................................................................ Patrick Clark
Lighting Designer .............................................................................................. Michael Walton
Choreographer................................................................................................... Jacques Lemay
Stage Manager .................................................................................................... Sara Robb
Assistant Stage Managers ................................................................................... Sandy Halliday, Peter Jotkus
Apprentice Stage Manager ................................................................................ Sarah Watson
Principal Coach ................................................................................................ Robert Holliston
Assistant Conductor .......................................................................................... Giuseppe Pietraroia

With the Victoria Symphony


Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 1


When every girl in town is

a floozy, who are you
going to turn to?

The town of Loxford

needs a Queen of the
May, but is fresh out of
virtuous girls. The
autocratic Lady Billows
therefore appoints a King
of the May – the bashful
young grocer Albert
Herring. But Albert, who
lives a life of
irreproachable dullness
Photo of a set model for POV’s production of Albert Herring, showing the opening scene at
with his Mum, secretly Lady Billows' home. Set design is by Patrick Clark.
yearns for the pleasures of
love and the glamour of a night at the pub. With the help of his prize money, some spiked
lemonade, and the inspiring example of rakish Sid and the beguiling Nancy, Albert sows a few wild
oats, turning the town topsy-turvy.

With an intoxicating confection of daft village characters and the sweetest, most confused hero in
opera, Britten's witty, effervescent comedy skewers small-town pomposity and slyly illumines the
charms and trials of life in a goldfish bowl. Albert Herring is an exuberant satire, a scrumptious,
slightly skewed slice of life.

Albert Herring is a work of genius in terms of comedy. By virtue both of the text and the music Britten wrote
for the characters, you know who they are within seconds of their appearance on stage both because of their
dramatic function and because of the lineaments of music that Britten has cloaked them in. The music is not
complicated. It's extremely tonal, it's very tuneful and yet it's quite subtle.
Timothy Vernon, Artistic Director, Pacific Opera Victoria

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 2

Village of Loxford, 1950
Act 1, Scene I. Morning, Lady Billows’ Conservatory
The May Queen Committee of the town of Loxford is looking for a girl of immaculate reputation
to be Queen of the May. But every candidate is roundly rejected by the autocratic Lady Billows and
her housekeeper Florence, whose exhaustive research has determined that – alas – all the girls in
town are trollops. (The definition of trollop embraces anything from having a baby out of wedlock
to showing a wee bit too much ankle).
Lady Billows laments that Loxford is the Sodom and Gomorrah of East Suffolk. In an
uncustomary leap of imagination, Police Superintendent Budd ventures a suggestion: why not
appoint a King of the May? He knows the ideal candidate – Albert Herring, who works in his
Mum’s greengrocery and is, all agree, extremely virtuous. Lady Billows seizes the opportunity to
teach the Loxford girls a lesson.

Act 1, Scene II. Mrs. Herring’s Greengrocery, the same day

Sid arrives at the greengrocery in time to catch three children trying to steal some apples. He
chases them off, then pockets an apple for himself. Sid suggests that Albert ought to start enjoying
life – by drinking or hunting or dancing, or, best of all, courting a girl (Girls mean Spring six days a
week And twice on Sundays). Sid’s sweetheart Nancy arrives, and Sid gives her some peaches; as the
lovers arrange to meet later, (we'll each take a bite, To flavour our kisses With a dash of peach bitters),
their flirting leaves Albert uncomfortably aware that he is missing out on a big part of life – a part
of which his Mum would not approve.
The Committee arrives en masse to announce the great news that Albert has been chosen King of
the May. Mrs. Herring is thrilled by the promised prize of 25 pounds, but Albert strenuously
Why should they come And dress me up like a blinking swan,
Make speeches at me like I was stuffed Instead of flesh and blood?
In the ensuing row, Mum sends Albert to his room.

Act 2, Scene I. May 1, The Village Green

The great day arrives. Amid the bustle of preparations for the festival, the teacher, Miss
Wordsworth, rehearses the children, Emmie, Cis, and Henry, in a song of praise for the new May
King. However, the kids are distracted by the treats on display (Blimey! Jelly! … Pink blancmange! …
Trifle!) and the song dissolves in a chaos of misplaced aitches.
As the ceremony is about to begin, Sid persuades Nancy to help him spike Albert’s lemonade with
rum (to loosen him up, And make him feel bright). The children sing their song, Glory to our new May
king! Albert, hail! all hail! and present flowers to Lady Billows, Albert, and Mrs. Herring. The
Committee members make speeches as Albert receives his prizes: from Lady Billows, a purse of
otterskin... With five and twenty sovereigns inside; from the town council, a savings book with five

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 3

pounds in it; from the teachers, for rainy afternoons... Foxe’s Book of Martyrs In two fine volumes,
When everyone toasts the new May King, Albert drinks the rum-laced lemonade and promptly
dissolves into hiccups.

Act 2, Scene II. Late the same day, Herring Greengrocery

By the end of the evening Albert is feeling quite good and returns home more than a little tipsy.
He overhears Sid and Nancy singing of their love and expressing pity for him. Albert now feels
terribly inept and lonely, and in an act of extreme bravery, he takes his prize money and walks out
of the shop.

Act 2, Scene III. May 2, The following afternoon, at the shop

The next day, the town is in an uproar, for Albert has disappeared. Rumours are flying, search
parties are combing the countryside, Mum is in hysterics, Nancy is overcome with remorse about
spiking Albert’s drink, and Lady Billows is meddling in Superintendent Budd’s investigation:
Modern methods... that's what we need. Bloodhounds... fingerprints... electromagnets, water diviners! Call in
Conan Doyle.
When Albert’s muddy coronation wreath is found, crushed by a cart, all assume the worst, and
they break into a song of mourning. Just as the threnody achieves an extravagant pitch of morose
sentimentality, Albert pops his head in the door. Deflated, the committee members turn on him
and subject him to a vigorous interrogation, finally extracting the sordid facts: Albert blew three
pounds of his prize money on drinking, brawling, and being tossed out of a couple of pubs. He is
severely lectured by everyone except Sid and Nancy, who rather approve of his carousing.
Unashamed, Albert boldly stands up for himself and thanks the committee for financing his spree.
They depart in a collective huff, leaving Nancy, Sid, and the children to congratulate him – and to
share some juicy peaches.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 4

The characters
The members of the May Queen Committee provide many of Albert Herring’s comic highlights. These are
the town worthies, who take themselves and their duties very seriously. Their speeches at the Loxford
Urban District May Day Feast are particularly hilarious because the characters deliver them using their
Opera Voices. Just listen to Lady Billows’ florid speech at the great event:
I'm full of happiness To be here in your midst
On such a day as this, As honoured guest and patroness
Of the L o x f o r d U r b a n D i s t r i c t M a y D a y F e a s t .

• LADY BILLOWS is the town autocrat, imperious guardian of morality – the Lady Bracknell of Loxford.
She is very bossy; she sticks her nose in everyone’s business, and she is very concerned about the lax
morals of the town’s youth. She does put her money where her mouth is by providing a generous 25-
sovereign prize for the Queen (King) of the May:
Consider it my duty. Must make virtue attractive, exciting, desirable for young people … Poor Doctor Jessop is
run off his feet, Delivering new babies to Mothers of whom excessively few Have taken the trouble of visiting
you, Vicar! … Town's in a state of complete moral chaos.

• FLORENCE PIKE, Lady Billows’ gimlet-eyed, acid-tongued housekeeper / secretary / spy / dogsbody,
keeps a stern eye on the goings on around town, recording in a notebook all the transgressions she
Exposes her ankles And legs bold as brass.
Her skirt's far too short For a girl of her class.
… Much too flighty...
When the postman called
One day, she opened the door in her nightie!
Florence’s notebook also records an endless stream of instructions from Lady Billows, for she is subject
day in, day out, to the whims of her mistress. Florence in fact is not completely unlike Albert …
something in her yearns for a different life …
One lifetime One brain
One pair of hands
Are all too few For Lady B.
Each day some New idea
Makes new demands
Upon her sense Of charity.
But oh! But oh!...
Sometimes I wish... …

• POLICE SUPERINTENDENT BUDD: A character whose music is pomp and splutter according to critic
Michael Kennedy, Budd is a straightforward copper:
Give me a decent murder with a corpse.
Give me a clear-cut case of arson…
But God preserve me from these disappearing cases,
Where everyone from the baker to the Nonconformist parson
Turns Sherlock Holmes and pokes around finding evidence in the most unlikely places!
But he has a wayward streak of imagination, for it is he who comes up with the opera’s most
brilliant idea: Has anyone heard Of a King of the May?

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• MISS WORDSWORTH is the sweet-natured, sympathetic, sentimental schoolteacher, but the kids in the
opera are a bit too much for her. One of the funniest scenes shows Miss Wordsworth’s valiant attempt
to rehearse the three village children in a song of praise for Albert. It is Miss Wordsworth who, on
behalf of the village teachers, presents to Albert a gruesomely instructive two-volume book …
For rainy afternoons... Foxes' Book of Martyrs
In two fine volumes, illustrated,
Inscribed to you appropriately, and dated.

• MAYOR UPFOLD is a bit stuffy and self-important. He is very conscious of the reputation of his town.
Urban District Councillors
All over Eastern Suffolk
Envy little Loxford
On the First of May.
His speech at the May Day Festival shows a pompous politician taking full advantage of the opportunity
to blow his own horn:
The repercussions of this Festival
Will travel far, wide, deep and strong...
Like when my Council, acting for the best of all
Its citizens, laid the twelve inch watermain...
Costing six pounds ten the yard... that runs along
Through Balaclava Avenue...regardless of objections!...
To guarantee pure water filtered from infections.
Now Loxford leads again by being first, yes!

• VICAR GEDGE is terribly proper and courteous, even a bit unctuous, although he does become rather
incoherent when trying to define virtue.
Virtue, says Holy Writ,
Is... Virtue.
Grace abounding
Whensoever, wheresoever,
Howsoever it exists. Rarer than pearls...
rubies… amethyst,
Richer than wealth... wisdom... righteousness!
Is Albert virtuous? Yes? Or no? That is all we need to know.
The Vicar is the perfect, suave emcee for the Mayday festivities. And he seems to pay particularly
courteous attention to Miss Wordsworth.

ALBERT’S MUM is a strict, teetotaling widow who runs a greengrocery shop – and her son’s life. At first
Mrs. Herring thinks it’s quite ridiculous that Albert has been chosen as May King, but she is won over as
soon as she learns of the 25 pounds that come with the title. When Albert tries to stand up to her, she
threatens him, calls him a young devil, and sends him to his room. At the feast she is determined to be
treated with respect and anxious to have a prominent place at the head table: Where d'you think I'd be? I'm the
King's Mum. A quick-tempered, emotional woman, she works herself into hysterics when she believes Albert
is dead (Albert! Albert! My only son! Flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone! Let me die too, now you are gone!) and
into a rage when he returns (I'll never forgive you! Never! Not till my dying day!).

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SID is the butcher’s boy who works for Mayor Upfold. He’s a bit of a rascal: no sooner has he scolded the
village children for stealing apples than he pockets some himself. And of course it is Sid’s idea to spike
Albert’s lemonade with rum.
A cocky, handsome ladies’ man (Girls mean: Spring six days a week And twice on Sundays), Sid is clearly in love
with Nancy. One of his wittiest remarks is a take on a line from the 17th century poem To His Coy Mistress
by Andrew Marvell: The grave's a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.)
Sid’s version runs like this:
The grave's a fine and private place
But horribly cold and horribly chaste,
And not attractive to my taste.

NANCY: Before we even meet Nancy, the May Queen Committee have dismissed her as a candidate for
Queen of the May.
Florence: The baker's daughter? No! Couldn't have her for Queen of the May!
Mayor: She runs after Sid, who's my assistant,
And him after her: both very persistent.
Nancy is beautiful, warm-hearted, and a bit of a flirt, who nevertheless has the spunk to keep the self-
confident Sid in line. When Albert disappears, she is bitterly remorseful at having helped to spike his
lemonade. The librettist of the opera, Eric Crozier, created the role of Nancy for the great mezzo soprano
Nancy Evans, whom he would later marry. The love scenes between Sid and Nancy reflect their own
relationship in small ways.
Come along, darling, come follow me quick!
Time is racing Us round the clock,
Ticking and tocking our evening away
Which we’ve hoped for and longed for all day.

Hurry to work, hurry to play,

Youth must hurry at headlong pace,
Seizing and squeezing the pleasures of life
In a cheerful and a fearful embrace.

ALBERT HERRING is surely the sweetest, most confused hero in opera; he lives a life of irreproachable
dullness with his Mum, but secretly yearns for the pleasures of love and the glamour of a night at the pub.
Mum's uncommon keen About the need
Of living chaste and clean In word and deed.
For what?
Each morning I get up at six And tidy up the stock,
Enthusiastically fix Price labels round the shop. For what?
… It seems as clear as clear Can be, that Sid's ideas
Are very much too crude For Mother to approve.
And yet I'd really like To try that kind of life,
Miss Wordsworth remembers that when he attended school poor Albert was not bright at lessons, though quite
exceptional for conduct. A shy young man, deeply embarrassed at the thought of being crowned King of the
May, he tries in vain to stand up to his Mum, until the spiked lemonade, the example of Sid and Nancy,
some spending money, and a considerable dose of courage and desperation help him to take a stand.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 7

Albert Herring: A Personal Favourite
By Robert Holliston
Albert Herring was the first Britten opera I ever heard. In the winter of 1980, the UBC Opera
Workshop, under the inspired leadership of French Tickner and in collaboration with the Frederic
Wood Theatre, mounted a lavish and splendid production. As an undergraduate T.A. I did
essentially the same things I still do: play the score throughout staging rehearsals, work with the
singers as needed, and – since the piano is required in the pit – participate in the actual
performances. Thus I got to know, and cherish, this unusual and deeply compelling masterpiece.
Thirteen years later the Victoria Conservatory of Music Opera Studio produced it – led by Selena
James and featuring Patrick Corrigan in the title role!
As a comic opera, Albert Herring stands alone amongst Britten's mature full-length stage works.
Like any comedy of genuine stature, it also explores the poignant and even dark sides of its plot
and characters.
Britten was drawn to stories that revolve around outsiders in hostile or at least threatening
communities. Here, young Albert does not really fit into any of the groups and cliques that
surround him – among those closest to him, his mother is tyrannical and the only characters we
can identify as his friends (Sid and Nancy) occupy a world (of romance) the poor boy can only
dream about. While undoubtedly – and genuinely – funny, Albert Herring is also, according to
Rupert Christiansen, much more sharp-edged and subversively risqué than it looks. Or in the
words of Britten biographer Michael Oliver, a comedy with a strong element of pathos.
Even after the stunning success of his very large-scale Peter Grimes in 1945, Britten became
convinced that the future of opera in his country required a repertory of works that could be
mounted inexpensively and travel easily.
Accordingly, he turned to the “chamber” opera, giving us The Rape of Lucretia in 1946 and Albert
Herring the following year. Both require small orchestral forces and no chorus; Albert Herring has a
much larger cast of principals. The ensemble of thirteen players involves some doubling (i.e.,
clarinet / bass clarinet; flute / piccolo / alto flute) but limits the strings to a quartet and double
Since the work was conceived for precisely this ensemble, our ears do not miss the lush cushion of
sound produced by large string sections. And many of the effects are ingenious: listen for the alto
flute / bass clarinet duet that accompanies Albert's Act Two soliloquy, an unusual combination of
instruments, the sound of which suggests exactly the character's tentative groping towards a still-
inchoate personal awakening. Or the saucily seductive whistling of the first violin as Sid makes
plans to meet Nancy later in the evening. Or – my personal favorite – the solemn striking of the
gong as Miss Wordsworth presents Albert with that greatest and most solemn of gifts: Foxe's Book of
Martyrs. The score abounds with such delights, always inventive and imaginative, and always at the
service of the dramatic situation and characters.
There is also in the music itself an abundance of variety. Britten was always fond of British folk
song, and many of the melodies have the direct simplicity – the “catchiness” – of folk song. He was
also a lifelong champion of old British music, and we can also hear tributes to the detailed word
settings of Purcell and the grandiose vocal effects of Handel. Lady Billows' speech at the banquet

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 8

surely conjures up a certain Victoria Elgarishness, while the Vicar's contemplation of Albert's
virtuousness brings to mind not only the 19th-century church music of Stainer but the Edwardian
parlour song.
Not to suggest in any way that the score is a pastiche: it is 100% Britten, and at his most inspired.
These little musical homages are always subtle and suggestive, and they serve to illuminate the
characters they accompany (Britten was to do the same thing even more cunningly in 1962's A
Midsummer Night's Dream).
There is, however, one unmistakably direct quotation, which is associated with the lemonade that
Sid spikes with rum and Albert later drinks. Britten slyly quotes from Tristan und Isolde, conjuring
up Wagner’s fatal love potion theme.
Elsewhere and throughout the score the music is fresh, vital, sometimes beautiful, often
humorous, occasionally enriched by complex counterpoint, always intensely and immediately
dramatic. And not always dissonant!
All too frequently this opera is described as “dated,” even by those who think of it with affection.
Of course any work of art is dated the instant it's completed, and Albert Herring cannot be an
exception. But it rings true: we have all known people exactly like the town worthies who are
ingeniously – and not always kindly – parodied. And we have all known – and perhaps been – a
Sid and/or a Nancy.
Most crucially, all but the most complacent of us will see ourselves in Albert, as he struggles with
his community and himself to break free of society's constraints and become who he really is (the
opera is about nothing less than that). True, the setting is mostly comic and the resolution
essentially light-hearted, but this does not make his struggle less poignant or his victory less
(It is only near the end of the opera that Albert – who has had few if any “funny” lines up to this
point – is given the libretto's funniest remark – in my opinion, at least. I won't spoil your pleasure
by divulging it now!) For me, the subject matter of Albert Herring is universal and timeless, the
characters absorbing, the music deeply appealing – and the opera itself ultimately a very beautiful
one. I couldn't be more thrilled to be working on it again!

A popular public speaker, Robert Holliston is Pacific Opera Victoria’s Principal Coach. He has given POV’s
pre-performance lectures since 1993 and hosts our series INSIDE OPERA. He has performed throughout
North America, England, and New Zealand, and has been heard frequently on CBC Radio. Robert has
collaborated with many of the country's leading singers, instrumentalists, and dancers, and has toured and
recorded extensively with the popular salon ensemble Viveza. Currently he is Head of Accompanying at the
Victoria Conservatory of Music, where he also teaches classes in music history. During recent seasons Robert
has been guest concerto soloist with the Sidney Classical Orchestra and Victoria Symphony.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 9

Musical Excerpts
The following musical excerpts may be seen at
Or you may watch them directly on Youtube (links below)
Act 1, Scene 1. Has anyone heard of a King of the May?
The dignitaries of Loxford have convened to select a Queen of the May. But the autocratic Lady Billows
has rejected every single candidate; she is convinced that all the girls in town are trollops and that
Loxford is the Sodom and Gomorrah of East Suffolk. Finally Police Superintendent Budd broaches the
possibility of appointing a King of the May. He even has someone in mind – a bashful geek named
Albert Herring, who works in his mother's greengrocery.
Has anyone heard Of a King of the May?
. . . Maybe it seems a rum sort of notion But it might help us out of the present commotion. . .
Dale Travis: Budd, Christine Brewer: Lady Billows, Jill Grove: Florence Pike, Celena Shafer: Miss Wordsworth, Jonathan
Michie: the Vicar. From a 2010 production of Santa Fe Opera, directed by Paul Curran and conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

Act 1, Scene 2. Meet me at quarter past eight
At the greengrocer's, rakish Sid buys a couple of peaches for his girlfriend Nancy, and the two arrange
to meet later that evening. Albert watches in awkward embarrassment as Sid and Nancy flirt and Sid
sings of flavouring their kisses with the peaches.
You can bring them tonight and we'll each take a bite,
To flavour our kisses with a dash of peach bitters...
Meet me at quarter past eight In the street, don't be late
Or I'll whistle Under your window.
Joshua Hopkins as Sid, Kate Lindsey as Nancy, and Alek Shrader as Albert.
From Santa Fe Opera's 2010 production with director Paul Curran and conductor Sir Andrew Davis.

Act 2, Scene 1. Seated upon my right is Albert Herring
At the May Day ceremony, the bombastic Lady Billows introduces a mortified Albert as the new King of
the May.
Seated upon my right is Albert Herring...
A young man chosen, marked out, set apart For honest worth and purity of heart.
You see that in the costume he is wearing... Virgin white and orange blossom crown.
Christine Brewer is Lady Billows, with Alek Shrader as Albert.
From Santa Fe Opera's 2010 production with director Paul Curran and conductor Sir Andrew Davis.

Act 2, Scene 1. Albert the Good!
The speeches are done, and Albert has been presented with his prize – 25 sovereigns and a two-volume
set of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. The coronation ceremony culminates in a rousing chorus of Albert the
Good! Long may he reign! To be re-elected Again and again. Albert then raises his glass and calls three cheers
for her Ladyship.
From Santa Fe Opera's 2010 production with director Paul Curran and conductor Sir Andrew Davis.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 10

The Composer: Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten is considered the pre-eminent
British composer of the 20th century. His music
elements of early music (especially that of Purcell,
whom he revered), modern European music, and a
deep sense of Englishness.
His love of the voice and his gift for writing for
singers has given us a body of major vocal works,
including more than a dozen operas, which are
widely regarded as the finest English operas since
those of Henry Purcell in the 17th century.
Critic David Vernier said Britten was the most deeply
gifted composer of his time, who left the most accessible,
diverse, and original body of compositions of the past 200
years. He knew the relationship between language and
music, and worked fluently, not only – and most famously
– in his native English, but also in French and even
Russian. He knew the language of instruments like few
other composers in history, and innately sensed how to
combine their varied voices. And he knew the human voice
and its uniquely expressive and intimate relationship to
music. Portrait of Benjamin Britten by Yousuf Karsh (Mid 1950s)

Benjamin Britten was born in Lowestoft, Suffolk,

on November 22, 1913 (St. Cecilia’s Day). The son of a dentist and a talented amateur singer,
Benjamin was the youngest of four children. He began composing at the age of five; he later admitted,
it was the pattern on the paper which interested me and when I asked my mother to play [the music], her look of
horror upset me considerably.
He started piano lessons at the age of seven and viola at ten. When he was twelve, he began
composition studies with composer Frank Bridge.
In 1930 he entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with John Ireland and
piano with Arthur Benjamin.
From an early age he was a prolific and successful composer, whose music was quickly published. John
Ireland is said to have commented, If Britten can write it Boosey’s can Hawke it, referring to Britten’s long-
time publisher Boosey and Hawkes.
During the 1930s Britten composed music for documentary films produced by the General Post Office
(GPO); he also composed for BBC Radio and for small theatre groups in London. He worked
frequently with the poet W. H. Auden, who provided texts for songs as well as complete scripts for
which Britten provided incidental music. One of the best known films that Auden and Britten created
for the (GPO) Film Unit was the classic 1936 documentary Night Mail.
1934 saw the appearance of one of his best known and loved orchestral works: the Simple Symphony for
strings. Other early orchestral works included Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (premiered in
Salzburg in 1937) and the 1938 Piano Concerto.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 11

In 1939 he left England for the USA, with his lifelong companion Peter Pears. A pacifist and a
conscientious objector, Britten wanted to escape the looming war in Europe. He was also frustrated by
the reception of his works in England and eager to follow his friends, WH Auden and the novelist
Christopher Isherwood, to the New World.
En route to the USA, Britten and Pears spent a few weeks in Canada where Britten attended a
performance by the CBC of his Frank Bridge Variations. He also composed an orchestral work based
on French-Canadian folk-tunes, the Canadian Carnival (or Kermesse Canadienne), which was completed
in December 1939 and which shows the influence of the great American composer Aaron Copland.
In the US, Britten and Pears gave recitals and Britten continued composing. Carnegie Hall premières
of his Violin Concerto (1940) and the Sinfonia da Requiem (1941) were conducted by John Barbirolli.
The Sinfonia da Requiem was originally written as a commission from the Japanese government for a
work to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the Mikado dynasty. Britten termed the piece a Sinfonia da
Requiem, combining my ideas on war and a memorial for Mum and Pop. It is perhaps not surprising, given
the looming war with Japan, that the Sinfonia was rejected by the Japanese as too Christian and too
melancholy – not to mention too pacifist.
Along with the later War Requiem, the Sinfonia is a monumental testimony to Britten’s musicianship
and to his profound anti-war principles.
While in America, Britten also wrote his first operatic work, the “choral operetta” Paul Bunyan with a
libretto by Auden. It premiered in New York in 1941 to negative reviews; Britten withdrew it, and it
was not heard again until it was revised and performed at the Aldeburgh festival in 1976, the year of
the composer's death.
Britten briefly considered staying in America, but homesickness, the war, and a chance discovery
brought him back to England. During a 1941 trip to California, Britten read an article by E. M. Forster
on the 18th century English writer George Crabbe, whose poetry was rooted in the Suffolk landscape
where Britten had grown up. In 1942, Britten and Pears returned to England.
Accepted as a conscientious objector, Britten appeared at wartime concerts as a pianist and continued
composing. Crabbe’s poem “The Borough” became the inspiration for his first major opera, Peter
Grimes, which made its triumphant première in London in 1945. Britten had wanted to create a
uniquely English opera, and Peter Grimes was the first of a body of work that essentially reinvented and
revitalized English opera.
Peter Grimes was followed quickly by The Rape of Lucretia, which premiered a year later, in 1946. Despite
the success of Peter Grimes, opera in England was still not terribly popular. Creating a new opera was a
risky and expensive undertaking. In the aftermath of World War II opera houses preferred to
concentrate on well-known classical operas in an attempt to rebuild their audiences.
Britten decided he needed to create works that would be less expensive to produce, using a small
orchestra and a small group of loyal singers. In March 1946, he, along with Eric Crozier, Peter Pears,
and Joan Cross, set up the Glyndebourne English Opera Group, dedicated to the creation of new works,
performed with the least possible expense and capable … of being toured. They arranged to present a new
“chamber opera,” The Rape of Lucretia, which used a cast of eight and an orchestra of just thirteen
players. It was premiered in the intimate 300-seat auditorium at Glyndebourne, an operatic summer
festival that was started in 1934 on the estate of John Christie at Glyndebourne in Sussex and that is
today world-renowned.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 12

Britten composed The Rape of Lucretia in just four months. He wrote the part of Lucretia for Kathleen
Ferrier, the great lyric contralto who died of cancer in 1953 at the age of 41. Tenor Peter Pears
premiered the role of the Male Chorus, and soprano Joan Cross sang the Female Chorus.
The English Opera Group and the Aldeburgh Festival
The Rape of Lucretia lost money once it went on tour, and the collaboration with Glyndebourne ended.
The following year, Britten, along with designer John Piper, and Eric Crozier, who was producer,
director, and librettist for many of Britten’s operas, formed the independent English Opera Group.
Their focus was economics and the revitalization of English opera, as expressed in the group’s
manifesto: We believe the time has come when England, which has never had a tradition of native opera, but has
always depended on a repertory of foreign works, can create its own operas…We believe the best way to achieve the
beginnings of a repertory of English operas is through the creation of a form of opera requiring small resources of
singers and players, but suitable for performance in large or small opera houses or theatres…It is part of the Group’s
purpose to encourage young composers to write for the operatic stage, also to encourage poets and playwrights to
tackle the problem of writing libretti in collaboration with composers.
The English Opera Group premiered Britten’s second chamber opera, Albert Herring, as well as
additional performances of The Rape of Lucretia – both operas with small casts and scoring for just 13
However, the costs of touring even chamber operas were substantial, and the directors now decided to
create an artistic base for the English Opera Group in Aldeburgh, where Britten lived. Britten
subsequently wrote many works for the Aldeburgh Festival, which is now world famous, complemented
by a year-round arts and education program and an internationally renowned concert hall, The
Over the following decades the English Opera Group gave many performances of Britten’s operas,
commissioned and produced chamber operas by British composers, mounted revivals of operas by
John Blow, Handel, Holst, Monteverdi, Mozart, Purcell and others, toured throughout the UK and the
Continent, and performed in the USSR in 1964 and in Montreal during Expo ‘67. Many leading
British singers were members of the group, including Janet Baker, Kathleen Ferrier, Heather Harper,
Sylvia Fisher, Jennifer Vyvyan, Owen Brannigan, Peter Pears, John Shirley-Quirk and Robert Tear. In
1961, Covent Garden took over management for the group, which in 1975 re-formed as the English
Music Theatre Company to reflect a broader repertoire that included operas, operettas and musicals.
The company stopped operations in 1981.
Music for Children
During 1946 Britten wrote not only The Rape of Lucretia, but also one of his most beloved works, The
Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, based on a theme by Henry Purcell. This is one of many works that
Britten wrote with children and amateur performers in mind; others include the Yuletide favourite A
Ceremony of Carols (1942), The Golden Vanity (a 1966 tale of piracy and treachery on the high seas,
written for the Vienna Boys’ Choir), Let’s Make an Opera / The Little Sweep (1949), and the opera Noye’s
Fludde (1958).
Noye’s Fludde, based on the story of Noah and the Ark, was scored for nine professional
instrumentalists, an orchestra of boys and girls, and, in addition to the principals, a chorus of animals
and birds, played by children. The instrumentation includes parts for third violins and second ‘cellos
to accommodate the children. Britten added such unusual instruments as handbells and slung mugs
(cups and mugs of various size and thickness which were slung on string by their handles in order to

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 13

form a rough scale. They were hit with wooden spoons to produce the sound of the first raindrops
hitting the roof of the ark.) He said of his invention of this novel instrument, I have borne in mind the
pleasure the young players will have in playing it.
Britten’s social conscience and pacifism found their way into many of his works for and about
children. In 1965 he wrote Voices for Today for boy's chorus, double chorus and organ, as part of the
celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations. He composed the 1968 Children’s
Crusade for children’s voices and orchestra; this setting of Bertolt Brecht’s poem about war orphans in
flight from the Nazi invasion of Poland was written to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Save the
Children Fund.
A children’s chorus is included in what is possibly Britten’s most famous work, the War Requiem, which
he was commissioned to write for the 1962 consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral, built beside
the ruins of the original cathedral, which had been devastated by German bombing in November
1940. With its interleaving of the Latin Requiem Mass with the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, the War
Requiem was both a denunciation of war and a memorial to those who died, and it was quickly
recognized as a landmark work. Britten wrote the piece for three specific soloists, representing three of
the nations most deeply scarred by the war: a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), a Russian
soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), and a British tenor (Peter Pears). Unfortunately the USSR prevented
Vishnevskaya from attending the dedication, and at short notice, she was replaced by Heather Harper.
A year later, however, a recording of the War Requiem was released with Britten conducting the three
international soloists for whom he had written the work.
Among Britten’s friends were many musicians, and he composed numerous pieces for them. When he
selected Galina Vishnevskaya as soprano for the War Requiem, he became friends with her husband, the
great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; Britten wrote a 1965 song cycle to Pushkin texts, The Poet’s
Echo, op. 76 for them both; for Rostropovich Britten also wrote the Cello Sonata in C, op.65, three
suites for solo cello, and the Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, op.68 (1963). For Julian Bream, who
often accompanied Peter Pears on both lute and guitar, he wrote a solo guitar piece Nocturnal after John
Dowland, (1963) and for Osian Ellis he wrote the Suite for Harp (1969).
Peter Pears
Tenor Peter Pears was Britten's partner in life and in music. They first met in 1934, when Pears was a
member of the BBC Singers. They became reacquainted in 1937 after the death of a mutual friend and
began performing together. Over the next four decades Britten wrote most of his song cycles and
operas for Pears, performed countless piano/vocal concerts with him, consulted with him on character
and plot details in works such as Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, and engaged Pears as co-librettist for A
Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Pears became one of the greatest interpreters of Britten’s music, which includes many works for tenor
voices, including Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo (1940), The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945), and the
famous Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, written for Pears and the celebrated horn player Dennis
The role of Peter Grimes was the first operatic part that Britten composed for Pears. Pears also
premiered the Male Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia, the title role in Albert Herring, Captain Vere in Billy
Budd, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in Gloriana (1953), and Prologue and the ghost of Peter Quint
in The Turn of the Screw (1954). In 1959 Britten and Pears wrote the libretto from Shakespeare’s A
Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Pears performed in it. Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice, completed

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 14

in 1973, was dedicated to Pears, and the central character, Gustav von Aschenbach, was created for
In May, 1973, Britten had heart surgery which left him an invalid for the remainder of his life. His
career as accompanist and conductor ceased, but he continued to compose. Among his final works
were the dramatic cantata Phaedra and the String Quartet no.3.
In 1976, he was awarded a life peerage as Baron Britten of Aldeburgh – the first composer ever to
receive that honour. He died at his home in Aldeburgh on December 4, 1976, and is buried in the
churchyard at Aldeburgh, next to Peter Pears.
The Britten Centenary
Britten’s 100th birthday takes place in 2013, and the year is being marked by worldwide celebrations.
Rupert Christiansen recently wrote in The Telegraph: There will be no evading Benjamin Britten in the
coming months. Thirty-seven years after his death in 1976, a man widely labelled as “the greatest English composer
since Purcell” has his centenary marked worldwide … by a torrent of concerts and opera productions.
Pacific Opera Victoria has joined the international celebration of Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday
with a small Britten Festival comprising the February production of Albert Herring, plus two of his
smaller, but no less enchanting, operas – Let’s Make an Opera / The Little Sweep and Noye’s Fludde (the
latter topped off with the vaudeville The Golden Vanity and the Suite for Solo Harp). POV’s Britten
Festival involves around 200 children – plus assorted partners, including Vancouver Opera, the Belfry
Theatre, the Victoria Conservatory of Music, members of the Victoria Children’s Choir and the
Victoria Symphony, plus students of Victoria High School and Glenlyon Norfolk School.
It’s even bigger in Britain. A national singing project is working to involve 100,000 kids! The Royal
Mint is issuing a 50p coin in Britten’s honour. BBC 3 is broadcasting all 14 of his operas. Decca is
issuing a 40-CD set of his complete recordings. Albert Herring Feasts will be held in Suffolk villages.
Britten operas are also being performed in Russia, South America, China (In summer of 2012 Noye's
Fludde was staged at the Belfast Zoo, whence it travelled to Beijing – marking the first production of
any Britten opera in China.)
What’s wonderful about Britten is how protean a composer he was. Says Christiansen, Neither romantic,
classicist nor modernist, neither revolutionary nor reactionary, Britten ploughed his own furrow and left a uniquely
rich and still influential legacy. You simply cannot pigeonhole him. His music can captivate kids in
China (and Victoria); it fascinates music scholars and excites the profound admiration of singers and
If Benjamin Britten had done nothing more in his musical career than compose the significant body of
work he has left us, he would be considered a major influence on 20th century music. However, he
accomplished far more. As an administrator, he was co-founder of the English Opera Group and the
Aldeburgh Festival, which remains one of the world’s major festivals. He was also an outstanding
performer, known both for his conducting and for his skills as a pianist, accompanying such singers as
Peter Pears, Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Composer, conductor, and pianist, he was above all a consummate musician – that’s the term that
comes up over and over. The New York Times called Benjamin Britten the greatest musician of his
century. Composer Michael Tippett called him the most purely musical person I have ever met; Conductor
Sir Charles Mackerras said I consider him to be the greatest musician I ever came in contact with.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 15

Britten’s Operas
The “choral operetta” Paul Bunyan, with words by W. H. Auden (Columbia University, 1941,
revised in 1976).
Peter Grimes, with words by Montagu Slater, based on the poem The Borough by George Crabbe.
The Rape of Lucretia, premiered in Glynebourne in 1946, with a libretto by Ronald Duncan from
André Obey’s 1931 play Le viol de Lucrèce.
Albert Herring, Glyndebourne 1947, a comic opera with libretto by Eric Crozier, based on
Maupassant's story Le rosier de Madame Husson.
The Beggar’s Opera, a new version of John Gay's opera, first performed at Cambridge in 1948.
Let’s Make an Opera with Eric Crozier (1949), which included a one-act opera The Little Sweep.
Dido and Aeneas, a new version of Purcell's opera, 1951.
The Wandering Scholar, a new edition of Holst's opera revised with Imogen Holst, 1951.
Billy Budd, premiered at Covent Garden in 1951, revised in 1960, with a libretto by E. M. Forster
and Eric Crozier, based on Herman Melville's novella.
Gloriana (premiered at Covent Garden in 1953) to a text by William Plomer, based on Lytton
Strachey's Elizabeth and Essex; a commission for the coronation of Elizabeth II.
The Turn of the Screw, first performed in Venice in 1954, from the Henry James novel, with libretto
by Myfanwy Piper.
Noye’s Fludde, premiered at Aldeburgh in 1958, from one of the Chester cycle of miracle plays,
written for performance in a church (Orford Ness in Suffolk).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) from Shakespeare’s play, with a libretto by Britten and Peter
The Church Parables: Curlew River (1964), The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966), and The Prodigal Son
(1968) to words by William Plomer, performed at Orford Church in Aldeburgh, and based on the
style of Japanese Noh plays.
Owen Wingrave (1970), a commission for BBC television, with libretto by Myfanwy Piper, from the
novella by Henry James.
Death in Venice (1974), from the novella by Thomas Mann, with libretto by Myfanwy Piper.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 16

University of Victoria Resources

Albert Herring, by Benjamin Britten comes to Pacific Opera Victoria in February. If you would like
to see the score, hear a recording or read more about the opera or about the composer, then the
University of Victoria Library has the resources for you. In the library’s extensive score collection
there are two copies of the opera; one is the full score and the other is the vocal score.
Full Score: M1500 B827A4 1969; Vocal Score: M1503 B8608A4
If you want to follow along with a recording, there are two recordings that you can borrow. One is
a CD and the other is an LP.
CD: call number 9308 cd; LP: call number: 13331 st
Besides recordings and scores there are books on Benjamin Britten and resources related to this
opera. For instance, if you would like to read the original novel on which the libretto is based, the
library has a copy of Le Rosier de Madame Husson (in French); call number: PQ2349 R7 1947. There
is also a copy of the libretto of Albert Herring and all of Benjamin Britten’s other operas; call
number: ML49 B74H5
Books about the music of Benjamin Britten include:
The operas of Benjamin Britten: expression and evasion / Claire Seymour (ML410 B85S49)
The music of Benjamin Britten / Peter Evans (ML410 B85E9)
The Rape of Lucretia [and] Albert Herring [by] Benjamin Britten / by Hans Keller (MT100 B8K4)
Books about Benjamin Britten include:
Benjamin Britten : a biography / Humphrey Carpenter (ML410 B85C37)
Benjamin Britten : his life and operas / by Eric Walter White (ML410 B853W4 1983)
The Cambridge companion to Benjamin Britten / edited by Mervyn Cooke (ML410 B85C36)
Finally, if you want to read a good short and concise article about Benjamin Britten, check the
Grove Music Dictionary, which is located in the Music Reference Area. It is also available online but
this version can only be used in the library.
For more information on any of these resources or on anything music related, please drop by the
library or ask the music librarian, Bill Blair at or 250-472-5025.
Susan Henderson, Communications Officer
University of Victoria Libraries

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Resources and Links
Albert Herring
Libretto of the Opera
Text of Le Rosier de Madame Husson, the story by Guy de Maupassant on which Albert Herring is based.
English translation of Le Rosier de Madame Husson
Audio recording of Le Rosier de Madame Husson (en français)

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

One of the prizes presented to Albert at the May Day
Feast is for rainy afternoons... Foxe’s Book of Martyrs In two
fine volumes, illustrated.
The book, by the English historian John Foxe, was first
published in 1563. It documents in often gruesome detail
the martyrdom of saints from the original Apostles to
Foxe’s own contemporaries – Protestants who had been
executed under Queen Mary I (“Bloody Mary”). During
those dangerous years of religious conflict between
Catholics and Protestants, Foxe was clearly supporting
the Protestant cause.
The book’s original full title is Actes and Monuments of
these latter and perilous Dayes, touching matters of the Church,
wherein are comprehended and described the great Persecution
and horrible Troubles that have been wrought and practised by
the Romishe Prelates, Epeciallye in this Realme of England and
Scotland, from the yeare of our Lorde a thousande to the time
now present. Gathered and collected according to tile true
Copies and Wrytinges certificatorie as well of the Parties
themselves that Suffered, as also out of die Bishop’s Registers,
which were the Doers thereof, by John Foxe. The title is
shortened to Actes and Monuments and commonly known
as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs”) Title page from the 1563 edition of Actes and
Monuments (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs)
Actes and Monuments went through four editions in Foxe's
lifetime. Nearly four times the length of the Bible,
containing nearly four million words by the fourth edition, it has been called "the most physically imposing,
complicated, and technically demanding English book of its era." It has also been called “The most
important Christian work ever printed outside of the Bible itself.” Listen to an introduction to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs from
the BBC 4 program In Our Time. Host Melvyn Bragg talks with guests Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of
Church History at the University of Oxford; Justin Champion, Professor of the History of Early Modern

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 18

Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London; and Elizabeth Evenden, Lecturer in Book History at Brunel
University. Browse and compare the unabridged texts of the four editions of this massive
work that were published in John Foxe’s lifetime (1563, 1570, 1576, 1583). This more recent edition, published in 1900, with
a mere 518 pages, admits that Liberty ... has been taken to abridge wherever it was thought necessary;—to alter the
antiquated form of the phraseology; to introduce additional information; and to correct any inaccuracy respecting
matters of fact, which had escaped the author of the original work, or which has been found erroneous by the
investigation of modern research. Read with a grain of salt.

Benjamin Britten
This interactive resource for information about Britten and Pears includes audio selections from Britten’s
music, virtual tours of his home, historical images, production photos, and much more.
Home page for world wide celebrations of the centenary of Benjamin Britten. If you’re new to Britten, you
can listen to brief audio samplers of his work. There is also a database of celebrations and performances
taking place all over the world during the Britten centenary, as well as video tributes by people as diverse as
composer John Adams, actor Sir Patrick Stewart (Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard), and film director Wes
Anderson (who featured excerpts from Noye’s Fludde and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra in his film
Moonrise Kingdom)
Night Mail: The last four minutes of the famous 1936
documentary produced by the General Post Office Film Unit,
with music by Benjamin Britten and the poem by W.H.
Auden. This classic film is about a London, Midland and
Scottish Railway (LMS) mail train from London to Scotland.
The poem's rhythm imitates that of the train's wheels as they
clatter over the track sections, beginning slowly but picking up
speed so that eventually the narrator is speaking at a breathless
pace. The famous opening lines of the poem are:
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Title Still from the documentary Night Mail
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.

The entire 22 minute film can be viewed at

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 19

Student Activities
Many of these activities will be a lot more fun if you read the libretto first. You can download
it at

Planning an Event
Considerable work and planning goes into
arranging a town celebration like the
Loxford Urban District May Day Feast.
Pretend you are in charge of planning an
important event like this.

What is the purpose of the event? Where

will it be held?

Plan what happens during the event … a

reception … dinner … speeches … music.

What do you need? Tables, tablecloths, a

podium, chairs, dishes?

Who is the guest of honour? Why?

Above and below: Foods for an Albert Herring Feast
Who will make speeches and presentations? Are
there awards to be handed out?

Who will be invited? How will you invite them? Will you
send personal invitations? Put an ad in the paper? Use
social media?

Don’t forget the food! At the Loxford Urban District May

Day Feast there is a lot of food. Some of it looks so
scrumptious that the children are too distracted to rehearse
their song for the feast:

Blimey! Jelly! … Pink blancmange! ... Seedy cake! … With icing

on! … Treacle tart! … Sausagey rolls! … Trifle! In a big bowl! …
Chicken and ham! ... Cheesey straws! … And marzipan!

Do you know what these foods are? If not, find out. Look
for recipes. Then decide what foods you will have at your feast.

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 20

Exploring Plot and Character
Create a character sketch for one of the characters (for example, Lady Billows, Sid, Mrs. Herring, Albert,
or one of the children). Questions you might ask about the character include:
What can be assumed about this person?
What is the character’s relationship with the other characters?
Why does the character make the choices he or she does?
Include evidence from the opera to support your claim. Keep in mind the music sung by your character.
Do the emotions conveyed through the music fit the character sketches?
Create a journal from the point of view of the character selected. Write a journal of the events of the
opera from that character’s point of view. Write in the first person, and include only information that
the character would know.

After the Opera

Draw a picture of your favourite scene in the opera.
What is happening in this scene?
What characters are depicted?

Create an opera design.

Design and draw a stage set for a scene in Albert Herring.
Design and draw costumes for the characters in the scene.

Write a review of the opera.

What did you think about the sets, props and costumes?
Would you have done something differently? Why?
What were you expecting? Did it live up to your expectations?
Talk about the singers. Describe their characters. Describe their voices.
Who was your favourite character?
What was your favourite visual moment in the opera?
What was your favourite musical moment in the opera?

Study guide by Maureen Woodall

Pacific Opera Victoria

Pacific Opera Victoria Study Guide for Albert Herring 21