In Select Theatres May 25, 2012
Noye's Fludde: The Opera at the Heart of MOONRISE KINGDOM


In her review of MOONRISE KINGDOM, Film Comment’s Kristin M. Jones wrote, “Key to its magic is the candlelit production of [Benjamin] Britten’s opera about Noah’s ark, Noye’s Fludde, which the town is putting on in the wonderfully named Church of St. Jack. …. Like The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, and like MOONRISE KINGDOM itself, Noye’s Fludde celebrates beauty in a variety of forms and how it all can come together in a wondrous whole.” The 1958 opera also connects to Anderson’s film in its appreciation of children and their view of the world. In a review published on 22 June 1958, The Observer wrote about the opera and its composer, “One of the most engaging and persistent features of Britten's geniusis his remarkable ability to penetrate the lost world of childhood and to do so without the least trace of whimsicality or condescension.” Indeed, much like with MOONRISE KINGDOM, Noye’s Fludde, while ostensibly a reworking of the oft-told Biblical story of Noah, is also about children – their sense of innocence and hope. As Britten himself wrote about the premiere: “We were very happy with the way it came off -- & weren’t those kids good? There’s nothing much more moving than when children are really good, is there?”

The Chester Mystery Plays

Robert Chambers' Book of Days illustrating the theatrical cart

When Britten took to creating Noye’s Fludde, he was drawn to the medieval Chester Mystery Plays as source material. Through the Middle Ages, mystery plays were performed across Europe, usually in churches, as a way to dramatize stories from the Bible. Often the scripts were written by local monks and the productions were held in cathedrals under the eyes of the church. The 24 Chester Mystery Plays, which took their names from the town of Chester and its cathedral, took the plays out of the church, performing them on the streets, with local crafts guilds being assigned to handle the production of different parts of the Bible. Grocers, bakers and millers, for example, spearheaded The Last Supper plays. The town’s water carriers appropriately performed Noye’s Fludde. The Chester Mystery Plays were staged from pageant wagons that would be rolled to different parts of town where audiences would gather on the street to watch them. In the 16th century, in a wave of anti-Catholic fervor, the Chester Plays were banned as being too aligned with the Pope. It wasn’t until the 20th century that they came back into popularity.

Benjamin Britten and Noye's Fludde

Benjamin Britten at the Red House, built while he composed Noye’s Fludde

By the time Benjamin Britten wrote Noye’s Fludde, he was already a composer of note, especially in the field of opera. Interestingly, he began his career to some extent writing music for films, especially several documentaries, like Night Mail and The Way to the Sea (both 1936), that wedded his music to W.H. Auden's words. By 1958, Britten had penned a number of celebrated operas, including Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), and The Turn of The Screw (1954). Indeed his fame had grown so much that right before turning to Noye’s Fludde, he’d left London to build a manor, called the Red House, for himself and his partner, Peter Pears. According to music writer Claire Seymour, Britten “had on-going plans to write another children’s opera” from the early 1950s. At one point, he’d thought of adapting Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr. Tod. At another point, he wrote to William Plommer (who wrote many of his librettos), “I did in fact start on [an opera on astronauts] for children.” Noye’s Fludde started as a commission from the head of schools’ programs for one of London’s commercial television companies. Britten finished the work on December 15, 1956, in order for it to be staged the next year. 

The Staging of Noye's Fludde

Rehearsal of the 1958 production. Photo by Kurt Hutton.

The text and plot for Noye’s Fludde was pretty much set by the original Chester Play. The plot starts with God telling Noah about the flood, then goes to him building the ark on stage, the rain and following storm, the sending out of a raven, then a dove, and finally the discovery of dry land. As much as to the hopeful nature of the story, Britten was drawn to the performance potential of the piece. Indeed from the start he wanted his opera to reflect the unvarnished nature of the original play. Early on, he described how “I am writing it for two grown-ups and six professional children, and literally hundreds of local school children.” While the focus of the flood story isn’t usually children, Britten felt a strong connection between the vision of a new, cleansed world and the fresh innocence of children. In his stage notes, Britten emphasized that the work should feel open, fresh and democratic. He wrote, “Noye’s Fludde, set to music, is intended for the same style of presentation –– though not necessarily on a cart. Some big building should be used, preferably a church –– but not a theater –– large enough to accommodate actors and orchestra, with the action raised on the rostra, but not a stage removed from the congregation. No attempt should be made to hide the orchestra from sight.”

The Music of Noye's Fludde

Britten illustrating how to use tea cups (or as he called them “slung mugs”)

Since children were to be an essential part of the opera, Britten composed a score that made the best advantage of that. The score incorporates several well-known hymns through the piece. "Eternal Father, strong to save," for example, is sung steady and strong by the children, almost like a musical life saver, over the storm music. At the end, as a rainbow is being unfurled to symbolize the beginning of the new, drier period, the hymn “The Spacious Firmament” is sung by both cast and audience, uniting all in the room. The music also deployed a number of unusual sounds and instruments to illustrate the ark building and storm. Having just moved into his residence at the Red House, Britten had to endure the constant sounds of construction, meaning endless hammering and sawing seeped into the music of building the ark. He wrote to Edith Sitwell, “You can imagine the final bars of the opera are punctuated by hammer-blows!” Elsewhere he included recorders, bugles, hand bells and as well as household items, like tea cups and sandpaper. The tea cups (or slung mugs) were used to imitate the falling rain.

The Reception

In accordance with Britten’s request, Noye’s Fludde was performed not on stage but in church. The first performance was on 8 June 1958 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival in Orford Church, Suffolk. Critics immediately embraced the simple beauty and magic of the work. The Sunday Times wrote, “There is a childlike purity of expression about Noye's Fludde, which is at the heart of its moving effect. Britten has written the kind of music children can understand and perform, the spirit of which can be communicated to and appreciated by their elders. Composed as an occasional piece, it claims a place in the national musical heritage.” The Observer wrote, “For all its simplicity and directness, Noye’s Fludde seems to me one of Britten’s most remarkable achievements….To this task, Britten has brought a gift that he has in exceptional degree: fecundity of simple invention.” Since its first performance, Noye’s Fludde, because of its use of children, animal costumes, and simple music, has become a favorite production for church and school groups, like, perhaps, the community of New Penzance.

Britten-Pears Foundation Video

The Britten-Pears Foundation, an organization that promotes “the music of Benjamin Britten and his work with singer Peter Pears,” spotlights the use of Britten’s music in MOONRISE KINGDOM, and also has created this video that takes you into the production of Noye’s Fludde.


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