Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Another Benjamin Britten surprise - Syphilis! Whatever next?

2013 is definitely going to be the year of Benjamin Britten. Every week there seems to be some new revelation and each one gets worse. The latest is in the new biography by Paul Kildea published on 7 February 2013 and shock, horror it appears that Britten was suffering from tertiary syphilis although he did not know it. I wonder? Evidence seems a bit flimsy. Maybe they should exhume him and find out. Poor Ben!

By accident I got to know Benjamin Britten. I met him when I was 14 at an audition for the first Noyes Fludde in 1958. I was a girl and Britten had difficulty finding girls who could sing. I could.  Britten was searching for a Flora for his opera The Turn of the Screw based on the novella by Henry James. He had looked since 1953, auditioned over 40 little girls and could not find one. The first production had a small adult which he found unsatisfactory as a young Flora is essential if the horror of the story is to be at its maximum consequently I was precious and always he treated me as an adult.

I think Britten knew that his reputation would always be open to speculation after his death and I think it horrified him as he desperately wanted to be considered normal but like everything he got used to it. Britten seemed to envy me my normality. I found this strange as  to me he had everything. Aldeburgh Festival looked so amazingly traditional Upper Class prim and proper but Britten knew one day this mirage would disappear. It has.

The tragedy for Britten is that it is not the homosexuality or the tertiary syphilis that is the problem today but Britten's liking for young boys which in his day was not considered a sin at all but will possibly be his current downfall. Today Britten would have kept this passion to himself. Many of us enjoy gazing at beautiful bodies. Look at the bookstands.  This is not a sin. Britten liked looking at young boys which is. Now thanks to the Roman Catholic Church and Jimmy Savile this is totally unacceptable. I find this unacceptable too and yet at the time in 1959 colleagues laughed at it. Sir Charles MacKerras, the conductor got hauled over the coals for a unwise but true remark!

Artists write about what they know and consequently all Britten's operas and especially his major works are on these dark forbidden subjects. Britten knew all about  the struggle between heterosexuality and homosexuality and he wrote about it. The Turn of the Screw which is considered by many to be his masterpiece and which I had the good fortune to be in, is all about this conflict. Like Miles Britten may have experienced the struggle between the love of a boy for either a man or a woman. Like Miles he could never choose which he liked the best. Maybe Britten only experienced male love although he was curious about the other as I know from my own limited experience. I do appear to be the only 19 year old girl with whom he had a relationship and actually took home in his sports car.

Male seduction of a young boy has never sounded so beautiful as in The Screw and this is Britten's gift to music but because of the Savile affair this opera is now unmentionable in the centenary year because of its unfortunate subject!

Britten never came out during his lifetime. Britten said on many occasions to colleagues that he wanted to be normal. If anyone had hinted Britten was gay while he had been alive Britten would have sued. Britten was definitely gay but he was also bisexual and this has to be taken into account when trying to understand his strange character. It never is. Like Flora's personna this trait is never addressed and it should be.

Gradually over the years I have found out what was kept from me while I was at Aldeburgh.  I await Paul Kildea's book for further revelations. Maybe now I should write one of my own!


  1. Very interesting comments from one so close to him Janette. Do you remember Southwark in Nov 1958? Where did you all stay? It must have been the same animals, stage crew?
    You might be interested in this link:

    1. Thank you so much for the comment and the link which I did find extremely interesting, especially the programme which I have not seen for many years.

      I do remember Southwark. The soloist children like Michael Crawford and myself all lived in London but the Aldeburgh animals were shipped in.... I think! The bugels were from the Sea Cadets and I remember being shocked as when they went to the lavatory in the knave of the Cathedral none of them closed the doors! I believe that was normal on board ships but it is one of my most vivid memories!

      I remember too my part was upgraded by Britten much to my dismay. Because I was the least experienced in Aldeburgh I was given the easiest line but he decided I had to sing the actual Mrs Sem music which was quite hard. I was not a happy bunny as I had little rehearsal and Britten hated musical mistakes.

      I wish I could say these performances were enjoyable but the professional children were there to perform and a lot was expected of us. We were treated like adults and It was quite stressful. Now of course I look back and think 'Wow I was in that!'

      I never imagined then that my five years with Britten would become such an important part of my life.