It's a curious sort of double life I lead. On the one hand, I live and breathe opera every day, and have done so for years; I listen to it, I watch it and, of course I write about it, and while doing so doesn't pay the bills, it nevertheless is, for lack of a better term, What I Do. But on the other hand, I'm only twenty-five and I've only lived in a city with an opera company for three years. So however deep my immersion, it's the plain and simple truth that a lot of things which happen to me, happen for the first time. And Peter Grimes has been richer in these Firsts than most.
We know I'm an obsessive sort of person and almost always inclined to see a show more than once if I can. I'll do that for all sorts of reasons. But I usually don't see every show in a season unless there's a particular — generally soprano-shaped — drawcard. In fact, there are only four productions about which I can absolutely truthfully say I saw every performance, and it will be no surprise to anybody that the cause in every case was either Yvonne Kenny or Cheryl Barker. I'm seeing every performance of Peter Grimes, however, and while the cast abounds with singers who would, on their own, be more than reason enough for my completist urge to kick in, it's nevertheless not about any one individual or any starry-eyed fixation. It is the show itself which keeps pulling me back, and above all, it is the opera itself — all this irresistible magnetism has its ultimate roots in the magic wrought by Britten.
That magnetism must be powerful, too, because this is also the first season in which I've seen my own urge to return and return reflected in so many other people. People who sometimes think I'm a bit mad for going back are now doing it too. A few friends who almost never see anything twice, have come back, and among my fellow devotees, my 6/6 record is closer than usual to being equalled. In fact I expect it has been equalled, and so it should. And while there's a glow that hangs about from show to show, each time is somehow also the first time, as fresh and as revelatory as when we began. There's no going through the motions and no sense of getting through the less interesting bits, as I might have felt with other operas I attended multiple times. Each visit is its own experience.
Peter Grimes has also given rise to a delightful subculture that I've always sort of wished for and never really seen. On Twitter, on Facebook, via email and in the comments of this blog, those of us knocked over by the show seem hungrier than usual to discuss it, to read and write about it, and, despite the piece's devastating nature, to joke about it. I've cried more than ever while watching it, but between acts and between performances, we've had a lot of fun. I've met old friends and made new ones during the intervals. I've traded lines from the libretto with fellow Grimes-nerds over the internet. The other night, a passing suggestion that we might all come to closing night in Borough-themed costume turned into a hilarious and increasingly surreal discussion of suitable outfits — from Ned Keene's jaunty vest, to William Spode's ghost, to my personal favourite: sea horses.
Most striking of all has been the audience response. In my admittedly limited experience, I've never known anything like it, and I suspect the Opera Theatre hasn't felt this kind of outpouring for quite some time. Sydney audiences, who so rarely stand, have stood more than once for Peter Grimes. And they've done so immediately, rising at Stuart Skelton's first solo bow and staying on their feet throughout the entirety of the curtain call. Even before that, the applause which has filled the house just at the end of the first act has been consistently longer and louder than usual, and when conductor Mark Wigglesworth leads the orchestra's bow before Act Three, the ovation is quite extraordinary. In a sense, I think the applause has become for us a form of catharsis as much as a mark of approval. Even on opening night, when I suspect we were all too taken aback to stand, I have never seen so many arms raised so high to applaud — as if we wanted to just reach out and embrace the artists who had given us such a phenomenal experience. Nor have I myself ever clapped so loud and so long and on so many occasions. My shoulders ache. I can feel them right now.
Without hyperbole or wolfcrying, I can tell you this: I've never experienced anything like this Peter Grimes in my life; and while performances of a similar magnitude might flow a little thicker and faster in the years to come, I nevertheless cannot see anything ever effacing the particular and precious memory of this season. Certainly it has beaten everything else comparable in my life so far — and in fact, I think it did so before the Prologue had even finished on opening night. The moment I first saw Peter Carroll lead Stuart Skelton gently and silently downstage, I knew this was something different, and something which would stay with me for a long long time to come.
Amidst all these firsts, however, comes a cruel finality. The season was a short one and tonight sees the final performance of Peter Grimes. I've already heard talk of a revival: let us hope it is sooner rather than later. Too late now to tell you to see it; if you haven't done so, you probably either feel keenly what you've missed, or were never much bothered to begin. Those of us (and there are a lot of us) who have seen it or will do so surely can't help but feel how incredibly fortunate we've been to see this Grimes, and to see it at the start of its journey. Next comes Perth, then Houston, and after that, who knows? I hope Neil Armfield's show will see — and be seen by — the world. Both they and he — and Benjamin Britten — deserve nothing less.