Noye's Fludde 2020

On 8 February, 2020, Putney Methodist Church hosted an ambitious staging of Britten's opera Noye's Fludde, as part of the Church's 150th anniversary. There were two performances at 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm.

This was a community production, which involved a wide range of groups and individuals. A copy of the full programme is available below. The production was directed by Jessica Dalton and James Naylor. The Church remains incredibly grateful to all those who gave so freely of their time and talents to produce such a memorable event. This page is an historic record of that event. You can see an extract of the final part of the performance here

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About the opera

Benjamin Britten (1913 –1976) is one of Britain’s best-known classical composers. He wrote a wide range of vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces. His best-known works include the opera Peter Grimes (1945), the War Requiem (1962) and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945). He wrote both large-scale operas and smaller ones, suitable for much more modest venues. In 1948 he launched the Aldeburgh Festival, with others, after moving to the picturesque Suffolk seaside town shortly after the War. He was the first composer to be given a peerage, and lived most of life with his partner, the singer Peter Pears.

His Noye’s Fludde was written to be performed in a church setting by a combination of amateur and professional musicians. It tells the story of Noah’s Ark, using the text of the Chester Mystery Plays from 1375, hence the old-fashioned spelling of ‘Noah’s flood’.

The opera was first performed on 18 June, 1958 at that year's Aldeburgh Festival and from the beginning Britten specified that the opera should be staged in churches or large halls, not in a theatre. He also always meant it to be performed by children and amateurs, with only the roles of Noye (Noah) and his wife being written to be sung by professionals. The same was true for the musicians, and the score features numerous unconventional instruments to provide particular musical effects, including bugle fanfares and handbell chimes. 

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Britten took his text primarily from a medieval English mystery or “miracle” play. These were dramatised Bible stories, traditionally performed by members of town guilds in market places on feast days. They covered a whole range of Biblical narratives. This story comes from the Chester cycle, one of only four to survive to the 21st century.

This story is perhaps one of best-known in the whole Bible, and has been reproduced countless times in books, pictures and, as tonight, dramatic reproductions. There is a lot of powerful imagery in the story but there are also elements that all modern readers find deeply troubling. Notably, the death of so many seeming innocents who did not make it onto the Ark, and the apparent desire of God to destroy his creation. 

How exactly this story came about and how it relates to other ancient stories of floods and heroes is a matter of debate. Yet coming to the story today, there is much that seems profoundly modern and relevant. Perhaps most importantly the inter-connectedness of humanity with all creation. As the climate crisis is demonstrating, humans and animals are all ‘in the same boat’ as we face the reality of global warming. All of us, saint and sinner alike, now face the consequences of years of greed and inaction. The story of Noah’s Ark is a wake-up call for us to cherish the creation with which God has blessed us.

Rev'd Geoffrey Farrar

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Notes from the director

These performances are dedicated to the memory of Keith Cheetham, whose vision for direction, design, and for widening participation in opera, has inspired much of this production.

The Old Testament isn’t the only place in which a flood narrative is written down. A story about a flood is found in the writings and traditions of dozens of ancient civilisations; the Eskimo people have a version where; "A great inundation, together with an earthquake, swept the land so rapidly that only a few people escaped in their skin canoes to the tops of the highest mountains.” Similar stories are told by the Sumerian people, the Yoruba and Maasai oral traditions in Africa, the Inuit people in North America, the Inca people in South America, in the story Great Flood of Gun-Yu in China and in many other places, some probably lost to history. Scientists and theologians have hypothesised that a natural event, or a series of them, perhaps a tsunami, or some kind of global flood, did indeed happen in prehistory and that different civilisations wrote their experiences down as stories that helped them to understand what had happened to them and to try and explore what it meant.  So what does our sacred flood story say about us, in the Judeo-Christian tradition? Amongst many stories what is distinctive about ours? Contemporary theologians, and I would agree with them, would suggest that it is the end of the story that reveals our values and vision for the world. Our story ends with redemption, new life and commitment. Even amongst death, destruction and pain, our God is able to bring about hope for the future. How we respond to difficulty says something profound about who we are; our ancestors were trying to process a time of trauma, but their interpretation of catastrophe still had room for reconciliation. What a breathtaking understanding to have, and what a challenge for today’s fractured world. 

Noye’s Fludde was my very first opera, back in 2004. I played Mrs Sem and my childhood crush played my husband! It was the start of my passion for classical music. My involvement in a community project, where professional singers mentored young people, and amateur choirs (comprised of adults and children) were enabled to participate fully in a production of the highest quality, was the beginning of my belief that community music is the most exciting place to make art, and that involvement in such projects has the power to transform lives and neighbourhoods. Music transcends our everyday normality and affirms us as human beings, allowing us to tell our stories and the stories of those we sing and play about. Noye’s Fludde is a perfect project for this; it was written for the community, to be performed in a local church at the centre of common life. It includes children at its heart and is written in a way that enables everyone to play a part. It doesn’t shy away from the complexity of the Biblical story but manages to finish with the same hopeful note as Scripture, leaving performers and audience alike with a sense of being alive, and a tentative hope for the future.

Jessica Dalton, Director

A copy of the full programme is available here.

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