Guest Blog | Dr. Michael Sells
Reflections on a Friendship
Although this posting is not directly about War Requiem, it is about one of the significant participants in that first performance, Peter Pears, for whom Britten wrote such lovely and loving music throughout his career, and who became a kind and generous friend over the last 12 years of his life.
I met Peter in 1974 in New York City when attending the first American performances of Death In Venice, Britten’s final and most personal opera, at the Metropolitan Opera. Mind you, Peter was 64 at the time and making his MET debut! His performance was incredible and very moving. I had travelled to NYC from Los Angeles with a group of six friends and colleagues from the University of Southern California and had arranged to meet him myself backstage. That meeting led to an invitation for all of us to visit him the next day at noon for drinks (?!) in his hotel room. He couldn’t have been more welcoming, humble and gracious. I took note that parts of his vocal score were still in manuscript! Mostly we wanted to know how Britten was doing after his open-heart surgery which we understood had not gone well. Peter was optimistic, but one could tell he was very concerned. He and Britten wrote or spoke daily while Peter was in New York.
That initial meeting led to invitations to come to Los Angeles for master classes at USC whenever his schedule would allow and he was on the West Coast. I remember at least two occasions when that happened as well as another when he was in LA for a recital. During those visits I dared to spend as much time with him as I could, including dragging him into my studio to hear ME sing Britten’s beautiful cycle Winter Words. (Can you imagine the chutzpah?) He was unfailingly supportive and encouraging. During another visit, I was to do a performance of St. Nicolas and Peter came to the dress rehearsal and spoke to all of us about the very first performance! I also remember after one of his recitals in L.A. sitting with him on the patio where he was staying and talking about Britten’s music. Those were “heady” times for a thirty-something tenor with delusions of grandeur!
My final chance to spend time with Peter did not materialize. In 1985 I was engaged to sing the Madwoman in his first church parable, Curlew River, at a Britten Symposium at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Peter was supposed to be a participant along with many other prominent Britten scholars and his creative colleagues, including Donald Mitchell, Eric Crozier, Philip Brett, and Nancy Evans. (All have passed away now with the exception of Dr. Mitchell who is 89.) But shortly before he was to come, Peter took a fall in the garden at the Red House and was unable to get up. He had suffered a minor stroke and was forbidden to travel. I wrote to him from Texas expressing my sorrow and my concern, and heard nothing back…. at least that’s what I thought.
Peter died on the morning of April 3, 1986. When I went to campus a few days later, I found a note in my mailbox (see below). It was probably written on April 1 and was postmarked April 2. Even though it had been over a year since communicating with him, I choose to believe that Peter, as ill as he was at this time, needed to say goodbye to me, his friend and colleague.
Let me say finally that in talking to Peter and watching him work with students, he was never possessive, as he had every right to be, of the music that Britten wrote for his uniquely beautiful voice. As long as one approached the music and text with a sincere desired to honor what Britten wrote, Peter had no problems with interpretations that were different from his and, in fact, encouraged them. I admired him so much for that as well as for introducing us all to so much of Britten’s music, including the tenor solos in War Requiem. I feel blessed to have shared a very small part of his life.
Dr. Michael Sells is a Professor of music and former Dean of the Jordan College of Fine Arts at Butler University.