What’s often called “England’s national opera”, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, ends with a lonely death at sea. And there were probably times when the tenor who will star in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s upcoming concert version, David Pomeroy, thought he might suffer a similar fate.
He was probably never in any real danger. But having been 16, in an open boat on the cold North Atlantic, and labouring in the last gasp of Newfoundland’s fabled cod fishery has surely given the St. John’s–born singer some unique insights into the character of Britten’s operatic antihero, a gruff fisherman suspected by his neighbours of murder or worse.
Granted, Pomeroy grew up in a musical rather than a maritime family. His first singing teacher and mentor was his grandfather Ignatius Rumboldt, organist and music director of Newfoundland’s largest Catholic church. But an early girlfriend’s people made their living from the water, and it was thus that he found himself getting up before dawn to brave the waves.
“It was a brutal job,” the Toronto-based Pomeroy tells the Straight in a phone call from his Vancouver hotel. “I would wake up at about 4:30 in the morning and go to Petty Harbour, which is very close to my hometown of Goulds, where I grew up. I’d meet them down at the dock, and we’d go out around 5 a.m., in the dark, and the sun would come up, and we’d be so far out to sea in this little fishing dory that you could hardly even see the land. I was amazed. I thought, ‘My god, we’re so far out!’ So I spent a summer cod-jigging, and it was very taxing—but I made some good money, and I really had a taste of the sea in that regard.”
His singing career soon won out over the call of the cod, however, and Pomeroy ended up gaining further insights into Peter Grimes’s setting when he spent two summers studying at the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies in Aldeburgh, England—the composer’s long-time home, and the model for his opera’s insular Borough, whose inhabitants persecute Grimes, implicating him in the accidental deaths of his two young apprentices. There’s a darker subtext, too: Britten and his partner, the singer Peter Pears—for whom the role of Grimes was written—were a gay couple at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the U.K., and must themselves have felt the lash of rumour and prejudice.
“In the original libretto, there were insinuations that Peter Grimes was either a homosexual or maybe even a pedophile,” Pomeroy says. “Those things were taken out of the libretto as the opera was being composed,” he adds, but they’re easily read back into the work, along with a dash of 21st-century relevance: Peter Grimes now speaks to an age in which trial by social media can be even more destructive than village scorn. “Things haven’t changed,” Pomeroy notes. “At some point in their life, everyone deals with some kind of bullying.”
So you don’t need to have gone to sea in a small boat to have an affinity for the greatest of Benjamin Britten’s operatic works; an interest in the stormy waters of human nature will suffice.
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presents Peter Grimes at the Orpheum on Saturday and Monday (June 9 and 11).