Albert Herring balances indie aesthetic with traditional music

Benjamin Britten’s 1947 opera Albert Herring (set in 1900) has been a perennial production for Chicago Opera Theater. But the new mounting opening tonight at the Athenaeum, helmed by director Stephen Sposito, promises to infuse Britten’s story with what the company is calling an “indie-film vibe.”

Sposito—who was associate director for The Book of Mormon, resident director for the Broadway and touring productions of Wicked, anddirector of the national tour of Shrek the Musical—explains, “We’re still setting it at the turn of the century . . . but, visually, I tried to make it a little kooky.”

Dame Jane Glover, head of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque ensemble and a frequent interpreter of Britten, conducts, while the titular role is sung by Miles Mykkanen, who is performing in his fifth Britten opera. 

Albert Herring1/26-1/29: Thu 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 PM, Athenaeum Center for Thought and Culture, 2936 N. Southport,, $25-$165

“He’s a composer I feel at home with,” Mykkanen said. “I’ve lived with his music since I was 17 or 18 and starting my training. The opportunity to sing Albert Herring has been at the back of my mind, and I’ve just been waiting for the chance to sing it.”   

Sposito was attracted to both Albert Herring’s “youthful, energetic story” and its “amazing” music.” 

“It’s highly complicated,” he explains. “It’s sort of like a play more than anything. There’s one big aria. It’s all this sort of interwoven, highly complicated music that feels almost like people talking.”

Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, it’s a slight tale on the surface. Albert, a shy and malleable young man in a small, English market town, is selected as the May King for the festival when none of the local young ladies are deemed morally upstanding enough to be queen for a day. A local prankster slips alcohol into Albert’s lemonade, causing him to humiliate himself at the ceremony and then run off in search of adventure elsewhere. Eventually, however, he returns—but with a little more starch in his spine.

Once Sposito set to work planning the opera, he was surprised at how complex Britten’s ideas and characters were. 

He says, “I’ve never directed an opera before. I mainly do musical theater and some plays. What a great challenge, and that’s kind of what the play is about: You don’t do one thing. You scare yourself a bit, break out of your box a bit, and try something that’s challenging.”

Sposito, at one point, told Mykkanen that Albert Herring’s evolution in the story “was maybe just 10 percent to the left or the right” from where he was when the story begins.

Mykkanen called Sposito’s idea “so beautiful to me. It’s not like this character has to go through this huge heartbreak or kill somebody like what normally happens in opera. This is just a guy in his late 20s trying to figure out his life, and he realizes he’s not happy, and he asks, ‘What can I do to take control of my own destiny?’” 

Singing a comic role, he notes, is sometimes not as easy as singing a tragic one, because “the way forward is not that obvious. At the end of the scene, when you have to get to the murder or get to the heartbreak, you have to know where you’re going and what you need to build up to emotionally. In comedy, when you don’t have to get to the [tragic] end goal, it’s oftentimes only in your head. You have to figure out the narratives of the scene. It’s trickier.”

Mykkanen nevertheless appreciates that those comic roles often give more leeway for interpretation.

“That’s where, as a singer or actor, you rely on your conductor or your director to help craft the performance,” he says. “Every Albert Herring I do will be different. I’ve done 13 productions of Candide, and they’re kind of similar in that way, where each production is a very different journey and a very different character.  

The youthfulness reflected at the core of Albert Herring inspired Sposito and his collaborators to aim for that independent film aesthetic, exaggerating some stylistic elements or inserting the occasional visual anachronism, all the while making sure the audience won’t be jarred from the story and music. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel was kind of a visual cue for me,” Sposito explains. “How do we treat style and time so that it’s accurate, but it’s not a museum piece either? We have elements of the period—these big, mutton-sleeve shoulders, for example, which we exaggerated and had fun with. Or high collars—what do they say about the characters, or what do they do to them while wearing them?”

The cast of Chicago Opera Theater’s Albert Herring Credit Michael Brosilow

Sposito, currently based in New York, thought when he was younger that he’d one day move to Chicago and work in the theater here, which alas never happened. He’s worked in the Windy City on touring shows, but this is his first Chicago production “from the ground up,” he says.

Directors of musicals usually collaborate closest with their choreographers, but operas require that same level of collaboration between directors and conductors, so Sposito’s relationship with Glover was an important one. The conductor knew Britten and Peter Pears, his partner (who sang the role of Albert in the first production), and Sposito praised both her vast knowledge of Britten’s repertoire and her work ethic.

The conductor’s responsibilities “are not just the music,” Sposito says. “They’re part of the staging of the show and the design of the show. She’s in on all of that. . . . It was such a beautiful relationship, to have someone who knows the piece so well but was also so fun, naughty, cool, and playful. That surprised me.”

Mykkanen calls Albert Herring “the quintessential ensemble piece. There’s 13 of us on stage. There’s no chorus. There aren’t dancers. There aren’t the extra auxiliary forces in opera that we rely on and allow us to frankly take a break.”

Even if Sposito’s setting playfully reinterprets some of Albert Herring’s thematic elements, the precise nature of Britten’s music nevertheless calls for commitment from the cast, Mykkanen suggests. 

He explains, “The rhythms and the brilliant text—when you get it right, it makes sense. When you start screwing around with it too much, that’s when it doesn’t. So the 13 of us have been focusing on the score and working on our accuracy.”

Singing Britten requires “keeping your brain active over the course of an evening,” Mykkanen adds. “There are times when there are two-time signatures happening at the same time—one person is in four, one person is in six, and somehow, every eight bars, we line up. As singers, especially with Jane [conducting], that’s a particular challenge with Britten.” 

Even so, Albert Herring has been a relatively relaxed experience for Sposito, who’s used to the faster pace of directing musicals.

“With commercial theater, it’s about efficiency,” he explains. “‘Cut those bars.’ ‘Get them out sooner.’ With this, we give you the whole score—there are no trims or cuts. It’s almost calmer.  There’s something about doing an opera that you [as a director] just luxuriate in a bit. It can really be about the music, and you can just sit back and listen sometimes.”

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