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Albert Herring
Benjamin Britten

The story | About the opera

The story:

The opera is set in a fictitious English market town, Loxford in Suffolk, in the early summer of 1900.

Act One, Scene One
Lady Billows, virtuous herself and self-appointed guardian of virtue in others, is anxious to select a May Queen in Loxford. A representative group of local worthies (schoolmistress, vicar, mayor and policeman) gather at her home to discuss the candidates. Each candidate's suitability is brought in question, with reference to observations made by Lady Billows' assistant, Florence.

Ultimately the idea of a May King is mooted and accepted. This honour is to be given to Albert Herring, who, with his mother, runs the greengrocer's shop.

Act One, Scene Two
Sid, the butcher's delivery boy, encounters Albert in his mother's shop. Albert is clearly dominated by his mother, and the arrival of Sid's girlfriend Nancy only serves to make him nervous and uncomfortable.

When they have left, the committee comes to inform Albert of his election as King of the May. Albert is less pleased by the honour and prize of 25 pounds than his mother.

Act Two, Scene One
During the May Day festivities, Albert's friends surreptitiously ply his lemonade with rum. After his brief speech Albert drinks his lemonade and is immediately struck with hiccups.

Act Two, Scene Two
Albert returns home later that evening, elated by his success and by the rum. While pondering his loneliness he overhears Sid and Nancy in the street outside discussing his being tied to his mother's apron strings. This provokes Albert to think of breaking free: he tosses a coin, and decides to go out and enjoy himself.

Shortly after he leaves, his mum returns. Hearing no sound, she imagines Albert must already be asleep.

Act Three
The following afternoon Albert has still not yet returned home. It is presumed that he has had an accident and is dead.

Albert returns dirty, disheveled and defiant after a bibulous night out on the town, upsetting those mourning his death. His vivid account of his drinking expedition shocks them further. He turns on his mother, accusing her of provoking him, and when the group of shocked townspeople has left him he assumes his position as master of the shop.

About the opera:

Albert Herring was written in 1947 as the first work for the newly formed English Opera Group, which was comprised of colleagues dedicated to the advancement of contemporary English opera.

It was written specifically to be a comic companion piece to Britten's recently completed operatic tragedy, The Rape of Lucretia (1946), with each sharing a chamber opera format (reduced instrumentation, no chorus and physical portability).

Together with Peter Grimes (1945), these represent an astounding creative period of three full-length operas in as many years, all of which are masterpieces of a type and all still very much in the repertory!

The three works also share a theme that is central to many of Britten's works throughout his career, that of the individual at odds with the society in which s/he lives.

[J. Scott Brumit]

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Last updated on May 28, 2004 by Marion Leeds Carroll  (