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Owen Wingrave 1973

August 9 - 22, 1973

Henry James’ ghost story…

…tells of an army family – the Wingraves – who have locked away a hideous secret in their grand house, Paramore. Owen is the heir; all hell breaks loose when he announces that the army isn’t for him.

Music By
Benjamin Britten
Libretto By
Myfanwy Piper
Based on a Short Story By
Henry James


Act I

Owen Wingrave is the story of a young man, the last of the Wingraves, a family of ancient military heritage. The hopes of the Wingraves, past and present, are now all centered on Owen, the last of, his line. But Owen questions the doubtful traditions of his family and, in the face of their disapproval, even hatred, proves himself to be as great a soldier as any of his forbears.

The opera begins with a prelude of music associated with the harsh traditions and expectations of the Wingraves and their ancestors, seen as a succession of portraits at Paramore, the country seat: these become the silent chorus of the opera. Among them is a powerful double portrait of a Cromwellian father and son, and one of Owen’s father. Finally Owen is seen himself.

Scene one: Spencer Coyle is a well-known and sympathetic instructor of young men seeking entrance to Military Academy. It is at his home in London that the scene opens: he is instructing Owen and Lechmere, Owen’s best friend and co-pupil, on the strategy of the Battle of Austerlitz. The lesson ends and, in the face of Lechmere’s brash enthusiasm for the excitement of war, Owen unexpectedly condemns the military conception of “glory,” the war games of the military leaders. and the resulting waste of life. Left alone with an amazed and perturbed Coyle, Owen tells him that he does not intend to proceed with his training. Coyle is persuaded to visit Miss Wingrave, Owen’s aunt who has brought him up, and to explain why his most promising pupil no longer believes in the family’s military traditions.

Interlude: Flags of glory.

Scene two: Sitting in Hyde Park, Owen clarifies his determination not to prepare his mind and body for destruction. He is greatly relieved to have broached the subject and feels sure that his family will appreciate why he is now fighting for his own ideals.

Meanwhile, Miss Wingrave is not greeting Coyle’s news with any enthusiasm. She confirms the Family’s intentions of a military career for Owen – anything else is unthinkable. She and Owen have a common vision of military glory (the Horse Guards riding through the Park) but in Owen’s case the glory is overshadowed by defeat and bloodshed. The scene ends with another Interlude (dead and tattered banners) while Owen reads a passage from Shelley’s “Queen Mab” which echoes his own feelings on the subject of war.

Scene three: Over sherry before dinner, the warm and charming Mrs. Coyle is faced with Owen’s unorthodox and potentially embarrassing ideas. She wonders how she would react were a son of hers to be in the same position. Coyle and Lechmere are both worried that Owen’s refusal may be interpreted by his family as dishonorable. Coyle is able to appreciate Owen’s point of view but feels himself committed to changing Owen’s mind. But Owen is determined that the Family will have to fall in with his ideas.

Scene four: At Paramore, the three ladies of the household are waiting for Owen to come down from London. They voice their own opinions of the matter individually and in concert: when he comes he will have to listen to the house of his ancestors. (The Julians, Kate and her mother, are as committed to Owen’s future as any members of the Family itself. Mrs. Julian’s brother had once been engaged to Miss Wingrave in her youth. When he and her husband had both been killed in battle, the Wingraves took her in at Paramore where she now acts as unofficial housekeeper. It has always been expected that Owen will marry Kate. with whom he has grown up, thus restoring the Julians’ wealth and position as well as ensuring the Wingrave line).

Owen arrives. prepared now to face the Wingraves, both the living and the dead. But he misses his usual welcome and it is soon made clear that he is in disgrace: he is upset to find that even Kate has turned against him. He challenges his forbears ironically and the challenge is at once taken up: Sir Philip, Owen’s grandfather, appears and, in an

abstract quartet, Owen suffers the Family’s concerted attacks during the week which follows his arrival at Paramore.

Scene five: A week later, the Family are still convinced that Owen’s defection is a mere whim and that sufficient brow-beating will make him see the error of his ways. To this end the Coyles and Lechmere have been invited down to Paramore. Mrs. Coyle, herself oppressed by the atmosphere of the house (which Coyle informs her is haunted by the father and son of the double portrait), observes that Owen is tired and depressed after the week’s ordeal. In private he admits to Coyle that he seems to have roused all the old family ghosts. Coyle realizes that he has taught his pupil, too well, to understand and therefore to question the import of his teaching.

Scene six: A formal dinner. An uncomfortable meal at which the old General, Sir Philip, presides·. The visitors work hard to lighten the atmosphere but only succeed in sparking off barely veiled recriminations. Each character privately voices his own feelings on the worsening situation. Finally, Sir Philip proclaims Owen as a renegade and Owen, with the moral support of the Coyles, is stung into denouncing the politicians and war-lords as criminals for coercing men to make war against each other. The meal comes to an abrupt end as Sir Philip leaves the table. Owen is left alone on the deserted field.

Act II

The Ballad of the Wingraves: a young Wingrave, in the time of Cromwell, has been unjustly accused of cowardice by his father. In his little room upstairs he is punished: a blow on the head kills the boy. When his father is sought to toll the funeral bell, he is found dead, lying as was his son the floor of the little room. Trumpet blow! Paramore shall welcome woe...

Scene one: Owen shows Coyle the haunted room after dinner, and tells him the story of the ghosts who are supposed to walk Paramore as a constant reminder to the Wingraves of the family courage. Owen has become obsessed with the legend and its application to his present circumstances.

Sir Philip summons Owen to his own private court martial. Coyle watches the two going into the study, the old man and the young one, and is struck by the parallel to the legend. While the stormy interview goes on behind the closed door of Sir Philip’s study, Coyle tries to persuade Miss Wingrave that Owen is a fighter in the true Wingrave tradition. Mrs. Coyle, herself a soldier’s daughter, tries as unsuccessfully with Kate.

Owen comes from the study and announces that he is disinherited. Kate is furious that he seems to have shattered everything they have so carefully built up together She is furious too with her mother’s hysterical outburst: Mrs. Julian sees the pride and hope of the Julian family dashed forever. In a vain attempt to provoke Owen into standing up for himself, Kate pretends to flirt with Lechmere who, much to the Coyle’s displeasure, is by now besotted with Kate. Miss Wingrave appear from the study to announce that Owen is to be considered never to have been a member of their valiant family. She leads the stunned family upstairs to bed, leaving Owen alone. He is elated by what he considers to be his victory and the liberation of his spirit, the fact that he has been rejected by the Wingrave relieves him of any further responsibility to their traditions and demands, as, embodied in the glowering portraits of his forbears. In Peace he has found himself: it is more committing than war itself: it is not weak but strong: in Peace he can be free. finished with the Wingraves.

But the two figures of the portrait seem to challenge him: he takes up the challenge. The Boy was unable to stand up for himself – now Owen has done it for them both, and for all time.

Kate, the true Kate, not the militant opponent, comes back to look for the Owen she has lost. He is touched by the return of his old sweetheart and for a moment it seems as if there might be a reconciliation. But Kate is goaded by what she considers to be his selfishness, and his remarks about her flirtation with Lechmere, into calling him a coward. Watched by Lechmere from upstairs, she challenges Owen to prove himself by sleeping in the haunted room (a deed already forbidden Lechmere by Coyle) in order to confront the spirit of his vengeful ancestors. In his rage at her childishness, Owen accepts the challenge: but he knows he must face what is locked in that room – the power that makes men fight and kill each other – and he must face it alone. Kate locks him in, with some misgivings.

Scene two: In their bedroom, the Coyles are both upset by the turn of events and uneasy on Owen’s behalf. Coyle, reading deep into the night, is disturbed by Lechmere coming to tell them what he had overheard on the staircase. Coyle is about to go and rescue Owen when a distant cry is heard from Kate.

Scene three: The members of the household hurry through the passages and galleries of the old house towards Kate’s desperate and mournful cries. They find her outside the haunted room. She had taken pity on Owen in the middle of the night and come to let him out: he is dead, lying on the floor, like his ancestor in the legend.

In his own way Owen has fought and given his life for his ideals and has been claimed by his military forbears. Only by giving his life has he made his family understand: he lies there, dead, like a young soldier, victorious on the battlefield.


Santa Fe Opera

Alan Titus


Owen Wingrave

Santa Fe Opera

Donald Gramm


Spencer Coyle

Santa Fe Opera

Michael Best



Santa Fe Opera

Eleanor Steber


Miss Wingrave

Santa Fe Opera

Helen Vanni


Mrs. Coyle

Santa Fe Opera

Catherine Wilson


Mrs. Julian

Santa Fe Opera

Jean Kraft


Kate Julian

Santa Fe Opera

James Atherton


General Sir Philip Wingrave/ Narrator

John Nelson headshot

John Nelson


Colin Graham headshot

Colin Graham


Santa Fe Opera

John Scheffler

Scenic Designer

Santa Fe Opera

Hugh Sherrer

Costume Designer

Santa Fe Opera

Georg Schreiber

Lighting Designer

Santa Fe Opera

Robert Jones

Chorus Master