Paul Bunyan; The ENO comes to Alexandra Palace Theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:51 08 May 2019




An award-nominated revival of Britten and Auden’s world war II collaboration explores the American folk figure


Jamie Manton is the director of English National Opera's Paul Bunyan which played to acclaim at Wilton's Music Hall and runs at Alexandra Palace Theatre. He talks about reviving a rarely performed operetta about a giant lumberjack of American folklore and his pal the Blue Ox.

Q Britons may be unfamiliar with this mythical figure who is part of US founding folklore.

A Paul Bunyan is as widely known and recognised as Robin Hood is to our folklore. He represents America as an emerging empire in the Western World. His story is about man's conquest of nature, establishing civilisation, celebrating the land of the free, and holding onto that dream; the American Dream.

Q A collaboration between Britten and Auden during WWII it was withdrawn after its unsuccessful premiere and only re-emerged in the 70s, it's been called an imperfect piece, not least because the lead character is off stage.

Jamie Manton Director off Paul BunyanJamie Manton Director off Paul Bunyan

A One could say that it is imperfect because of the many different characters, which creates many plot tangents and narratives, but I think that's part of its charm.My challenge was to work out how to make a cohesive production. We meet so many strange and wonderful characters, sometimes for only a moment, but that is no different to any other 'real' working community.

Q It has various musical styles , some see it as a musical not opera..

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A Paul Bunyan hosts a whole spectrum of music styles. You hear moments of Britten's later opera work, but you also have blues, folk music and musical numbers in there too. It's an eclectic mix and makes for a rollercoaster night of entertainment.

PAUL BUNYAN BY ENO picture Genvieve GirlingPAUL BUNYAN BY ENO picture Genvieve Girling

Q Your production has been called inventive and resourceful - how did you solve the challenges?

A It was a gift to have been given Wilton's Music Hall as our original venue. Being a music hall, it allowed us to make sense of the many music styles and embrace the episodic nature of the piece. Playing a small venue with a cast of 45 and a large orchestra encouraged us to make the production immersive. To really pull the audience into the action and the sound world of the piece.

Q ENO's chorus was nominated for an Olivier award - critics said they were the star of the show,

A It was absolutely wonderful to be nominated. It's an ensemble piece and their talent as both a unit and as individuals is astronomical. For much of the show we have the chorus surrounding the audience in the auditorium. It isn't very often one gets to experience their force and sound in such an immersive fashion, it's truly special.

Q Is Paul Bunyan a satire on capitalism, a comment on ecological issues, or neither?

A While written in 1941, it is incredibly forward looking, touching on capitalism, consumerism, individualism, deforestation, waste and gentrification. These are not just American, they are universal. The all imposing, hungry and neglectful post-industrial man. What happens when he continues to dream and conquer? Paul Bunyan is more relevant today than ever before.

Paul Bunyan runs at Alexandra Palace Theatre May 9-13

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