In high school, during repeated watchings of Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, my friend Jesse and I always stopped the movie at the song “My Way.” We felt this was the scene that marked Sid Vicious’ point of no return, and we didn’t want to him spiral down any farther than he already had.
In Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring, which was first staged in 1947, a vicious joke by a different Sid and Nancy adds a little anarchy to the world. It also allows the title character to transform from mama’s boy to independent man. For Albert and his audience, his out-of-control actions make him a hero.
At the outset of the story, the aristocrat Lady Billows and a team of local leaders search for a May Day queen. Finding none of the young women of the town virtuous enough—a joke in and of itself for anyone who knows the fertility origins of the holiday—they settle on the only virtuous soul in town and are forced to turn the role of queen into king. Albert Herring, though thought to be a little slow, fits the bill; his reputation is clean as a whistle. The son of a widowed grocer, Albert doesn’t want the role of May Day king but takes it for the cash prize and to please his overbearing mum. On the big day of his coronation, Sid, a local bad boy, with the reluctant help of his flame Nancy, sneaks rum into Albert’s lemonade in an attempt at harmless fun and to loosen Albert up.
The moral here is: Drink a little rum and you, too, can have a threesome.
And loosen up he does. After the party, Albert returns home drunk as a skunk and decides to lose his virtuous reputation once and for all. Albert leaves his mother’s shop, and the next thing the audience knows, he’s found not one but two women, presumably prostitutes, for a little hanky-panky. That’s right, kids. The moral here is: Drink a little rum and you, too, can have a threesome. OK, that’s probably not really the moral, but it’s pretty shocking to watch this kind of naughtiness in an opera house, even if it’s mostly implied.
Alek Shrader, who plays Albert in this Santa Fe Opera production, does a fantastic job, mixing physically awkward traits with a strong voice that projects the subtleties in Albert’s growing self-confidence. As is common at the Santa Fe Opera, situated in a covered but outdoor theater, thunder and a heavy rainstorm fought with the actors for attention. Shrader, Joshua Hopkins and Kate Lindsey (who played the mischievous Sid and Nancy) had the most competition with Mother Nature, delivering their songs without strain over a rain so torrential it misted the audience on several occasions.
A three-hour performance might seem daunting to non-opera aficionados, but because Albert Herring is both modern and in English, it’s a good choice for both the novice operagoer or the musical theater lover. The Santa Fe Opera has brought in a fantastic cast, and it’s a crowd-pleaser all around. Unlike another Britten opera, Billy Budd, which was staged in Santa Fe a few years ago, Albert Herring is lighter in story and music. Budd’s dissonant themes alienated a notable chunk of its audience, whereas Herring’s catchy songs were sung post-performance in the parking lot by delighted audience members. Albert Herring doesn’t fall victim to the clichés of opera—it’s not overly dramatic and most of the lyrics are understandable—and that’s exactly what makes it so much fun. It has the modern story of the outsider we can all relate to.