Discovering America

From Paul Bunyan to Peter Grimes

Heather Wiebe

Britten and Auden's 'choral operetta' Paul Bunyan, written in New York in 1939-41, has often been seen as out of touch with its American context and as an anomalous precursor to the triumphant Peter Grimes (1945). A closer look, however, suggests a more complex engagement with American musical life and with the problem of American operatic populism. Indeed, if Paul Bunyan offered one set of answers to this problem, toying with popular genres and smaller forms, the rejection of this approach in Peter Grimes also seems tied to shifting American ideas about contemporary opera. Attention to Paul Bunyan in its American context highlights the transatlantic nature of both American and British operatic developments in the mid-twentieth century, while also recasting Britten's operatic trajectory, restoring a sense of scepticism and uncertainty to his operatic project at its very beginnings.

Journal Cambridge Opera Journal
Year 2015
Volume 27
Issue 2
Pages 129-153

Wiebe, Heather (2015) Discovering America: From Paul Bunyan to Peter Grimes. In: Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 129-153. Available at


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