Opera Scotland

Paul Bunyan


Benjamin Britten (Born Lowestoft, 22 November 1913; died Aldeburgh, 4 December 1976).


W H Auden (1907-1973).


American folk tale.



First Performance: New York (Brander Matthews Hall, Columbia University), 5 May 1941.

First Performance (revision): Manchester (Studio Broadcast), 1 February 1976.

First Stage Performance in UK: Snape (Maltings), 4 June 1976.

First Performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (University), February 1990.



When Britten was living in the USA during the early years of the war, he and Peter Pears became part of a community of expatriate Britons that included the poet W H Auden. It was not long before the suggestion came that he should collaborate with Auden on a stage work for children. As work progressed, it developed into a Broadway-style musical, which eventually received a handful of performances. While Britten's music seems to have been well received, the Auden libretto, witty and satirical, met with less success. Before carrying out any proposed revisions, the composer sailed back to the UK in 1942, and his score for Paul Bunyan lay in a drawer at Aldeburgh for the next thirty years. Britten was persuaded to dust it down after the completion of Death in Venice, and some revisions were carried out before a radio broadcast which was followed by its first Aldeburgh performances.

English Touring Opera originally planned to bring a staging to the 2014 Perth Festival. Sadly the closure of the Theatre for major renovation meant that only the Concert Hall was available, deemed suitable for The Magic Flute, but not for unfamiliar works such as Paul Bunyan or King Priam. Britten's first stage work still awaits a professional production in Scotland.


Main Characters

Voice of Paul Bunyan (actor)

Tiny, Bunyan's daughter (soprano)

Johnny Inkslinger, Bunyan's aide (tenor)

Hel Helson, Bunyan's foreman (baritone)

Hot Biscuit Slim, a cowboy (tenor)


Plot Summary

The action takes place in rural America, where Paul Bunyan runs a logging camp, where his senior employees are Helson and Inkslinger. When the cooks are sacked their duties are taken over by Slim and Tiny, Bunyan's daughter, who gradually form a relationship. A number of the men want to leave their logging camp and take up farming. In this Bunyan assists them, and goes to set this scheme in motion, He leaves the other loggers under the leadership of Helson, in spite of the warnings of Inkslinger, who distrusts him. By the time Bunyan returns, Helson has indeed staged a takeover, and it is necessary for Bunyan to beat him in a fight in order to regain control. The time eventually comes for the camp to break up and for the men to go their separate ways.

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