An Introduction to Peter Grimes

Peter Grimes was the first large scale opera written by British composer, Benjamin Britten.

This opera is story of isolation, prejudice and mob mentality. It was first performed by Sadler’s Wells Opera, which later became ENO, in 1945. Audiences loved it from the start, and it has since become one of ENO’s most popular productions.

ENO was due to perform Peter Grimes in Autumn 2020, however the worldwide pandemic meant this couldn’t go ahead – so it’s very exciting to finally bring it back to the London Coliseum stage from 21 Sept-11 Oct 2023.

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The story

Peter Grimes is a fisherman in a small fishing village who is accused of murder when his apprentice goes missing. This opera a part-psychological thriller and part-morality play.

There is no evidence against Peter Grimes, but because of his outsider status in the small community – he’s poor, unmarried and not very well-liked – the other villagers find it easy to judge him.

Read our full Peter Grimes synopsis

Our 2023 production, directed by David Alden, won the prestigious South Bank Award when it was first performed in 2009. The story has been updated to post-war England in 1945, rather than the 1830s of the original performance.

Based on a poem

Britten based his opera, Peter Grimes, on the poem The Borough by George Crabbe. Published in 1810, the poem describes life in a fictionalised version of Aldeburgh, a small fishing village in Suffolk.

The poem is divided into 24 letters: each letter tells a different story, and they cover a wide range of topics including poverty, crime, religion and love. Letter XXII (22) tells the tale of the fisherman, Peter Grimes.

Britten read the poem when he was in the United States during the war and he wrote to his friend, the writer Eric Crozier: “In a flash, I realised two things: that I must write an opera, and where I belonged.”

Read Britten’s original introduction to Peter Grimes

Four Sea Interludes

A significant part of the opera are the orchestral interludes. These pieces are played between the scenes of the opera. They create the atmosphere of the village and they foreshadow events that are to come.

In the opera, there are six interludes. After the premiere in 1945, Britten took four of them to make a standalone orchestral suite entitled ‘Four Sea Interludes’.