Man, man, man…. what was Peter Pears thinking?

Man, man, man…. what was Peter Pears thinking?


norman lebrecht

May 27, 2014

The BBC has just released archive film of a 1964 Britten-Pears studio recital.

The first song they perform is Purcell’s ‘Man is for a woman made’. The second is about a bachelor wooing a maid. The third song is described by Pears as being about ‘woman as deceiver’. The next about ‘woman as a faithful companion’.

Several in the audience, and certainly the producers, were aware that the artists were gay and living together. What went through their minds when hearing this determined dissimulation? Leading the applause, from the back row, is the late Earl of Harewood

Watch the fascinating survey of English song here.

britten pears recital


  • Hugh Canning says:

    On the other hand, Britten and Pears often performed Britten’s First Canticle, My Beloved is Mine and I am his, to an unmistakably homoerotic text by Francis Quarles, from 1947 onwards so they weren’t “dissimulating” all the time. I’m perplexed by this posting, Norman, especially after the uproar about Tara Erraught last week. You are surely not suggesting that gay musicians should not perform heterosexual songs or play heterosexual roles because they would be indulging in “dissimulation”. It’s art, after all. Even if Britten and Pears were dissimulating in 1964, they would have had good reason to, as they could have been arrested, prosecuted and jailed for their homosexuality then. After your high-minded stand on sexist critics, I’m struggling a bit to see what point you are getting at here.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      No connection between the two issues, Hugh. I would raise a quizzical eyebrow if two straight men delivered an uninhibited gay cycle, augmented by remarks supportive of gay lifestyles. It makes me uncomfortable to see performers having to dissimulate, presumably in response to social pressure. B and P are being untrue to themselves. That’s my point. Others may see it otherwise.

      • ElizaF says:

        “B and P are being untrue to themselves.”

        I think NL might want to retract this on further reflection. Not because it is offensive, necessarily, but rather because it doesn’t withstand a moment’s reflection. If someone sings a song which has the line “I am in love with Susannah”, are they being dishonest in some respect if they don’t, in actual fact, love someone called Susannah? Obviously not. Even NL would presumably agree to this. But what he does appear to be saying is that they must have the right sexuality. In other words, if a homesexual person sings a song which expresses a heterosexual perspective, they are “dissimulating”. Which is very, very wierd position to adopt when we commonly accept that singers and actors routinely express opinions, feelings and points of view which they themselves do not actually hold. A performance is, by its very nature, an act of dissimulation. In what additional sense, therefore, are B and P dissimulating when they sing these songs?

        Answer? They aren’t.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    Following the logic of this and other kinds of typecastingprinciples: white operasingers can never sing the mainrole of Verdi’s Otello?
    As well as only femalesingers with, let’s prudently express this, a horizontal background can sing the titlerole of Verdi’s La Traviata?
    Gosh, what did we miss in all these decades, perhaps even centuries! 🙂

  • Of course, it’s also possible that Pears and Britten saw the sly comic irony inherent in performing these trifles. Which makes me admire them all the more. Not every performance or choice of repertoire was marked by “tortured” self-dissimulation, surely.

    • John says:

      Absolutely. I have a gay countertenor friend who once wanted to do a whole recital of songs like “I enjoy being a girl” (Flower Drum Song) and “Bill” (Showboat) just to have some fun (and maybe make some points about gender identity in the process).

      Really though, I’m untroubled by Peter and Ben performing songs like this just as I am by, say, the many Jews who sang (and continue to sing) Wagner, or the non-African Americans who perform Verdi’s Otello (or the non-black actors who perform the part on stage). The women who sing Nicklausse, Octavian, or Cherubino don’t feel that performing a ‘trouser role’ is some kind of sellout, and I doubt that was ever in the minds of Offenbach, Strauss or Mozart. I don’t think Friedrich Schorr thought it wasn’t appropriate to sing Wotan because he wasn’t a god (though on some of his recordings, I’d beg to differ!); rather, he was singing and acting a part in trying to channel the musical and dramatic wishes of the composer. And that’s what I think Ben and Peter were thinking. They just wanted to deliver a wonderful performance of some fine music by the great master Henry Purcell.

  • Oliver says:


    I’m more than 99% confident that you are the only person who would sit through the Britten/Pears recordings of Winterreise or Die Schoene Muellerin thinking “I can’t believe Pears is impersonating a heterosexual narrator”.

  • Hugh Canning says:

    Did you raise a quizzical eyebrow when Philip Langridge, sang Britten’s My Beloved is Mine, or would you when Mark Padmore or Ian Bostridge sing it? The tenor of your initial post suggests that it is somehow dishonest when gay people sing songs and words expressing heterosexual desire and now you seem to be saying that there is something queer about straight singers singing songs with a gay content. If you extend that argument, no gay actor should ever play straight chactacter or a straight won play a gay one. Looks very much like prejudice to me, I’m afraid. As I wrote before, it’s art, and about creating an illusion. I think the issues are very much related. You appear to think it is ok to make disparaging remarks about gay artists, but the critics you have recently attacked can’t mention the shape and size of a female singer playing a male role. The issues are very much related. It’s called double standards, if not hypocrisy.

  • Michael says:

    I look forward to NL presenting us with a list of all past and current “dissimulators” in the classical music world. And are opera critics, now deprived of commenting on any performer’s appearance on pain of suffering endless Twitter trolldom, now to be crucified for NOT outing singers who are thought to be “dissimulators”? If a gay singer should perform a recital with a gay singer, would NL have the nerve to out their sexuality if they should presume to perform any song which was not resolutely gay-themed and thus be condemned publicly for dissimulation?

    In other words, calling anyone – dead or alive – a “dissimulator” because of their sexuality is simply offensive and unnecessary and the least NL could do is reflect on the above posts and retract his comments.

  • Theresa says:

    Nobody’s mentioned the music. Maybe Pete and Ben just liked the music.

  • Derek Castle says:

    I must admit I’m gobsmacked. I always credited NL with a lot of sense (even if his headlines were often, understandably, provocative). But this is just nonsense. It’s like say gay men can’t play football, something that was generally believed for decades.

  • Thomas Cooley says:

    Considering that homosexuality was still a criminal offense in England at the time of this video, their reasons for “dissimulation” seem pretty clear.