How to Stage Classical Vocal Music: Britten’s Five Canticles

How to Stage Classical Vocal Music: Britten’s Five Canticles

Staging a classical music performance is a challenging feat, from blocking to learning music, not to mention building a set. In late October of 2023, I was offered the opportunity by City Lyric Opera to stage Benjamin Britten’s Five Canticles, with the chance to present them in a non-traditional theatrical setting. 

Artist Alphonse van Woerkom

When approaching this project, I wanted to bring these songs to life through dance, cinema, visual art, theater, and digital art. Throughout my career, I have frequently performed works by Benjamin Britten including the portrayal of roles in his Operas such as Albert Herring and The Rape of Lucretia. I always gravitated towards Britten’s musical language as well as his choice of subject matter and diversity of poetry. It was then no surprise that I was interested in creating a piece which allowed me to put my own interpretation on some of his most revered art songs, the Five Canticles. 

Over my time studying these intricate and seminal pieces, I created the multi-faceted eye I needed to stage this production. There are many things that go into crafting a devised theater work and multi-media production. 

Find Great Collaborators

Given the various disciplines incorporated into this piece, from dance to digital art, it was important to find people who understand not only their crafts but what goes into devised theater. I was lucky to find two organizations to sponsor this production, City Lyric Opera and Music at Co-Cath. What makes both of these organizations great is their dedication to making meaningful art that is not only beautiful, but also challenges its artists to take their talent to the next level. 


Pick Your Venue Carefully

Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph Brooklyn NY

Such a grand piece deserves a grand setting. It was very important that I had the right space that would be suited to the multidisciplinary creative aspects of this production. The Co-Cathedral of St Joseph in Brooklyn is not only a beautiful venue, but also ties into the themes of spirituality and religion, which are central to Britten’s Five Canticles. 


Each of these pieces was written at a distinctly different part of Britten’s life. As I was going through each piece and deciding what kind of medium suited each piece best, whether it was dance, theater, or visual art, it was important I researched what was going on in Britten’s life during each of these periods and why he decided to use the poetry he did. For instance, the Third Canticle, Still Falls the Rain, with poetry by Edith Sitwell, is about the London Blitz of WWII. When our team was crafting the music video, we wanted to have a perspective that encapsulated Britten’s steadfast pacifism which matched the tone of Sitwell’s poetry. 


Conceptualize Things That Haven’t Been Done Before

One of the challenges that this piece presented was that while I had a grand vision of a multidisciplinary approach to this group of songs, I knew mounting it would involve skills beyond my own. Crafting a team of people with diverse skills was essential in helping me articulate and create a multimedia piece. 

Our choreographer, Jamie Askey, our filmmaker, JeanCarlo Ramirez of Indiehouse Films, our visual artists, Alphonse van Woerkom and Patty Smith, and stage director Madeline Whitesell, were all key factors in making my vision a reality. 

Together we made bold choices such as to orchestrate the piano part of the Second Canticle, Abraham and Isaac, on the cathedral organ at Co-Cath to breathe fresh life into the most famous of the Canticles.

Choreographer Jamie Askey

Prepare to Adapt

When mounting a devised theatrical work, you’ll often find that some of your ideas may not have worked the way you hoped. At any point, you may need to pivot to a new concept or idea that might better fit the end goal of your production. Having an open mind is a vital aspect in creating something that works well in reality versus imagination. 

City Lyric Opera and Music at Co-Cath’s production of Britten’s Five Canticles staged by Daveed Buzaglo premieres May 16th at 7:30 PM at the Brooklyn Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph’s in Prospect Heights. To learn more visit

Daveed Buzaglo

Daveed Buzaglo is a New York based Tenor specializing in concert music and ensemble singing. He has appeared as soloist with such companies as Des Moines Metro Opera, The Center for Contemporary Opera, Emmanuel Music, Chamber Orchestra of the Springs, Tanglewood Music Center, and Music at Co-Cath. As an ensemble member he currently is on the roster of the New York Philharmonic, Bard Festival Chorus and makes appearances with St. Thomas Choir of 5th Avenue. He holds degrees from Interlochen Arts Academy, Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Stony Brook University and received a fellowship from the Tanglewood Music Center and an apprenticeship from Des Moines Metro Opera.