Noye’s Fludde Revisited

Tuesday, June 16th, 2020

Noye’s Fludde is a one-act opera by the British composer Benjamin Britten intended primarily for amateur performers, particularly children. First performed on 18 June 1958 at Britten’s own festival – the Aldeburgh Festival it is based on the old testament story of Noah’s Ark Britten specified that the opera should be not be staged in theatres but should be in halls, unusual spaces or outdoors.  At its premiere Noye’s Fludde was acclaimed by critics and public alike, both for the inspiration of the music and the brilliance of the design and production. Since then it has been staged worldwide with the performance in Beijing organised by the K T Wong Foundation in October 2012 being the first in China of any Britten opera.

The Story

After the opening congregational hymn “Lord Jesus, think on me”, the spoken Voice of God addresses Noye, announcing the forthcoming destruction of the sinful world. God tells Noye to build an ark (“a shippe”) that will provide salvation for him and his family. Noye agrees, and calls on the people and his family to help. His sons and their wives enter with tools and materials and begin work, while Mrs Noye and her Gossips (close friends) mock the project.

When the ark is completed, Noye tries to persuade his wife to enter: “Wyffe, in this vessel we shall be kepte”, but she refuses, and they quarrel. The Voice of God foretells forty days and forty nights of rain, and instructs Noye to fill the ark with animals of every kind. The animals enter the ark in pairs, while Noye’s sons and their wives provide a commentary. Noye orders his family to board the ark; again Mrs Noye and the Gossips refuse, preferring to carouse. The sons finally drag Mrs Noye on board, while the Gossips are swept away by the encroaching flood; she rewards her husband with a slap. Rain begins to fall, building to a great storm at the height of which the first verse of the naval hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save is heard from the ark. The congregation joins in the second and third verses of the hymn, during which the storm gradually subsides. When it is calm, Noye sends out a Raven, saying “If this foule come not againe/it is a signe soth to sayne/that dry it is on hill or playne.” When the Raven fails to return, Noye knows that the bird has discovered dry land. He sends out a Dove, who eventually brings back an olive branch. Noah accepts this as a sign of deliverance, and thanks God.

The Voice of God instructs everyone to leave the ark. As they do, the animals sing “Alleluias” and the people sing a chorus of praise: “Lord we thanke thee through thy mighte”. God promises that he will never again destroy the earth with water, and produces a rainbow as his token. The cast begins Addison’s hymn “The spacious firmament on high”, with the congregation joining in the last two verses. All the cast depart except Noye, who receives God’s blessing and promise of no more vengeance: “And nowe fare well, my darling deare” before his departure from the stage.


In 2020 as the world faces a serious natural test in the form of Covid -19, the story of Noah has a resonance we can all relate to.  As we are reminded of the power of nature, and the limits of mankind, we can reflect that this is our eternal place in the world.  The story also creates a valuable parable:  There will always be doubters, there will always be leaders, and it is by teamwork and universal cooperation that we can solve problems that threaten us.  And by creating this story as a children’s opera, it also powerfully reminds us that the problems of our world may have to be solved by our children. 

  1. Concept

This production was conceived as one of the leading projects to celebrate the 2012 Olympics as the baton was passed from China to the UK.  The opera – whilst outwardly simple perfectly encapsulated the ideals of working together, and in this production created jointly between the KT Wong Foundation and Northern Ireland Opera artfully fuses both Chinese and British Themes into a universal co-operation.   Directed by Oliver Mears, then artistic director of NI Opera, and now, Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden the production met with great critical acclaim from the outset:

an enchanting show, which should go down a treat when it becomes the first Britten opera to be staged in China”

“Oliver Mears witty production of the opera had a far Eastern Flavour that  would surely have enchanted the composer”

 – The Times Hugh Canning  

Following the Premiere of this truly exceptional opera at Belfast Zoo in 2012 the production then travelled to Beijing where it featured in the UK Now Festival – set up by then then Prime Minster – the Rt Hon David Cameron to promote the best of British Creativity on China.


Using the finest Chinese craftsmanship, the unique costumes and props presented a joint collaboration between British and Chinese designers, exploring many of China’s rich artisan traditions from traditional paper-making, kites and lanterns.  The children parade nearly life size paper animal lanterns and kites, all handcrafted in the town of Weifang in Shandong Province, China, to Simon Lima Holdsworth’s designs.  These designs are embedded in the rich history of Chinese crafts and tie the production of this opera simultaneously to the original old testament story, but also to China, and the children who sit at the heart of the opera.

Chinese Lantern Making dates back more 1000 years.  Originally hung by people doors to drive away evil spirits, the lanterns have become symbols of traditional Chinese culture, playing an important role in celebrations and ceremonies today.  The King of lanterns was the honourable title given to the best lantern makers who made lanterns of the royal families in China during the Quig dynasty

The Fans first appeared in China more than 3000 years ago and were made of colourful pheasant feathers. Later fans were made of silk and paper and usually were in round, square and hexagon shapes.  Bamboo is the most common material for making the ribs of fans, particularly where painting and calligraphy is involved. A number of techniques are involved in creating the fans including, inlaying, paining ironing carving, hollowed engraving lacquering and gilding.

Kites were first made approximately 2800 years ago in China, the finest of them being made from split (usually green) bamboo, covered with silk and hand painted.  Weifang kites have many beautiful features and depict birds,, turtles, insects such as butterflies and fireflies, frogs, fishes and other kinds of marine life, but also themes of local and general Chinese mythology tradition and religion, fairy tales and legends. These themes are reflected not only in the colour and decoration of the kites but also in their shape and size.  

These design elements artfully connect with the overall form of the set – as a Chinese Junk, but hewn from container shipping bases familiar to us all.  The old and the new, the international trading world we all inhabit are seamlessly and beautifully

 connected to tell this ancient fable.

  • The Children

Children form the bulk of the cast in Britten’s original opera and to this day sit and the centre of the action.  This is no accident.  Britten saw the work as both educational – giving countless generations of children their first taste of staged opera, but also as a parable.  The problems of our world are forever inherited by our children, who are thus our future and sit at the heart of our salvation.  

For this production Children were drawn from the Northern Irish community – one that has been divided for years by sectarian violence and is now starting to heal through the common values taught to a new generation.  These young singers worked with the Children and Young Women’s Choir of China National Symphony Orchestra which was founded in 1983 by Yang Hongnian, a professor of conducting at the Central Conservatory of Music.  In the past 25 years under the training of Professor Yang, a renowned music educator and conductor, the chorus has accumulated more that 1000 songs and over 600 performances.  The chorus has performed music in Europe, America and Asia as well as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau leaving excellent impression wherever they visited. They have been awarded eight international awards.

Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde 

Benjamin Britten’s much-loved children’s opera, Noye’s Fludde was first performed at Belfast Zoo in August 2012.  Co-produced by KT Wong Foundation and NI Opera, the production was directed by NI Opera’s Artistic Director, Oliver Mears, (who has subsequently become the artistic director of the Royal Opera House), conducted by Nicholas Chalmers and designed by Simon Lima Holdsworth. The production featured local children and the National Children’s Choir from China and then toured to Beijing in October 2012 to form part of the Beijing Music Festival and then later returned to feature in the MISA Festival in Shanghai

A co-commission by London 2012 Festival and the Cultural Olympiad, in partnership with Belfast Zoo and with the support of the Britten-Pears Foundation, Noye’s Fludde was one of the highlights of the Festival, reigniting the spirit of Britten’s extraordinary children’s opera to new audiences in its Northern Ireland premiere.   

Set against the stunning backdrop of Belfast Zoo, the lakeside performances of Benjamin Britten’s celebrated opera captured the sights and sounds of the famous story of Noah, his Ark and the flood. The story was brought to life by a huge chorus of local and Chinese schoolchildren dressed in spectacular animal costumes, alongside professional opera singers and musicians.

Demonstrating the international spirit of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Noye’s Fluddeshowcased the very best in young Chinese talent. Building on the KT Wong Foundation’s international reputation for working with and supporting emerging talent, the National Children’s Choir travelled from China to take part in the eight performances alongside children from Northern Ireland’s Chinese community who make up the region’s largest ethnic minority.   

The original cast included Paul Carey Jones and Doreen Curran, eight solo child singers and a spectacular chorus of over 80 children.  This unique opera also featured nine professional musicians and a cast of 50 or more child musicians.  

Using the finest Chinese craftsmanship, the unique costumes and props presented a joint collaboration between British and Chinese designers, exploring many of China’s rich artisan traditions from traditional paper-making, kites and lanterns.  The children will parade nearly life size paper animal lanterns and kites, all handcrafted in the town of Weifang in Shandong Province, China, to Simon Lima Holdsworth’s designs.

Following the run in August, the production moved to Beijing in conjunction with the UK Now Festival, which was announced by the then British Prime Minister, the Rt Hon David Cameron MP. This was the first time an opera by Benjamin Britten has been performed to an audience in China.

The production was co-commissioned by the London 2012 Festival with funding from the National Lottery made available by the Olympic Lottery Distributor.

In the words of Lady Davies:

So why choose Noye’s Fludde? It is one of our oldest myths and a tale that resonates across all cultures as it evokes man’s first struggles with

his environment. China also has a long history rich in flood mythology and so Britten’s inventive score, redolent of the far eastern sounds he heard

on his travels, is a perfect vehicle for the retelling of Noah. 

As you will see a key element of the production, which binds East and West themes perfectly, is the visual spectacle of the lanterns. These were designed for us in the UK and then created by local Chinese craftsmen who are specialists in the ancient and traditional art of kite and lantern-making from Weifang.

I feel that Noye’s Fludde is a unique and wonderful way to introduce children, the inheritors of our future, not only to Britten’s joyful music, but to issues with their environment and our cultural heritage.

The work is especially poignant today as the world deals with Covid -19.  A natural disaster which affects us all equally, and which by working together we can resolve, survive and move forward as wiser and better people.  Problems which Noah in his famous biblical parable also faced.

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