Yes, he's now un-Owen, and, to flog the Agatha Christie pun, also unknown. To most. In other words, I doubt I'd get much for the autographed Owen Brannigan card if I put it on eBay.
In his era (the 1940's) Owen Brannigan was the premiere British baritone. He was in the original Sadler's Wells production of "Peter Grimes." Benjamin Britten wrote several opera parts with Owen in mind, including "Bottom" in "Midsummer Night's Dream." My first encounter with him was when he played Dick Deadeye on the classic "HMS Pinafore" two-record set issued by Angel in the 50's and featuring the Pro Arte Orchestra and Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. For me he was the first and the definitive Dick Deadeye.
A talent with less lofty notes than opera and operetta, the "Tynesider" from Annitsford, Northumberland was justly proud of his area's popular songs and folk tradition, and a pleasing result can be found on "Brannigan's Northumbria." Quite a few tunes are sung in a rather impenetrable dialect. The samples below are among the best tracks.
1. BUY BROOM BUZZEMS sounds quite rude, doesn't it? Never fear, it's based on another regional tune, "Green Brown Besoms," which may have originated in Newcastle.
2. CA' HAWKIE THRO' THE WATER is a stirring example of Brannigan's vocal abilities, whether you catch all the words or not. The "Ca" is a cow, and the singer is having a lot of problems getting the clunky animal across a stream. You wouldn't think the subject of the song was so mundane, based on the ominous music. Then again, the minor key music may be a warning to be careful where you step when you've got a cow around.
3. THE COLLIER'S RANT is from Durham, and wouldn't it be nice if there was subtitles for this? The song is about two guys who meet the Devil himself down in a mine, and go after the evil one's horns.
4. WHERE IVVER YE GAN YOU'RE SURE TO FIND A GEORDIE is pretty easy to figure out. Owen sings with grand pride, and by the end, you get the fun that only a baritone or bass can have….dropping the last notes oh…so…LOW
5-8. HMS PINAFORE EXCERPTS. Here are the great scenes featuring cynical realist Dick Deadeye. Learning that the hero's been spurned, he laughs out loud, and scornfully reminds one and all that a mere "slave" deck hand shouldn't woo the "gallant captain's daughter." Called a "vermin," Deadeye skulks away, only to be driven into a blacker mood when the captain's daughter has the damn nerve to change her mind…and prevent the hero from killing himself! While everyone rejoices, Deadeye growls his revenge…which involves ratting out the happy couple to the captain himself! Does the captain want his virginal daughter to become "less coy in many various ways?" Wouldn't it be better to take a cat o' nine tails to the lustful sailor instead? As happy endings are SO disgusting, we leave Dick Deadeye and the Captain at this point. The great moments of Dick Deadeye in "HMS Pinafore" only run six or eight minutes…but remain (for SOME of us) the highlights of the entire operetta.
Brannigan is featured on many Gilbert & Sullivan recordings, Benjamin Britten opera CDs, and there's more old vinyl out there, including "Kipling in Song." Most of Owen's solo albums are pretty hard to find except on British eBay.
Geordies, British folk fans, opera buffs and Gilbert & Sullivan fans....these are the ones most likely to know the name "Owen Brannigan" from a theater program or record album. Now, thanks to the Internet...Geordies, British folk fans, opera buffs and Gilbert & Sullivan fans are still the ones most likely to know or care about the name "Owen Brannigan." Owe well.
OWEN BRANNIGAN NORTHUMBRIA and PINAFORE zip file.