Curlew River — A Parable for Church Performance (Op. 71) is the first of three Church Parables by Benjamin Britten. The work is based on the Japanese noh play Sumidagawa (Sumida River) of Juro Motomasa (1395–1431), which Britten saw during a visit to Japan and the Far East in early 1956. Beyond the noh source dramatic material, Britten incorporated elements of noh treatment of theatrical time into this composition.
The libretto is by William Plomer, who translated the setting of the original into a Christian parable, set in early medieval times near the fictional Curlew River, in the fenlands of East Anglia. The action centres on the Madwoman - an outsider. This theme is common to almost all of Britten's dramatic works: Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw and Owen Wingrave all focus on an outsider protagonist.
Curlew River marked a departure in style for the remainder of the composer's creative life, paving the way for such works as Owen Wingrave, Death in Venice, and the Third String Quartet.
Under Colin Graham's direction, the work was premiered on 13 June 1964 at St Bartholomew's Church, Orford, Suffolk, England, by the English Opera Group. The original cast included Britten regulars Peter Pears and Bryan Drake.