The Enigma Chamber Opera is based in Boston but was envisioned as a traveling ensemble when it formed at the end of 2019. The pandemic may have scaled back the traveling plans, but the ECO has charged ahead artistically, recently performing the rarely-heard church parable operas of Benjamin Britten, completing the cycle with a performance this weekend at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul.

Kirsten Cairns, artistic director of the Engima Chamber Opera, joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss “In the Burning Fiery Furnace.”  What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: To start off, tell us about the artistic impulses and energy behind founding the Enigma Chamber Opera. One thing that’s obvious is that you seem to prefer a repertoire that might be under-appreciated, or at least under-performed.

Kirsten Cairns: Yes, one of our missions is to perform pieces that are established in the repertoire but, as you say, perhaps overlooked.

There are quite a number of smaller companies that do new work—and I do love doing new work—but I felt that with Enigma, it would be interesting to look at pieces that are not as new and have been out there for a while, but perhaps are not getting the love that they could have, maybe because we’re not seeing how they relate to a modern audience. Part of it is about taking these pieces and saying, “What messages do they have for us as a contemporary audience?”

Rath: What does “chamber” reflect? Does that have to do with scale or more of the intimacy of the pieces?

Cairns: Both. Scale is a big consideration. Chamber operas don’t have a chorus, usually, and they work with a chamber orchestra, so there's a smaller number of instrumentalists and singers in the cast.

That’s largely to do with budget. Let’s be honest. It’s very expensive to put on a huge show with a full orchestra and a chorus. We’re working on a smaller scale, but that also does mean that they are more intimate shows, and it gives us the flexibility that we can perform in interesting, unusual environments.

Rath: That’s interesting as well because it’s the sense that these are shows you could take on the road.

Cairns: That’s the idea. That’s our hope. I’m actually based out of Glasgow myself. We do most of our work—or have done most of it so far, here in Boston—but there’s always the idea that there may be other arts festivals, venues or locations around the world where we can take our productions.

Rath: Your first production was Britten’s “Turn of the Screw”—and we’ll come back to talking about Britten for this weekend’s performance—but tell us about why you started with that piece.

Cairns: It’s an interesting story in that I’d had this idea in my head about putting together a company. I kept saying to people that with all the time that I’ve been working in the business and all the incredible people I’ve worked with, if money were no object, I could put on incredible shows because I know all of these incredibly talented people. One day I thought, “What if I just pretended money was no object and brought these people together to do things?” So, that was in my mind.

Then, I was having a conversation with Matthew DiBattista, our resident music director who has also appeared in all of our shows. I said to him, “I’ve got this great idea for a production of ‘Turn of the Screw.’” And he said, “I’ve never sung the role of Peter Quint, and I’ve always wanted to.” And I said, “Oh! Well, if I make it happen, will you do it?” So, that was the impulse for me. Well, I guess I need to set up a company now so that we can do that show, and so it began.

Rath: Looking to this weekend’s performance of “The Burning Fiery Furnace,” also by Britten, it’s a fascinating, unusual piece. It’s one of what’s called his church parables. Tell us about it.

Cairns: Yes, it’s one of the least-performed of Britten’s works. The church parables, in general, are not very much performed. Of the three, this is the least performed.

They’re really fascinating pieces. They tell amazing stories that have profound messages in them. When we were coming out of lockdown, sort of—we had that weird time where we sort of emerged and then went back into lockdown again—we really wanted to get back to live performances as soon as we could. It sort of came into my mind that "Curlew River," which was the first of the church parables, was the right piece at that time. It felt like the message of that piece was the message that we all needed at that time.

Having made that decision, I thought, “Well, I think we need to explore all three of these pieces.” So, here we are, completing the journey through the trilogy with"The Burning Fiery Furnace," which is actually the second one that Britten wrote. It went "Curly River", "Burning Fiery Furnace", "The Prodigal Son." But again, the last production felt like the right one at that moment, and boy, "The Burning Fiery Furnace" really feels like the right moment in this election year.

Rath: Talk about that a little bit because it’s a church piece, but it’s by Britten. It genuinely feels liturgical and religious, but it also feels like it’s wrapped up in his own subjectivity as a gay man in the Church of England.

Cairns: You know, Britten’s faith is a fascinating thing, and I don’t know enough about it. I always keep thinking that I need to find out more and more of what I could about what he really believed because, as you say, he was a gay man living with his lifelong love, for whom he wrote all these incredible tenor roles.

Of course, at that time, homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. He was living this strange life, kind of hiding in plain sight. I don’t know quite what he believed or how he felt about his faith, but he obviously had some pretty profound beliefs because he comes back often to religious themes—not only in the church parables but in other pieces he wrote.

I feel that the church parables have these profound, religious messages that are clearly in there are take care of themselves. The interesting thing is for me to say, “What else is in there?” In addition, if you are not a religious person, what do these pieces say to you? In our exploring of all three of these church parables, we have found that they have pretty profound humanist messages that really help us get through some of the dark times.

In the piece, there’s the line: “God help us from the furnace of this murderous world.” I think that’s true. We’re all walking through a fiery furnace of a murderous world, and if we can find thoughts, ideas and inspirations that will help us with that, then that’s all well and good. That’s part of the mission of art, I think, and that’s definitely something that I feel these church parables do.