[Opera Lively interview # 104] In one of our most interesting interviews to date Opera Lively talked over the phone with the incredibly talented composer in anticipation of the US Premiere of his outstanding opera Written on Skin.
With Geoge Benjamin himself conducting, the opera will be presented in concert form with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Festival on August 12, 2013 (single performance). Tickets are still available and can be found by clicking [here]. Lawn tickets sell for $9, and reserved seats are priced $34, $43, and $53. Attention, the web page mentions other dates but those are for other Tanglewood Festival pieces; Written on Skin is only being shown on August 12. Soloists are from the Tanglewood Music Center.
[Disclaimer - Opera Lively is not affiliated with Tanglewood or the BSO in any way - we are promoting the event as part of our larger mission of supporting the operatic art form - all references to the organization, their logo, and link to their web site are done exclusively on the grounds of fair promotional use]
Two Opera Lively envoys will be in attendance (and will have the pleasure of meeting George Benjamin in person), and having both seen the opera fully staged before, we couldn't more highly recommend this work. Written on Skin has been deemed by the influential French newspaper Le Monde the best opera written in the last twenty years, and has been heralded by many as the quintessential masterpiece of this first part of the 21st century. We'd go even beyond that, and rank it among the very best of all time.
It has not only phenomenal dramatic impact from the text of famed English playwright Martin Crimp, but its music is exquisitely beautiful.
Readers whose curiosity will be spiked by this interview should, first, get those remaining Tanglewood tickets and go listen to it live - this is an occasion not to be missed! Short of this being possible for all readers, the opera is available in its fully staged Aix-en-Provence world premiere given in July of 2012, in excellent high definition and clear sound, streaming from the Medici TV website, by subscription (a first month that can be cancelled anytime costs less than a DVD and less than a ticket for a cinema broadcast). The opera is sung in English. French subtitles are available.
In any case, its sold out Royal Opera House performances (the co-production was by the same stage director of the premiere and almost the same cast except for one of the comprimarios) got recorded on visual medium, and will be released in January of 2014 on DVD. On CD, the opera is already available. The vocal score and the full score have been published. The Amazon link is [here] for the CD.
Detailed information on the opera including a review of the world premiere can be found in this Opera Lively thread: [click here].
Using the phrase "the opera took the world by storm" is cliché, but in this case very true. In its first 13 months out there (counting the upcoming Tanglewood performance), the opera has been given already by 8 different opera companies, a feat hardly heard of in the field of contemporary opera. Everywhere, it got unanimous glowing praise by critics and public alike. We are glad to learn from the composer that several other runs are in the works, including plans for a fully staged US run.
Here is a list of past and scheduled performances:
World Premiere - Aix-en-Provence, July 2012
De Nederlandse Opera - Has happened already, in October 2012.
Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse - Has happened already, in November 2012.
Royal Opera House Covent Garden - Has happened already, in March 2013
Maggio Musicale in Florence - was scheduled for late May/Early June 2013, postponed indefinitely
Wiener Festwochen (Theater an der Wien) - Has happened already, in June 2013
Bayerische Staatsoper - Happening right now, July 23-25-27, 2013
Tanglewood Festival - U.S. premiere, upcoming, concert performance, August 12, 2013
L'Opéra Comique, Paris - Upcoming, November 16-18-19, 2013
George Benjamin's earlier, shorter opera Into the Little Hill is also very much worthy of our reader's consideration. It is available on CD - click [here] for the Amazon link - not to forget that his non-operatic music is also of the highest quality.
Now, let's enjoy the composer's intelligent answers (questions were by a number of Opera Lively staff members and one regular member), after learning a bit about his artistic biography and discography.
Born in 1960, George Benjamin is one of the outstanding composers of his generation. He started to play the piano at the age of seven, and began composing almost immediately. In 1976 he entered the Paris Conservatoire to study with Olivier Messiaen (composition) and Yvonne Loriod (piano), after which he concluded his studies at King's College Cambridge under Alexander Goehr.
His first orchestral work, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, was played at the BBC Proms when he was just 20; from the first it achieved a remarkable international performance record, as did two subsequent works, A Mind of Winter and At First Light. Antara was a commission from IRCAM to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Pompidou centre in 1987 and Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra was written for the opening of the 75th Salzburg Festival in 1995.
The London Symphony Orchestra and Pierre Boulez gave the world premiere of Palimpsests in 2002 to mark the opening of "By George”, the LSO's season-long portrait of his work at the Barbican. Recent years have seen numerous retrospectives of his work, including Madrid, Berlin, Paris, Lucerne, London and Frankfurt.
The center point of a portrait at the 2006 Festival d'Automne in Paris was his first operatic work, Into the Little Hill, a collaboration with the playwright Martin Crimp, which has toured widely across the world since its premiere. The two have collaborated on a second and larger operatic project, Written on Skin, which was premiered with great acclaim at the Festival Aix-en-Provence in July 2012. A co-commission with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Netherlands Opera, Maggio Musicale (Florence) and the Theatre du Capitole Toulouse, it is also scheduled for further performances in Munich, Vienna and Paris in 2013 and beyond in 2014-15.
As a conductor he regularly appears with some of the world's leading ensembles and orchestras, amongst them the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Philharmonia, Cleveland and Concertgebouw orchestras and the Berlin Philharmonic. He has conducted numerous world premieres, including important works by Rihm, Chin, Grisey and Ligeti and his repertoire stretches from Schumann and Wagner to Knussen, Abrahamsen and Grisey.
In January 2010 there were extensive celebrations marking Benjamin’s 50th birthday given by the San Francisco Symphony and London Sinfonietta, and in May 2012 the Southbank Centre, London presented a retrospective of his work as part of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad.
He has built up a close relationship with the Tanglewood festival in America since his first appearance in 1999. He returned there in August 2012 and is invited in 2013. He is a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et Lettres and is a member of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts. An honorary fellow of the Guildhall School, the Royal Academy and the Royal College of Music, he won the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester's first ever Schoenberg Prize for composition. In June 2010 he was awarded a C.B.E. in the Queen’s birthday honours, and he was made an Honorary Member of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 2011.
He lives in London, and since 2001 has been the Henry Purcell Professor of Composition at King‘s College, London. His works are published by Faber Music and are recorded on Nimbus Records.
List of compositions:
• Altitude, 1977
• Ringed by the Flat Horizon, 1979–80
• At First Light, 1982
• Fanfare for Aquarius, 1983
• Antara, 1985–87 • Sudden Time, 1989–93
• Three Inventions for Chamber Orchestra, 1993–95
• Palimpsest I, 1998–99
• Palimpsest II, 2002
• Dance Figures, 2004
• Duet for piano and orchestra, 2008
• Sonata for Violin and Piano, 1976–77
• Octet for flut, piccolo, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double bass, celesta, percussion, 1978
• Flight, flute, 1979
• Viola, Viola, duo for 2 violas (1996)
Vocal & Choral
• Jubilation (vocalise), 1996
• A Mind of Winter (text by Wallace Stevens), 1981
• Upon Silence (text by William Butler Yeats), 1991
• Into the Little Hill, 2006 (opera)
• Written on Skin, 2012 (opera)
• Sonata for Piano, 1977–78
• Sortilèges, 1981
• Three Studies, 1982–85
• Shadowlines, 2001
• Piano Figures, 2006
• Two or Four, 2010
In conjunction with Yvonne Loriod and Heinz Holliger, Benjamin orchestrated the second half of the 1st movement as well as the whole of the 4th of Olivier Messiaen's final work Concert à quatre, in 1992–94.
George Benjamin has released numerous CDs with Nimbus Records. Some examples:
His scores are published by Faber Music.
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with George Benjamin
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
Photo credits used here are mostly unknown, from the artist's website and the web; credit is given when known, and use is fair promotional use; credit will be included upon request.
Luiz Gazzola, for Opera Lively
I congratulate you on the incredible success of Written on Skin which has taken the opera world by storm. I confess that it is in my opinion one of the three best contemporary operas I know, and one of the top twenty overall of all time, in my preference. So, we’ll be soon talking extensively about Written on Skin, but I’d like to start by asking you about your music, in general. I see its style as something that is a bit hard to pinpoint – you do seem to employ chromatic scales and pentatonic scales, and in the past you’ve used microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone), but sometimes you also seem to zoom into a note and sustain it for long periods. Please clarify for our readers what is your musical style, and whether or not you affiliate yourself with any sort of school or movement.
I have used microtones in some of my pieces – quite a long time ago – but they are not a regular part of my technique. My music is not conventionally tonal or atonal, and indeed frequently poly-harmonic, and I’m afraid I don’t have a simple label to describe it. I have never been a member of a movement or group, and have always valued independence above all things.
OL - I think that what is admirable in your music is that you are very clear, very transparent. There is an incredible purity of sound. You employ sometimes a large orchestra – like your Written on Skin with 60 instruments – but you seem to use each section of the orchestra sparsely and not simultaneously, so that while there is polyphony and lots of colorful texture, there are also moments of crystalline focus on one instrument, or of course when it’s opera, on the voice, which seems to drive the harmonies and be the strongest core of the piece (which we, opera lovers, very much appreciate!). I believe that this is very efficient to tone-paint dramatic, strong, conflicting emotions. I know that this is too broad a question to ask, but maybe not. What would you say, you try to express with your music?
GB - Quite simply I try to express or represent what the text demands – its narrative as well as its form. Transparency is frequently a major priority for me – I love the idea of a multi-faceted musical fabric where all elements are simultaneously perceptible, individually as well as in combination. In Written on Skin it was essential to me that the voices could sing softly and yet their lines – and the text – could be heard. And the way to achieve contrasts in colour across a large structure is through omission – leaving an aural “vacuum” in the texture, and then filling it while preparing another one... So, just in terms of orchestration, the first loud high trumpet note in the opera appears 40 minutes into the structure; the glockenspiel has only one note in Part One; the glass harmonica is only used in two scenes in the whole work; high soft flutes are only used once, etc. And the same approach applies to below the musical surface and formal (above all harmonic) elements...
OL - I listened to your Dance Figures and simply loved it. Sometime Voices was also very nice. I am eager to get to know more of your output. If a classical music consumer wanted to get acquainted with the very best pieces of George Benjamin, what would the man himself – you - advise him or her to get?
GB - Probably, I think, start with my two operas – Written on Skin and Into the Little Hill. Dance Figures is more accessible than some of my other works, and much simpler in form and expression; alternatively perhaps I might mention Upon Silence, Three Inventions for chamber orchestra, Palimpsests or Shadowlines...
OL - As we the Opera Lively staff listened to Written on Skin, one of us heard influences of Britten, Debussy, and Berg. I heard Sciarrino especially in the way that you elongate the vowels, and Debussy in terms of dreamy, hypnotic sounds from the orchestra – Pélleas et Mélisande comes to mind (not to forget that Mr. Crimp’s libretto touches on relatively similar themes to those of Debussy’s masterpiece). Do you agree with this? If not, who were the greatest influences on you? I know that you studied with Peter Gellhorn, Alexander Goehr, Robin Holloway, the great Olivier Messiaen, and Yvonne Loriod – and did you study with Pierre Boulez?
GB - He has been extemely important to me, though he wasn’t my teacher.
OL - I know you are a fan of Ligeti. You have also mentioned at one point that Purcell and Webern were divisors of waters in your musical growth, and you’ve quoted Indian music as influential as well. So please tell us about the synthesis of these multiple influences you might perhaps feel your music has evolved into.
GB - The most important influences? Indeed, most of the composers you mention above (though not all!). Though there are probably some others as well...
OL - Every composer has their own process that works for them. Sometimes it is an earwig that catches in the mind from which major parts of the score are spun. What can you tell us about your own composition process? From where does it come?
GB - I have techniques though no fixed method. Composing always remains a challenge for me; every passage seems almost impossible at first, and somehow I find a way of realising what is required. All I can say is that I sketch copiously and throw out 30 times more than I keep – and there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than sometimes seems the case.
OL - At the very young age of 16, you took lessons from Messiaen. Apparently, he compared your musical talents to those of Mozart. How did that come about, and how did you receive this evaluation from the great master? Did it place a burden on your shoulders?
GB - He was the most wonderful, devoted, enthusiastic, and inspiring teacher; I loved and revered him and I owe him more than I can ever express. Sometimes his enthusiasm, however, got carried away, and I never took that comparison to Mozart at all seriously...
OL - After a number of very well received instrumental pieces, you took upon yourself to compose a short opera, and then a full length opera. What brought you to the operatic art form? Can you please describe to us what is your relationship with opera, and how did it evolve over the years, from childhood into adulthood?
GB - I already wanted to write opera, even when a young child. I had a wonderful illustrated book of myths and fables, and would improvise operas to them in my head for hours on end. Then I sometimes accompanied silent movies on the piano as a student, and that taught me something about controlling large stretches of time as well as narrative pacing and intention. But the crucial element was, for me, the meeting with Martin Crimp – his style and his language inspired me and, quite simply, opened the curtains of musical theatre to me...
OL - Let’s address your fist opera, Into the Little Hill. It is really surprising, how you and Mr. Crimp got a traditional story like that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and packed so much in 37 minutes. How did the idea of setting this to music come about?
GB - It was one of the 50 subjects I suggested to Martin when we first agreed to collaborate – a list that I had been preparing for decades. The Pied Piper was there because I had already started an opera on that subject when about 14, with text by a school friend. (It was terrible, by the way, and fortunately never got beyond the first appearance of the rats...)
OL - The Stranger – the Pied Piper character in your opera - says that music opens the door to the heart, and that music stops death. One would say it’s a direct quote of how powerful music is. Was this a particular intention of this piece?
GB - Yes absolutely, one of its main themes.
OL - Why did you employ two female voices – a soprano and a contralto – to sing each, multiple characters?
GB - Economy of means above all; though I perhaps also have a slight preference for high voices. And the wonderful singers for whom I conceived the work – Anu Komsi and Hilary Summers - inspired me.
OL - Any particular reason for not having an overture, and starting the first bars with the piercing shouts “kill, kill”?
GB - Yes, immersing the audience into the drama immediately, without any comfortable or engaging instrumental preparation.
OL - Into the Little Hill was very well received. Did the motivation to write a full-length opera come from its success?
GB - Yes, of course, though it had been an ambition, as I mentioned before, since my beginnings as a composer.
OL - Did you expect when you composed Written on Skin that it would be so well received by critics and audiences alike?
GB - I never began to imagine the response it has received...
OL - How did you get to collaborate with Martin Crimp? I know you met him in 2005 after looking extensively for someone to write for you an opera libretto. Other than being an incredibly talented playwright, he is also a pianist – did this latter aspect help in terms of your operatic collaboration?
GB - A mutual friend – the distinguished American violist and scholar, Laurence Dreyfus – introduced us. Martin is an extraordinary writer and yes, his intense musicality is also immensely helpful for our work together.
OL - Who picked the story that was the source for Written on Skin, you or Mr. Crimp? How was the process of selecting the theme for the opera?
GB - Martin’s eldest daughter Catherine was responsible for finding the precise Occitane story on which the opera is based – though it was the director of the Aix festival, Bernard Foccroulle, who encouraged us to look in that direction. The work, indeed, owes an untold amount to him.
OL - What aspects of this 13th century story inspired you to compose an opera? Some will say it’s a feminist theme with this strong heroine Agnès.
GB - The story is simple, strong and dramatic. It deals with big, universal themes. But it was Agnes’ response to her husband’s gruesome crime which was the deciding factor – her defiance is in the original text, and I believe it remains powerful and startling even today.
OL - Did Martin Crimp write the entire libretto before you started on the musical composition, or was it a collaborative effort?
GB - We met and talked endlessly before he wrote the text, though I didn’t start composing till Martin’s task was complete.
OL - Your music is incredibly atmospheric, at times sensual, even erotic, at other times urgent and powerful complementing the dark actions and words of the libretto. The ups and downs of this powerful story are admirably rendered by your music, employing for instances static periods of tension, then shocking, furious orchestration when things get hectic. How did you proceed to create this incredible match? Line by line with, or in broader painting strokes?
GB - Both, at the same time! I had to be aware of the sonorous implications of every word in the text, while constantly trying to shape and control musical construction on the largest scale. Both are essential, I believe – though the fusion is far from easy. It’s like simultaneously looking through a microscope and at a distant alpine landscape, if that’s not too picturesque or banal an analogy...
OL - Let’s address a little bit your use of two great instruments that are rarely seen in opera: the viol or viola da gamba, and the glass harmonica. First, the viola da gamba, which you contrast with cellos and basses and low trumpets, trombones and horns. What did you want to express with this arrangement?
GB - The viol is only used in scenes 6 and 15, two moments of great importance in the story. Its melancholy and sensual tones add, I hope, a new timbral dimension to the work at these junctures. I also wanted to coat the instrument’s sound in unusual timbres, in particular medium-low brass played fortissimo with practice mutes – mutes by which very strong playing becomes soft and seems apparently distant. A by-product of these mutes played loudly (the force employed is still clearly audible) is an expansion of harmonics, in a way not too far from the viol’s own generous spectrum – hence I believe they combine well, creating a spangled overall sonority.
OL - Now, the glass harmonica. I simply love it. One of my favorite operas is Die Frau ohne Schatten, and it uses it. I also feel that the productions of Lucia di Lammermoor that do use it in the mad scene like Donizetti intended, get to be much more haunting and beautiful than those that use a flute, instead. So please tell us about how you utilized this fabulous instrument in Written on Skin.
GB - The instrument has fascinated me for years, though I never used it before. I love the way one can hear the friction between the fingers and the glass; the resultant sound is simultaneously extremely resonant and yet highly fragile. It’s also a wonderful harmonic resource and I have written some pretty complex chords for it (up to 10 notes!). It’s also used in only scenes 6 and 15, like the viol, so it’s reserved exclusively for these two important moments. The Boy is an illuminator, and I imagined these instruments as the most special hues he could use...
OL - The narrative technique in the third person – where the characters talk about the action before they perform it, and refer to themselves as The Protector, The Boy, and The Woman, is very powerful, besides functioning like sort of a meta-language about the operatic art form itself, with its artificiality – people don’t talk to each other by singing while in opera they do, so this narrative form introduces an element of theatre within the theatre that is very interesting for opera. This is sort of Mr. Crimp’s hallmark style, since his play Attempts on Her Life. This, coupled with the role of the Angels in moving events along, made me feel that the opera addresses the inevitable destiny of the characters, like a train wreck in the making that can’t be stopped, given the human condition. Would you agree? If not, how would you define the function of this particular narrative structure?
GB - You have expressed it very well, thank you. The place of opera in our culture has changed – a lot – since the 19th century and both Martin and I felt impelled to address the challenge of how to make the form feel natural in the 21st century. The auto-narration we have used is one response to that crucial issue. This very simple convention, paradoxically, allows me to be more spontaneous and direct than would have been the case with a more conventional text. Plus, for me, it also provides moments of strange poetry which lift the work into the realm of dreams...
OL - This might be more a question for Mr. Crimp but I guess you’re also fully equipped to address it. Some of the libretto evokes downright macabre imagery. For example, the Protector's line, "Take his hair in your fist - says the third - pull his head back for a kiss: and as you are cutting one long clean incision through the bone, examine your own portrait in the glass-black mirror of his eyes." This is also a great example of the juxtaposition of sensuality and death imagery in this opera--for example here, of one man sensually kissing another as he draws the knife through the other's abdomen, looking in his eyes. Any comments on Mr. Crimp’s powerful text, and its imaginative and concise use of language?
GB - Quite simply his language, as well as his unique sense of structure, inspires me; it’s as simple as that! Plus he is the most generous of collaborators, and I do feel that he plants his texts with the specific words and imagery that will most directly provoke my music.
OL - In both Into the Little Hill and Written on Skin, there are anachronistic elements – the limousines in the first one; the references to an international airport in the second one, etc. The interplay of past and present is very interesting in the libretto. For example, when the Boy is talking about the future and says, "I'm thinking that when, when this wood and this light are cut through by eight lanes of poured concrete, I'm thinking that the two of us and everyone we love, everyone, will have been dead for a thousand years." This particular staging by Ms. Mitchell is definitely looking back at this medieval story from contemporary times. Were you trying to get at how perennial these human dramas are?
GB - Yes, absolutely- plus the alluring strangeness of juxtaposing distant history with today.
OL - The opera seems to progress at a hectic pace through the setting up of the situation in Part One, with growing tension and an explosion of eroticism to end it; then, a very disrupted and fragmented Part Two where all the emotions are in turmoil; then we get to the lyric, ponderous, almost serene Part Three where the damage has been done and now it’s a question of letting it all take its course (well rendered by Katie Mitchell in the slow-motion final scene). One would say that an essential characteristic of Written in Skin is it harmonic motion. It also doesn’t seem to employ leitmotifs – there is always novelty as it goes on, making for a very rich score. How do you describe the musical structure of your opera?
Ms. Hannigan and Mr. Mehta getting ready for the steamy end of Part One
This picture is a screen capture still from the Medici TV streaming, fair promotional use
GB - There is definitely something in what you say; in particular the scene after the Boy’s murder in Part Three where – before Agnes’s final aria - the music does somewhat retreat from the heat of the narrative in order to let the drama take its inexorable course.
There are no conventional leitmotifs, though there are leit-harmonies and leit-timbres, if you will allow me to employ those terms! And yes, harmonic motion is extremely important, an absolutely crucial resource in the construction of form on this scale.
You say “always novelty”? Yes, exactly – I wanted, until the last bar, to continuously introduce fresh and unexpected elements into the work’s sound-field, in tandem with the drama and its evolution.
OL - Those that have seen the world premiere will by now have tied the three main roles to Bejun Mehta, Barbara Hannigan, and Christopher Purvis, not to forget the excellent complimarios Victoria Simmonds and Alan Clayton. You worked very closely with them during the composition and it can be said that they created the roles. Tell us about the collaborative process with the singers.
Barbara Hannigan who sang Agnès in the World Premiere
Photo Credit Elmerde Hass - fair promotional use
GB - All five of the singers came to my home, and I accompanied them in lieder and took copious and detailed notes of their precise vocal capacities. I had their voices in mind throughout the process of composing, and their vocal idiosyncrasies directly shaped the vocal lines I wrote.
OL - How much input did they have to give regarding the vocal lines?
GB - Nothing regarding the precise notes themselves; but the lines were conceived directly into their voices, which are therefore – in a way – present in every single bar of the score.
OL - How has it been to work with other singers on the roles which you created for your original singers? Have you had to modify the score or vocal lines in any way to accommodate different singers?
GB - No accommodations have been necessary – and, of course, it’s fascinating for me to hear others perform the roles, though nothing will ever erase my memories of the original cast and their extraordinary performances.
OL - The Aix-en-Provence Festival production was extremely powerful. For example, when Purvis embraces Mehta and sings of telling Agnes of the Boy's betrayal with Marie. Was it as you had envisioned in your mind’s eye as you composed the work or where there new elements which Katie Mitchell surprised you with? How closely did you work with Katie on the world premiere staging? We’ve interviewed stage directors before, and they said that when they are staging a work by a living composer, some of them feel it’s the composer’s baby, and they feel that they must respect the composer’s artistic vision. Some others said the composers stepped back and let them develop their own vision. Who had artistic control over the world premiere?
Photo Credit Tristam Kenton, fair promotional use
GB - Katie’s work was superb and yes, she surprised me with many things – it’s an authentic production of the work after all, something I’m not really sufficiently skilled or experienced to envisage myself. And yet Martin and I worked very closely with her before and throughout rehearsals, and she remained absolutely loyal to our vision for the piece.
OL - Now that you have seen Written on Skin staged, are you satisfied that it succeeds dramatically as you imagined while you were composing it? Is there anything you would change?
GB - Probably not, though I’m too close to judge... But the work is complete, out in print (my excellent publisher has already produced the vocal and full scores) so even if I wanted to change it now it’s not possible.
OL - We are about to have the US premiere of Written on Skin, conducted by yourself, at the Tanglewood Festival on August 12. What are your expectations for this performance?
GB - I love Tanglewood – I think this is my sixth visit since 1999 – and I hugely look forward to working with the gifted young musicians there in the wonderful Ozawa Hall, in that exceptionally beautiful landscape.
OL - Are you at a liberty to tell us about future plans for having the opera fully staged in America? We do know of the upcoming European runs up to this 2013-2014 season – your opera has achieved runs by 8 different companies in 13 months which is utterly remarkable for contemporary opera – so, you don’t need to tell us about what is already happening, but we’d be curious to know about the future. What else is in the horizon?
GB - There are several more new productions confirmed over the next few years, plus continuing revivals of the original one. There are also advanced plans for fully staged performances in the USA, though it’s too early for me to be specific.
OL - You have quite a talent for dramatic tone painting. Would you like to explore other genres, such as lighter, comedic opera?
GB - I love comedy, but am not entirely convinced by the comic potential of music – at least my own music. Though I do love Gianni Schicchi; let’s see in due course...
OL - Your next commission is scheduled for 2018, which is five years out. How did you schedule this? Are there other projects you will be working on in the meantime, or it’s just because opera houses these days are all booked up for the next several years? Are you at a liberty to tell us a bit about this commission? Have you already thought of a theme?
GB - Sorry, both Martin and I are highly secretive about our work, so my lips have to remain sealed. Though neither of us work fast, so five years isn’t excessive...
OL - Sometimes contemporary opera with its emphasis on drama and, for the non-initiated, its less melodic, more fragmented music, has an uphill battle to win the hearts and minds of traditional opera lovers. But how would you go about this uphill battle, in terms of conquering an audience? I mean, you've done it already, given that the Royal Opera House shows of Written on Skin sold out, so you may have some insight to share with us in terms of getting other pieces to be as successful – besides, obviously, having talented composers like yourself at the helm. Is there something that can be done to better familiarize the public with the language of contemporary opera? I feel that in mainstream media classical pieces of other eras are given a lot of exposure, but contemporary music is not.
GB - Write from the heart, try to understand theatre, take risks with the form and take nothing for granted, and above all love the human voice and its interface with instruments – that would be my immediate advice.
But I am encouraged, it has to be said, in the seemingly huge interest in modern opera that has emerged in recent years here in the UK and across Europe.
OL - I'd say, in America as well, there is strong interest in contemporary opera, and we at Opera Lively do our best to cover it. Do you follow the work of other contemporary composers?
GB - Yes, a lot – in particular for my conducting and teaching work.
OL - What colleagues of yours do you admire?
GB - From approximately my own generation: Oliver Knussen, Tristan Murail, Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, Simon Holt, Julian Anderson... And amongst young composers that really interest me (including some of my own students) I might mention names like Luke Bedford, Sean Shepherd, Saed Haddad, Vasco Mendonca, Dai Fujikura, Martin Suckling, Christian Mason...
OL - Teaching seems to be one of your passions. Tell us about today’s students of composition, especially those who want to focus on opera. In this day and age of worldwide economic crisis and budget constraints for the high arts, what advice do you give to your young students who want to embrace a career in composition?
GB - I can’t usually advise them about their careers, but I can try to help with their compositional technique and clarity of vision. There is much interest in new opera here in the UK, and, though limited, there are resources which young composers can approach for experiment and research in this field.
OL - Your partner Michael Waldman is a filmmaker. Are there plans to get into scores for the movies?
GB - No plans for movie music! Though I do love film as a medium its musical potential, alas, usually seems distinctly limited.
OL - Let’s end if you don’t mind by asking you about the person underneath the artist. What are some of your extra-musical interests?
GB - Literature, art, cinema, landscape, my extended family and friends, tennis...
OL - What kind of person are you, in terms of personality?
GB - For that, you would need to ask Michael!
Let's watch a trailer, mostly in French, for Written on Skin - although the sound track only contains the piano reduction therefore doesn't do full justice to Professor Benjamin's score:
Here we can see one of the scenes, with the extrordinary Barbara Hannigan and the equally good Bejun Mehta:
If you came to this page through a link from another site, please consider exploring our other exclusive interviews (Anna Netrebko's, Joyce DiDonato's, Anna Caterina Antonacci's, Luca Pisaroni's, Thomas Hampson's, Piotr Beczala's, scholar Dr. Philip Gossett's, veteran singer Sylvia Sass', tenor Jay Hunter Morris, and stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's are especially good, among 100 artists, scholars, conductors, directors, etc.), news, and articles by clicking on the Articles tab above and using our new clickable content index [here], or the Section Widget on the top left of the page; our very active discussion Forum (of course, by clicking on the Forum tab - and please notice that over there we also have an area with content in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese).
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You might also consider the purchase of our book "Opera Lively - The Interviews" - full announcement and links to sales points [here]. Also don't miss the very funny book by famed Met tenor Jay Hunter Morris, "Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger" recently published by Opera Lively Press; click [here].
Bookmark our site and come back for more - several new and exciting interviews are always coming to Opera Lively - recent ones have included composer Kevin Puts, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, mezzo Magdalena Kozená, tenor Lawrence Brownlee, international stars Diana Damrau and Eva-Maria Westbroek, veteran mezzo Frederica von Stade, and emerging soprano Lisette Oropesa. Upcoming (under transcription) brilliant stage director Laurent Pelly, and next, mezzo Susan Graham, stage director Francesca Zambello, and Greek National Opera artistic director and principal conductor Myron Michailidis, among others.