• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Martin Crimp, playwright

    As part of Opera Lively's upcoming guidebook to George Benjamin's outstanding contemporary opera Written on Skin -- a true masterpiece that is enjoying enduring world-wide success and will be given in Toronto in March and New York City in August 2015 after sold-out performances in many European capitals and an Opus Arte blu-ray release, we interviewed the author of the text, the acclaimed British playwright Martin Crimp. We kept it short since Mr. Crimp is very busy, working on his next opera with the same composer that has been commissioned by the Royal Opera House -- their third collaboration, including the first one, the also very successful Into the Little Hill. This is Opera Lively interview # 147.




    Martin Crimp was born in 1956 in Dartford, Kent, England. He majored in English at St. Catharine's College, Cambridge 1975-78, where his first play Clang was staged by fellow student Roger Mitchell, who went on to a brilliant career as a film and theater director.

    His plays include Three Attempted Acts (1985), Dealing with Clair (1988), Play with Repeats (1989), No One Sees the Video (1991), Getting Attention (1992), The Treatment (1993, winner of the John Whiting Award), Attempts on her Life (1997) -- his most famous work, translated into more than 20 languages -- The Country (2000), Face to the Wall (2002), Cruel and Tender (2004), Fewer Emergencies (2005) and The City (2008). He has translated or adapted work by Ionesco (The Chairs, 1997), Genet (The Maids, 1999) and Moliere (The Misanthrope, 1996). He publishes with Faber & Faber.

    His work in the UK has been produced by the Orange Tree Theatre, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the RSC, the Young Vic and the Royal Court, where he was writer-in-residence in 1997. In New York his work has been seen at the Public Theater and the Classic Stage Company, as well as on Broadway. Martin Crimp has been heralded as the best British playwright of his generation.

    Mr. Crimp's work is demanding, complex, and very theatrically rewarding. For example, Attempts on Her Life rather than being the usual linear story-telling with a central character, is made of 17 fragmentary scenes in which several people talk about an absent character (Anne) who is presented with several mutually exclusive identities: artist, porn star, refugee, survivalist. Many of his plays address the human trait of cruelty, and his text for Written on Skin is no exception, with the story of a husband who kills his wife's lover, and then cooks and serves his heart to the wife.

    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Martin Crimp

    © Opera Lively and Martin Crimp 2014 - while links to this interview can be published without authorization, use the Contact Us form to request authorization for exact quotes.

    Mr. Crimp has taken the care to write his answers as a continuous piece of prose. Here are some of the questions we sent him, followed by his text (questions by Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively):

    Written on Skin is undoubtedly a smashing and almost unprecedented success as far as contemporary opera goes, thanks in no small measure to your outstanding text, as well as to Mr. Benjamin’s fabulous music. Were you expecting such an impact?


    How do you compare the constraints (or maybe the advantages) of producing text for music versus text for spoken theater?

    Is the sonority of specific words more important in the operatic art form, and did you adapt or adjust your poetic writing to this aspect?

    Please describe the creative process while working with the composer.

    Please talk to us about the selection of the medieval story that inspired Written on Skin. I understand that the idea came from your daughter; is that correct?

    Why did you feel it was necessary to change from the source, from troubadour to illuminator?

    Pardon the curiosity, but why do you prefer that your work be described as “text for music” as opposed to “libretto”?

    What are some of your extra-literary interests?

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    Mr. Crimp's answers:

    Opera was never part of my cultural education and I came to my collaboration with George Benjamin as a playwright and theatre-practitioner. Therefore when I look at an opera, first and foremost I’m looking at a piece of theatre, and when I write a text for opera, I’m thinking about the creation of a coherent language-world, and the need to make strong transactions between characters -- just as I would in a play. The difference is, that I must leave out “the music” of my own (play) writing to provide the space for the true music of the composer. In practical terms a 90 minute play may be 70 pages long, while a 90 minute opera (composed syllabically) is about half that -- 35 pages of text. This means that within the text there’s no room for what is not essential -- and the decision about what IS essential defines the taste of the writer-composer team. I would suggest that in the case of George and myself, what is essential is clear story-telling, coupled with emotional intensity. And these qualities have to be concentrated in the text so that they will blossom and grow with the music. I’m thinking about the paper flowers Proust describes -- tightly coiled paper structures that magically open up when placed in a jar of water.

    Written on Skin is based on a 13th century razo -- a short anonymous biographical fantasy -- about the troubadour Guillem de Cabestanh. The idea of using a provençal text came from Bernard Foccroulle, who commissioned the opera for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. At that time my daughter, who was studying modern and medieval French at Cambridge, and her supervisor Bill Burgwinkle, provided me with a provençal reading-list. I was struck by the economy and clarity of the Coeur Mangé story -- and proposed it to George. A major adjustment was to turn the original troubadour into an illuminator of manuscripts (the ‘Boy’ in Written on Skin) principally to have access, in the writing, to a world of images via the descriptions of pictures.

    You ask me what specific qualities I seek in a text for music* -- and I would say that in writing for George, I’m looking for images, because I know they inspire him. I don’t think consciously of the ‘sonority’ of words -- but I am conscious of their rhythm -- and I’m quite meticulous about avoiding iambics, which can be deadly in contemporary English if over-used -- and I’m also sparing with latinate words -- which means that “illumination”, for example, becomes something of an event.

    You also ask me what my extra-literary interests are. Well as it happens I’m interested in music -- more as an amateur pianist than as a concert-goer. One of the great pleasures of Written on Skin was to follow the process of composition, since George sent me the scenes as he wrote them. So as I muddled my way through the tricky chords and picked out the intertwined vocal lines -- clear lines sensitive to every nuance of human feeling -- I knew before anyone else -- except of course the composer -- that something remarkable was happening.

    *I call it this (a) because I don’t like the diminutive ‘libretto’, and (b) because as a stranger to opera I find this technical word alienating.

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    Stay tuned for the upcoming release (hopefully by ear-end or January 2015) of our guidebook to Written on Skin on paperback and Kindle e-book, which will be on sale for worldwide shipping from our e-store, and from all Amazon sites. This short interview and long ones with the composer George Benjamin and the singers in the three main roles - Barbara Hannigan, Christopher Purves, and Tim Mead -- will be part of the book, as well as stage director's Katie Mitchell. The book will also include the full libretto (printed with authorization from Faber Music), and comments on the music of the opera, performance history, discography, etc.

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