George Benjamin's Written on Skin
An interview with the composer by Robert Hugill
George Benjamin’s first opera Into the
Little Hill premiered in Paris in 2006, reaching London in 2009
in a production by the Opera Group. The librettist was the playwright
Martin Crimp, author of Attempts on Her Life. The opera was
described by Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph as ‘something
quite exceptional, both in the originality of its form and the depth
of its inspiration.’ A recording of the work’s Paris performance
is available on Nimbus.
Crimp and Benjamin’s second collaboration, Written on Skin,
was a joint commission from the Aix-en-Provence Festival and the Royal
Opera House, Covent Garden. Whereas Into the Little Hill was
a compact, one-act opera with just 2 singers, Written on Skin
is a full length three-act opera albeit still on a compact basis,
with a cast of just five singers. Written on Skin premiered
at Aix-en-Provence in 2012 in a production by Katie Mitchell with
the composer conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The production
has already travelled to Amsterdam and to Toulouse (see the review
on Seen and Heard.
A live recording of the Aix-en-Provence performances is being released
on Nimbus this month (can be purchased through Musicweb
International now). Simultaneously the opera receives its UK premiere
at Covent Garden in Katie Mitchell’s production with the cast
from Aix-en-Provence (Christopher Purves, Barbara Hannigan, Bejun
Mehta, Allan Clayton, Victoria Simmonds) repeating their roles, conducted
by the composer.
I interviewed George Benjamin to talk about Written on Skin
in particular and opera in general. Benjamin generously fitted me
into his busy schedule at Covent Garden, with our interview in his
dressing room backed by sounds of a stage rehearsal for Tosca
and tannoy calls for personnel.
I asked him first, why he had waited such a long time before writing
an opera, given that he is a composer who clearly loves writing for
the voice. He explained that he could not find a way to write the
right opera, and could not find the right collaborator. For Benjamin,
in a lot of modern operas when text is set naturalistically it feels
awkward and he finds himself wondering why the characters are not
in a film. He wanted to tell stories in opera, but the text needed
to be in some way abnormal, to be at another angle from regular. This
remained a dilemma, even though he approached a considerable number
of people about writing a suitable text.
Then a colleague at King’s College, London (where Benjamin is
Henry Purcell Professor of Composition), the American viola da gamba
player Laurence Dreyfus, introduced Benjamin to Martin Crimp. It was
an arranged marriage, Dreyfus knew Crimp and had in fact given him
lessons. Like many arranged marriages, it worked. Crimp’s method
of using third person narration in his plays whilst preserving clarity
and narrative was a style that Benjamin found fascinating. Here was
an opening into the operatic world.
Both operas that they have worked on have a tightness and economy
about them that Benjamin attributes to the way he works, to his metabolic
rate. Economy comes naturally to him, he does not sprawl. The length
of Written on Skin is that of a film, which is a length that
Benjamin thinks works well. Also, he feels that perception of time
in musical pieces can be deceptive and flexible, that if music is
densely written then the piece can feel more expansive.
Having now got two operas under his belt and having students who themselves
have written operas, I asked Benjamin if he thought that there was
a problem with contemporary opera in a way that there hadn’t
been in the past. He said first off that the challenge of writing
opera is vast for any generation, but more so now with the weight
of tradition, adding that modern musical language was not ideally
suited to opera. There is an issue with writing for the voice and
he highlighted the importance of a perceptible connection between
voice and the music.
One or two of his students have written operas and he thinks that
there is no fixed way of doing it. But he points out that in the past,
composers wrote hundreds of songs before writing an opera. This is
not something that happens nowadays, but he strongly feels that young
composers should understand the voice and how to embed it in accompaniment.
His reference to the complex issues of tension, proportion and variety
here clearly illustrated the way his thinking has influenced the clarity
and texture of his own operas.
When asked whether he worried about whether his own vocal lines were
singable he commented that he worried about everything, but that he
relished the challenge of writing for the voice. He loved the voice
and found it an extraordinary resource, and always ensured that the
vocal line was paramount, in the foreground. With Written on Skin,
Benjamin did not just write vocal lines, he wrote for particular singers,
those taking part in the premiere and repeating the performance at
Covent Garden this month. Benjamin clearly relished both the challenge
and the opportunity of shaping his vocal writing to specific voices.
The principals in the opera consist of baritone Christopher Purves,
soprano Barbara Hannigan and counter-tenor Bejun Mehta with tenor
Allan Clayton and mezzo-soprano Victoria Simmonds making up the quintet.
I commented on the lack of a conventional operatic tenor hero and
Benjamin said that there was no way that he wanted a helden-tenor
as the sound of the voice was just wrong. The main male role is for
the baritone, but Benjamin also found Bejun Mehta’s counter-tenor
voice and extraordinary musical resource and relished the way he was
able to write for Mehta and soprano Barbara Hannigan. The two voices,
so similar in pitch but so different in timbre, entwined together
at and in fact he does something similar with the mezzo-soprano and
tenor voices in the opera.
When I asked him if he modified his technique when writing a long
dramatic piece for voices, he said that he doesn’t have single
technique, that he invents the techniques and means as he writes and
that every bar was a challenge. But that, for an opera, he had to
evolve new ways to control the harmonic coherence and variety over
a span, with enough contrast to maintain interest and tension.
With the principal role given to a baritone, the first time Benjamin
had written a substantial amount for that voice type, he had to find
new solutions to writing for that voice type, particularly lower in
the voice’s register. Benjamin finds that for a modern composer
the baritone voice is challenge, as harmonies are thicker when you
reach the bass clef and it is easy for textures to become opaque and
the voice lost in an aural mush. His solution was to clear things
out and make the harmony simpler. For anyone coming to Benjamin’s
operas for the the first time, one of the surprises and delights is
their clarity, that they do not simply reflect the denseness of some
of his orchestral writing.
Opera is clearly important to Benjamin, when asked if he had a favourite
opera he produced a list of operas that he loves, Boris Goudonov,
Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal, Salome, Pelleas
et Melisande, Wozzeck, Katya Kabanova, L’Enfant
et les Sortileges, then added a group of contemporary pieces to
the list, Billy Budd, St Francois d’Assise, Le Grand
Macbre and Higgledy Piggledy Pop. Of this list, it is Pelleas
and Wozzeck that he loves the most.
The operas on this list are all dramatic, dealing in intense human
problems with rather dark subject matter. So it should come as no
surprise that both of Benjamin’s operas so far have confronted
rather dark subjects. Into the Little Hill is a modern re-telling
of the story of the Pied Piper and Hamlyn and Written on Skin
is a version of a medieval Provencal story in which a man kills his
wife’s lover and feeds her the lover’s cooked heart.
For Benjamin opera is a serious genre, one capable of great beauty
and emotion so that it is worth confronting deep matters. Opera moves
him and he felt that his should tackle dark material, particularly
as this provides more meat to work with; for Benjamin, this is one
of the things opera is for.
Both of his operas explore the lack of communication between people,
though he says that he does not have a particular stick to beat here.
There are moments of real communication, but for him the tragedy in
Written on Skin arises through lack of communication, the incapacity
of people to listen and to understand. In the opera there are times
when the singers sing simultaneously without hearing, and Benjamin
gives them different pitch modes and metres to emphasise the lack
When conducting his own operas, and other works, Benjamin feels that
he must try and put himself at some distance from the work and not
worry about honing it further. He feels his role is to inspire the
players and singers, the more distance he can take the more useful
he can be. He was fulsome in his praise of the Royal Opera House orchestra,
commenting that they responded beautifully and it was a delight and
privilege to work with them, making the music sound like he imagined.
Benjamin has no fixed image of the interpretation and enjoys the way
individual instrumentalists add their own character.
The work uses quite a distinctive instrumental mix, with slightly
fewer strings and more woodwind and brass than usual. He feels that
it does not take much to alter the sound of the orchestra, taking
some instruments away and adding some. For Benjamin this creates a
different soundscape, and he finds it attractive when starting a piece
if the ensemble has something particular and specific about it.
As well as the traditional orchestral instruments Benjamin has added
two unusual ones, a viola da gamba and a glass harmonica. In Aix-en-Provence
the glass harmonica was played by Alasdair Malloy. Malloy had visited
Benjamin around 10 years ago and explained the instrument and its
possibilities to the composer, who had taken copious notes. Benjamin
found the timbre of the instrument fascinating and in Written on
Skin he did new things with it such as giving the player 10 note
chords and splitting the hands so that the left provided accompaniment
to the more melodic right; things which are difficult but not impossible.
He has been deeply involved in the way the look and feel of the production
has developed. He comments that some composers have had a fight when
their work is presented but he has been lucky not to experience this.
Katie Mitchell’s production (in Vicky Mortimer’s designs)
is very true to what Benjamin and Crimp envisaged and for Benjamin
the production brings the work to dramatic life.
For me, one of the joys of Benjamin’s work with Martin Crimp
is the way the partnership seems to understand the form of opera,
and how it can be used in a contemporary way. Benjamin comments that
for him form is everything. Even though he did not write his first
opera until he was in his late 40’s, he has had a lot of experience
in the theatre. As a boy at school he wrote hundreds of scores for
plays, both classics and new pieces. He has also accompanied silent
movies, and both he and Martin Crimp are lovers of the cinema. He
comments that he has a feeling for theatre, that it is in his veins;
Benjamin is also an opera lover, which probably helps. As a child
he made operas up in his head, using a book of Greek myths as the
starting point for his stories. Whilst at school he started writing
an opera based on the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, though it petered out
after 30 pages. Benjamin adds that this was probably a good thing
as the piece was terrible.
Benjamin is a composer who certainly started young. His publishers,
Faber Music, have supported him since he was sixteen, his work Ringed
by the Flat Horizon was played at the BBC Proms when he was 20.
Nimbus Records started recording his music when he was 20 so that
all of his work is available on the label. The new recording of Written
on Skin is taken from the live performances at Aix-en-Provence
last year. Benjamin is very positive about this, commenting that though
the result is not perfect, he likes that the recording has truth energy
and tension and he does not know whether this would be achievable
in the studio, adding that it would be lovely to have a studio recording
as well. For Benjamin the singers were emphatically wonderful actors
and this comes across when they sing.
Writing a piece as big as Written on Skin requires Benjamin
to have a fallow period, so he was very happy to be involved in the
production of the opera. After Covent Garden it travels to other countries
(with performances in Florence, Vienna and Paris) and Benjamin will
conduct some further performances. He has found the two months preparing
the production a happy period, discovering again the joy of being
part of a theatre company something that he has not done for 25 years
and has missed.
Written on Skin seems to have been a very happy experience
for George Benjamin and the result is all set to be one of the most
striking new operas to be performed in the UK this year. Let us hope
that he and Martin Crimp do not stop at two works.
Written on Skin opens at Covent Garden on 8 March 2013 and
continues in repertory until 22 March.