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 of communication.
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.