“Designed for the Mahler Chamber Orchestra”

11 August 2015

This week, on 11, 13 and 15 August, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra will play the long awaited US stage premiere of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin at the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York. The production features the original staging and parts of the original cast, including the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Barbara Hannigan and Christopher Purves.

On this occasion we republish an interview with the composer from spring 2012: The Mahler Chamber Orchestra talked to George Benjamin in his hometown of London as he prepared to conduct the world premiere of his opera at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in July 2012.

Why did you choose the Mahler Chamber Orchestra for the world premiere of Written on Skin? George Benjamin: There are a few reasons. The first is the tradition of the MCO at Aix-en-Provence: the orchestra has an ongoing relationship with the festival and is closely associated with it. The second is my great friend Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Several years ago, I told him I was going to write a new opera, and that I wanted to compose for a bigger orchestra than for my first stage work, Into the Little Hill. I asked him what he felt about the MCO and he replied that they’re utterly exceptional, an extraordinary group of musicians. And he mentioned the MCO’s wonderful spirit of collaboration, their youthful hunger for playing music, their imagination. Then I came to hear the MCO play Janáček’s From the House of the Dead in Aix in 2007 with Pierre Boulez, and I thought it was just magnificent. So that made a big impression on me as well.

You first worked with the MCO at the Lucerne Festival in 2009, when it was already confirmed that the orchestra would premiere your opera. What do you remember about the experience? We performed a programme of Wagner, a piece of mine, a new piece by Jörg Widmann and Schumann’s second symphony. I was physically struck by the sound the orchestra makes; it has a sort of golden colour. It’s very hard to describe in words and I don’t want to be impressionistic, but it has a sort of luminosity and warmth, and a glow like honey – this colour was very special. It was one of the most important, meaningful musical collaborations I can remember in all my life.

Did the orchestra affect your composition process? Absolutely. I could remember the sound of the orchestra and its special qualities while writing. Not everything in my score came about in this way; but there are certainly some elements, especially because of the glow that I had felt. It’s an opera, not a symphony, so the singers are usually in the foreground and there is not a huge amount of solo work in the orchestra. But of course the orchestra is still incredibly important. One of the first things that I wrote was the second scene of Part Two, scene 8, which begins with a trio of flutes, very high and delicate. That was influenced by what I had heard from the MCO’s wonderful flautists. So yes, this opera was designed for the MCO.

And the singers? I had the same attitude with the singers. The author of the text – Martin Crimp – and I approached each of the singers before a single bar of music was written. While meeting them I took pages of notes on their vocal characteristics, their strengths, their quality of sound in different registers and so on, and shaped the vocal writing expressly around these qualities. So the piece is designed specifically, even intimately, for the people who are going to give the premiere.

How did you come across the story? Bernard Foccroulle, the director of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, had just one request: that the subject be relevant to Aix and its environs. One of Martin’s daughters has studied the period of the troubadours in depth; she approached one of her professors for a story from Occitan history that might be suitable for operatic treatment. He suggested Le Coeur Mangé, and when she passed it on to her father he was immediately interested. The original is a short story, like a ballad, just six or seven pages long. It dates from the early thirteenth century, but was forgotten for hundreds of years. Martin thought it full of potential – a tale of love, death, violence and courage – as well as finding much poetry within it. He passed it on to me and I also was quickly convinced. It took him a year to write the text, then I started composing, and three years later: here it is.

Why did the story fascinate you? The original story is about a troubadour who gets invited to a wealthy man’s castle, but before long the latter man’s wife becomes fascinated by the troubadour, and trouble ensues… We changed the troubadour into an illuminator of manuscripts to avoid repeating the central character of Into the Little Hill, which is based on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – though that was the only important change we made. The era of the troubadours was extraordinary: it fostered an epoch-changing outburst of secular creativity, even a nascent form of Romanticism. In more than one way, it was the source of the Renaissance.
The story is very simple. It’s a love triangle – three singers – aided by a tiny “chorus”, just two extra singers. It is told from today’s perspective, looking back at the past. So we start and end in the twenty-first century, and we look back 800 years to see the action, unlike Pelléas et Mélisande or Parsifal, which are truly set in the distant past. The violence at the end of our tale is extreme, indeed terrifying. But even more remarkable is the reaction of the wife: she is not cowed, not destroyed, but instead defiant and even joyful – and that´s the element which initially enthused Martin.

Let’s talk about your approach towards composing. Where do you begin? In many ways it’s hard to say how I compose, because it’s always a process, a journey from great confusion to – one hopes! – some form of distilled clarity. This process is hard to describe – not exactly mysterious, but difficult to predict, let’s say. All I can tell you is that I have several thousand pages of sketches for this piece, and the final version is fewer than 500 pages long. I usually need between five and 40 attempts to get most phrases right. Each one needs a novel approach – to try to keep the music fresh, and to maintain the tension.
When I begin a new scene, I want to define it by a mood that is unique to itself, but still part of the whole drama. This means that every decision is related to the whole structure in a sort-of symphonic way; that the material, the harmony and its sense of motion, are like a big wave moving across all the scenes. At the same time, each scene must hopefully have a distinctive mood, colour, temperature and light, and therefore a unique sound. After I have found this sound, which is far from simple to achieve, come the words – the dramatic approach, the speed of setting, whether the singers sing simultaneously, the types of intervals, the tessitura of the voices, the form of declamation, whether it is staccato, legato, mixed, very smooth… many, many things. Then comes the architecture of the scene: despite being part of something bigger, each scene has strict borders. And that means preparing the territory: the relative lengths of musical paragraphs, the rhythmic background, metrical and polymetrical elements, and so on. All of this leads up to the real, finished music.

The score requires many special instruments such as glass harmonica, tuned cowbells, typewriter and mandolins. Sound must be particularly important to you? Yes, absolutely. And not only instrumental sound. I’m aware of each singer’s tessitura: each note of a singer’s voice sounds different. For me, the vocal sound is part of the orchestra, and the orchestra is part of the vocal sound.

What are the differences between composing an opera and an instrumental work? Our director, Katie Mitchell, has a real vision for this tale and I’m confident the production will be marvellous. I have discovered rather belatedly that I love writing for the stage, dealing with words, working with singers. I love the narrative element, even though our storytelling is a little unconventional. And – to my surprise – I love the element of collaboration too. When I’m beginning a new scene I communicate regularly with Martin about the text and dramatic context, something which is both stimulating and helpful. This means that I’m perhaps less alone when composing – something which is much appreciated for a piece on this scale. Composing an opera takes a long time, and I’m fussy about every note, always paying close attention to detail. I´ve never done something so big – many, many decisions have had to be made!

George Benjamin credits Maurice Foxall George Benjamin © Maurice Foxall