Q & A with 'Written on Skin' Composer George Benjamin
July 11th, 2015
We reached George Benjamin, composer of the opera Written on Skin, via e-mail in Toronto where he was the focus of the Toronto Symphony's recent New Creations Festival. What follows is adapted from his responses to our questions about the opera and his life as a composer and conductor.
What drew you to the story of Written on Skin?
Numerous things impressed us about it: its heat, simplicity, darkness, and potency. But perhaps above all, it's the ending, which is so extraordinary—the woman's defiance in the face of her husband's extreme cruelty, which would be remarkable in any age, but is simply amazing for a tale conceived 800 years ago.
Written on Skin is your second collaboration with the opera's librettist, Martin Crimp. How do you work together?
We search for a subject together, usually over many months. Eventually, we find a subject that suits both of us; we then have lengthy discussions on the dramatic (and vocal) roles involved, the form, the narrative style, etc. Martin might send me a sample scene or two, but there eventually comes a point when the contact breaks —potentially for a long period-—and he devotes himself alone to the full text. Then suddenly it's ready—a great moment for me!
You have been praised for your orchestration—specifically for your use of instruments and instrument combinations—to portray the story of this opera. Can you give simple examples?
The orchestra involves several rare of unusual instruments (glass harmonica, bass viol, mandolins, steel drum, miniature tablas, etc.) as well as a few unconventional means of playing familiar instruments—all to provide the widest possible palette. This relates in part to the desire to evoke in sound the wonders of medieval illumination—a central theme in the text. But it's the singers who are at the foreground of the work, virtually throughout—this is opera after all!—so the orchestral sound is often muted and subservient to the vocal lines.
The performing forces for Written on Skin have remained consistent since its premiere. Did you have these personnel in mind as you wrote, or did casting come later?
We approached the singers before I wrote a single note, and their capacities and talents directly influenced the vocal writing. They came 'round to my house so I could accompany them on the piano in lieder or in operatic extracts, something akin to a user's manual for each singer, which would then serve me while composing.
You have conducted the work yourself previously. Now you are turning over the reins to the New York Philharmonic Music Director Alan Gilbert.
I love to hear my works conducted by others if they are sympathetic to my idiom! Alan and I have never worked together, though I am well aware of his exceptional talents and what a wonderful performer of modern music he is. Alan will be leading the extraordinary Mahler Chamber Orchestra—the ensemble for whom I wrote the opera—and I am longing to hear what their mixture of talents will produce.
How do you feel about bringing this work to Lincoln Center for its U.S. stage premiere?
I'm absolutely thrilled that Written on Skin will be coming to Lincoln Center, and doubly delighted as we're talking about Katie Mitchell's original production, featuring several of the original cast members as well as the orchestra who premiered the work.