Wednesday 27 February 2013

An encounter with George Benjamin

George Benjamin, credit Nimbus Records
George Benjamin, credit Nimbus Records
I was asked to do an interview with George Benjamin to be published on the MusicWeb International website and I accepted with alacrity because I had found his first opera, Into the Little Hill, one of the most satisfying contemporary operas of recent years and was looking forward immensely to the UK premiere of his second opera Written on Skin.  My interview seemed to start under an unlucky star, of the dates proposed (via the marketing department of Nimbus), one was too soon, one was whilst I was away in Paris so I went for the last one. This latter, 26 February, was rather closer to the UK premiere of George's opera Written on Skin which he conducts at Covent Garden on Friday 8 March 2013. Not surprisingly, the day before the interview there was a flurry of emails, including George's publishers, agents, the Royal Opera House and Nimbus. At one point the interview was cancelled entirely, but space was found, crammed between the end of morning rehearsals and George's video interview for the BBC. Quite when he was going to have a break, I have no idea.

I arrived at the Royal Opera House stage door, only to find the the person behind the desk has no idea who George Benjamin was. Luckily, before I needed to explain, another young lady waiting in reception put him right; it turned out that she was one of the people on the flurry of emails the previous day, lucky for me. George arrived to collect me himself, navigating expertly through the maze that is modern Covent Garden backstage. To break the ice I mentioned that I knew his sister slightly; not that ice needed breaking. In person George Benjamin is approachable and charming making this interviewer feel comfortable.

The dressing room was a curious mixture of institutional modern white and reproduction 18th century furniture. I sat on an elaborate sofa which must have had a more exotic previous life, perhaps on stage. Playing in the background was Act 1 of Tosca which is being rehearsed at the moment and George had warned me that we might be disturbed by the conductor as the two of them were sharing the dressing room, and occasionally overlapped though they usually played Cox and Box.

I commented that it must be disturbing to rehearse one piece but have another being played in the background in your dressing room, but he said that he liked Tosca particularly Act 1 and the opening of Act 3. He turned the volume down, but throughout the interview we were periodically disturbed by tannoy announcements for the various off stage personnel needed for the stage rehearsal, the off-stage banda being released, the side-drum player and repeated calls for the cannon operative. At one point, after a particularly annoying interruption, George commented that he was starting to like Tosca rather less.

As I said, George Benjamin is charmingly approachable and answered all my questions with care and humour, even though he has probably answered them all before. He was entirely happy to talk about the mechanics of making opera, something which interests me, and the state of contemporary opera. As well as, of course, his new opera Written on Skin which not only receives its UK premiere in a production by Katie Mitchell, but the recording of last year's world premiere in Aix en Provence is being released by Nimbus.

Written on Skin, NI5885
What came over during the interview was the immense amount of thought that George had put into the subject of opera. The subject of writing for voices was one that came up in conversation a few times, and it was refreshing to come across a contemporary composer who clearly loves and understands the voice. Also the idea of what an opera is, and is not. George's partnership with librettist Martin Crimp (who has written the librettos for both his operas), is one where the two of them are making a specific sort of contemporary opera which is a deliberate attempt to create the sort of work which they feel works for them on the contemporary opera stage. He has very definite view on opera and clearly his relationship with Martin Crimp has developed into a very strong partnership, creating one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary opera.

At the end of the interview, George showed me back to the stage door through the maze. Our conversation continued in the lift and we talked about his involvement with the performances. He explained that after such a big work, he always had a fallow period so was delighted to be involved with the opera, that rehearsing and performing opera was such an immersive thing and he found that he enjoyed it. He had been involved in theatre at school but not since, and had discovered that he liked the atmosphere.

The full interview is now on the MusicWeb International website.

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