Saturday 5 June 2021

Trying to make people unreasonable: I chat to composer Tim Benjamin about his opera The Fire of Olympus; or, On Sticking It To The Man

Tim Benjamin: The Fire of Olympus - Sophie Dicks as Prometheus
Tim Benjamin: The Fire of Olympus - Sophie Dicks as Prometheus

Composer Tim Benjamin's latest opera The Fire of Olympus; or, On Sticking It To The Man debuted in 2019 when Radius Opera, the company of which Tim is co-founder and artistic director, toured the work in a production which combined live singers and the digitally combined voices of over 1000 volunteers, taken from workshops held with choirs in and around the towns where the opera was performed. Tim has now collaborated with East View Film to create a film version of the opera, intended to be a film in its own right rather than a film record of a stage production, and this has now been released on Marquee TV. I caught up with Tim recently to find out more about The Fire of Olympus and how he came to turn an opera into a film.

Tim Benjamin
Tim Benjamin
The Fire of Olympus re-tells the Greek myth of Prometheus and Pandora, re-worked as a contemporary tale with Zeus as a modern President. The opera features Tim's music and words by Anthony Peter. When I ask why turn it into a film, Tim turns the question round, saying it was more why turn a film into an opera, as the aim of the project from the start was to create a film.

Tim's background is in both film and opera, he has written eleven operas and a large scale oratorio, whilst also writing music for film, as well as directing films and for the stage, but until, The Fire of Olympus had never directed a filmed opera. With his company Radius Opera, Tim has staged a lot of operas and comments that there is usually not much to show for it at the end of a tour, except perhaps a recording of stage production. But Tim finds the sort of film unsatisfying where you simply point a camera at the stage.

So with The Fire of Olympus, the real goal was to create a film that would live on and continue to be seen by audiences, rather than hoping that audience members will make it on the day of the stage performance. Both opera and film are, however, expensive to create. With operas, you are very much dependent on grants and have to gamble on an audience, which makes it difficult to plan. With film, the BFI (British Film Insitute) has a relief scheme for new British made films. And once the film is made, if you distribute then every showing that there is, wherever it is, brings in a small amount of revenue.

Creating a staged production followed by a film meant that Tim had to direct the stage show with the film in mind. But he sees the film as being closer to his artistic vision, so the film uses multiple locations as well as special effects that cannot be done on stage. The film also uses a framing device with an older Prometheus telling the story. This is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape and Tim has used footage of Damascus destroyed after bombing in this sequence.

For the main part of the opera, the filming was done in a way that takes it away from the stage with the camera amongst the singers. Yet there are references to opera too, with first see Charlotte Hoather, the singer playing Pandora, in her dressing room becoming the character Pandora and then going on stage. The film is also able to use flashbacks, including footage of parts of the opera which have already happened, something that you cannot do on stage.

The filming took place in a studio after the tour had finished, so the cast was well bedded in. To cope with the intricacies of filming a sung work, Tim lifted some ideas from the 2012 film of the musical Les Miserables. A studio sound recording was made of the opera, then during filming, this was played back (very loudly) and the singers sang along. What the film audience hears is the studio sound recording, but they see the singers sing including seeing the physical effort of singing. The logistics of this meant that, though they had pre-recorded the soundtrack, the filming of the opera required a conductor to coordinate things.

The film was very much an experiment for Tim. Having directed operas on stage and directed films, he was trying out combining the two. This is something that doesn't happen very often as the majority of opera films are simply filmed stage productions. Phyllida Lloyd's 2000 film [now on Opus Arte] of her production of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana (staged at Opera North in 1999) was made in this way.

When I ask Tim if the result was successful, he laughs. It was artistically a success, though there are things that he would do differently if he did it again, and it was also very stressful. But the piece does what he intends, and it has led him into new ideas for future projects. Financially, the project has paid for itself but it was a very tiny budget for a film.

He also realises that he has a lot to learn when it comes to blending film and opera. For a start, the next time he does it he would not do a live show and simply go directly to film. This would be disappointing for the performers who like performing to an audience; it would be a very different way of working, and Tim feels that the film would work better without the restrictions that the staged performances bring. With The Fire of Olympus, they had to make compromises in the design to cope with both stage and film, so that there are aspects of the film which feel like a compromise.

In the past, Tim has built up a following in live music and opera, particularly with Radius Opera, and many members of this audience are middle-aged women. Partly, he thinks, this stems from Emily, his first full-length opera which premiered in 2013 and was about Emily Davison, a Suffragette who was killed in 1913 after she apparently attempted to carry out an act of protest on the course of the Derby. But also, middle-aged women play a big role in the choral societies whose members Tim and the company drew on for their workshops which led to the digitally created chorus of 1000 for The Fire of Olympus.

Interestingly, the film seems to be attracting a somewhat different demographic, one that is often harder to reach, the time-poor professionals, often men, in the age range 30 to 50. These are people who, perhaps, have not grown up going to opera but have watched a lot of films, particularly streaming (Tim refers to them as the Netflix generation). The attraction of Greek myth is another important point.

Tim has based works on Greek myth before, working with Emma Stafford, Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Leeds, and in fact, The Fire on Olympus received funding from The Classical Association. Using myth as the basis for a work gives the story an air of familiarity, you don't have to construct your world from scratch, effectively the myth does the world-building for you. And once you have this framework, this slightly bonkers world, there is scope for Tim to be more outlandish.

Tim's first collaboration with Emma Stafford was on his oratorio Herakles which is based on the myth of The Choice of Hercules and they used a Roman text as their starting point. This had been written as advice for a Roman emperor, essentially do you take the broad easy road or the narrow difficult one? At the end of the oratorio the narrator suggests she might tell them the story of Prometheus, but then says some other time. And after this, people wanted the sequel.

So Tim looked into the story and enjoyed the idea of a tale about two brothers, Prometheus and Epimethus. He had been keen to do a project which re-invented the idea of Baroque opera for today, so he started by casting Prometheus and his brother as two female mezzo-sopranos. He then followed the story and simply saw where it went, asking questions along the way. So that with the theft of the fire, the question was what is the fire? Who is Zeus?

Zeus becomes a presidential figure and a bad leader. Whilst President Zeus is not an image of President Trump, Tim admits that he did write the opera during Trump's presidency. But there is also the influence of 1970s counter culture.

Tim's music for The Fire of Olympus has clear Handelian influences, but this is Baroque opera filtered through a 21st-century lens; Tim's style is melodic, but he also does things musically that Handel would never do. So there are Da Capo arias but Tim also plays with tonalities in the way that Britten might have done. He also likes combining major and minor, this is an essential component in his harmonic language. But he is clear that people come out of the opera whistling the tunes.

His other operas are not neo-Baroque. He likes to draw on things that people recognise, and he admits that he does steal from earlier music, and he enjoys melodies in addition to using more recent techniques. His style was once referred to as 'cracked lyricism'. He is also keen for the audience to be able to hear the words. 

Which leads to another area that he is interested in exploring, why are these people singing in the first place, why write an opera in the first place? He feels that you can convey more in music than you can in words, music can add multiple layers of meaning as well as being able to play with the dimensions of time so that in an opera time can stand still. Tim has written a pair of operas under the group title of Life Stories and each opera deals with a person's moment of death but stretched over 30 minutes. Singing and music allow you to create something that exists out of time, and Tim enjoys playing with time in his operas.

When I ask about influences, he comments that it is probably easier to say what his operas are not influenced by! When writing opera, he is not influenced by Puccini, Verdi, Rossini or Wagner. He listens to the operas of Wagner and Richard Strauss, but he has never written for those kinds of forces and he does not know what he could take from their operas.

It is Baroque opera and earlier that appeals to him, alongside 20th century and contemporary music theatre such as Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale and the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The works arising from the collaboration between Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill also appeal to Tim, because they have a directness to them; he enjoys their work's use of Epic theatre and alienation in a way that is very different to what Verdi was trying to do.

Tim wants to motivate the audience in a sociological way, often using alienation. When I ask his work is political, he responds Yes and No. He is not trying to make a particular political point, but he takes inspirations from different people who are evil. He quotes Frederick Engels (I think), history proceeds at the pace of the unreasonable man. It is unreasonable people, those who don't acquiesce, who make a difference in history and Tim finds them fascinating. Such people as the Suffragette Emily Davison, about whom he wrote his opera Emily, who locked herself into a cupboard in the Houses of Parliament on Census night so that it had to be recorded that there was a woman in parliament (at a time when women did not have the vote and there were no women MPs). Tim finds the psychology of protest fascinating, but he wants to make people think rather than make a particular political point. He is trying to make people unreasonable.

When I asked if he had always wanted to be a composer, Tim responds with the comment that a composer isn't something that he wanted to be, it is something that he was. When he received free music lessons at Primary School he learned the trombone, but he did not like the exercises that he had been given and wrote his own. Composing was something he did; he didn't decide to be a composer, it was something that he was (and something you never retire from), and the careers officer at school suggested he should be an accountant!

Tim won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Composer’s Award in 1993, at the age of 17, with his work Antagony, scored for two large wind bands, amplified strings, and six percussionists, and he also won the Stephen Oliver Trust’s Prize for Contemporary Opera in 1996, for his first opera The Bridge. He studied composition at the Royal Northern College of Music under Anthony Gilbert, privately with Steve Martland (1954-2013) and with Robert Saxton at the University of Oxford.

The Fire Of Olympus (Film Trailer) from East View Film on Vimeo.

Tim Benjamin & Anthony Peter: The Fire of Olympus, or On Sticking It To The Man - Zeus: Robert Glyndwr Garland, Hephaestus: Michael Vincent Jones, Pandora: Charlotte Hoather, Prometheus: Sophie Dicks, Epimetheus: Elspeth Marrow, director: Tim Benjamin, music director: Ellie Slorach, designers: Simon Ekrelius & Lara Booth - on Marquee TV

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