It’s been a while since a new opera landed on American shores on winds as strong as those propelling George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” to Tanglewood. It premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012 to something close to universal acclaim, all the more surprising given that it was the British composer’s first full-length operatic work. “The best opera written over the last twenty years,” declared the French newspaper Le Figaro. After the production reached the Royal Opera House in London, Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker that it “feels like the work of a genius unleashed.”
“Written on Skin” will have its American premiere on Monday in Seiji Ozawa Hall, a concert version with Benjamin himself conducting. (The performance is part of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music.)
The libretto by British playwright Martin Crimp is drawn from a 12th-century legend about a famous troubadour. A rich Provencal landowner called The Protector hires a boy to create an illuminated manuscript celebrating his life. The Boy and The Protector’s wife, Agnès, become lovers. The Protector finds out about the affair from a page in the manuscript; he murders The Boy and, unbeknownst to Agnès, feeds his heart to her. When she discovers what she has consumed, she boldly declares that “nothing will ever take the taste of that boy’s heart out of this mouth.” The Protector is enraged, and Agnès commits suicide.
Benjamin, 53, answered questions about the opera by e-mail in the midst of European travel.
Q. What led you and Martin Crimp to choose this story as the subject of “Written on Skin”? What excited you about it?
A. The director of the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Bernard Foccroulle, made a single request of Martin and me when we accepted the commission: to place the story within Provence. Martin’s eldest daughter was studying medieval French literature in Cambridge at the time and she found this story for us. . . . One thing, in particular, struck us — the wife’s reaction to her husband after being forced to eat her lover’s heart. Her defiance and courage at this point is remarkable, all the more so when one considers that it was conceived 800 years ago.
Q. There’s a fascinating dramaturgical frame in this opera. Angels narrate the action and transport us back and forth between the Middle Ages and the present. Sometimes the characters speak their own stage directions. Why does the story unfold in this unusual way?
A. I believe that opera today has to acknowledge that we live the era of film, and as a result naturalistic drama is full of pitfalls and dangers for the lyric stage. On the other hand I believe that storytelling is still essential. Martin invented the auto-narration technique for his plays, and it was the first thing that appealed to me about his style. In a very simple way it enables us to acknowledge the artificiality of the operatic medium, and then bypass it; I cannot imagine writing music to scenes of such highly charged eroticism or brutality if the style of speech were everyday. . . . This convention — plus the juxtaposition of eras — makes the whole tale feel as if it were in a dreamworld; that also, I think, beckons the type of music I can write.
Q. You are known for being a fastidious — some might say slow — composer. What was the experience of writing this opera like?
A. I am pretty obsessed by detail, and it usually takes me a long time to find the expressive and technical world of a piece. It seems, however, that writing for the operatic stage speeds up my rate of composition considerably. Once I had received Martin’s completed text the whole score was conceived and orchestrated in just over two years; that would have been impossible for me — in a work on this scale — if we were talking purely abstract music.
Q. The score is a marvel of color. How difficult was it to achieve the kinds of textures you did while trying to ensure that the voices could still be heard clearly?
A. It was an utmost priority that the vocal lines — and the words — be clearly audible throughout the opera, so it was simply an obligation for me to keep the tissue of orchestral sound transparent and gentle in the main. Of course there are exceptions, as the narrative demands, in particular when the singers are silent. As for a wide palette of orchestral color, that was also a priority for a score which aims to evoke the art of medieval illumination. But the harmony is more important than the timbres employed, though I have usually tried to isolate orchestral colours, not constantly combine them, and surround the most striking ones with more austere tones, even of gray, as a painter might.
Q. Two of the climactic moments in the opera are the sexual encounter between The Boy and Agnès, and Agnès’s throwing herself to her death at the end. It’s safe to say that infidelity and suicide aren’t uncommon in operas. Was it difficult to avoid a sense of cliché when composing those scenes, or others?
A. I can’t imagine that love and death will ever not be at the heart of operatic creation, for centuries to come. What else is there to sing about?
Might Martin’s narrative technique have insulated me from cliché? That, at least, was the intention. But, once I had embarked on the writing of the score my simple intention was to serve the drama, and its structure, to the very best of my abilities. It’s not for me to judge if the result has successfully circumvented the dangers of routine and melodrama. . . .
Q. What was the experience of the world premiere like?
A. You can imagine the tension on such an occasion, after years of preparation and solitary endeavour. Plus I myself was conducting, which added a whole further degree of responsibility on my shoulders. All I can say is that the performers were all sensationally good, as was Katie Mitchell’s production, and I could not have wanted for more.
Q. You and Crimp have already been commissioned for another work, to premiere at the Royal Opera House in 2018. Are you apprehensive about the task of writing another opera? Eager? A mixture of both?
A. Every new work, regardless of its dimensions, is a journey into the unknown, so of course apprehension and excitement mix in equal measure. But, since writing two stage works with Martin, I think I have caught the operatic bug rather badly and am very eager to continue our collaboration — both for Covent Garden in 2018 and beyond.