Gripped by opera from a very young age, enrolled at the age of sixteen into Olivier Messiaen's class at the Paris Conservatoire, it would be thirty years before Sir George Benjamin composed his first opera, in 2006. Today, the recently knighted composer's work is performed in opera houses around the globe. Written on Skin was a resounding success in 2012 and the latest, Lessons in Love and Violence, treads the same path, consolidating Sir George as one of the greatest living opera composers. We meet a discreet man who never speaks about his works while they are being written, but who has agreed to talk about past works and show us under the bonnet of his art.

Sir George Benjamin
© Matthew Lloyd

TL: "One has to stand back from oneself. It's a dangerous moment when one becomes fixed within a particular technique."(1) When you said this, you had never written an opera. Today, we can see continuity between your two latest operas. Have you become fixed with a particular technique? Is it dangerous?

GB : When I said that, I was both right and wrong. It's so hard to find colleagues in whom one has total confidence, personally and artistically. It's so rare! Katie Mitchell is a great director, with a deep respect for the work, the text, its intelligence, its depth. She has done a wonderful job on these two works. Martin Crimp and I have done three operas together, which are different as well as being very similar. The differences are interesting; they give flexibility to our creative relationship. The similarities mean that we have confidence in each other, that we understand each other. To have the luck, the joy of finding a great writer who accepts writing their first opera libretto for you, and then a second and a third... I would be mad to reject that out of a simple desire for change.

To come back to the sentence you quoted: if one tries to repeat the visible shell of things, a work's expression, its fantasy, its emotion, its passion, its humour, its temperature: forget it. One has to reinvent. But to begin at nothing, really at nothing, for every new work: that's a big challenge, an impossible challenge.

During these last twenty years, I've developed compositional techniques that are abstract and so simple that I am able, from one work to the next, to play with these elements without the listeners being aware that I'm doing it. These techniques are sufficiently abstract that there's no possibility of setting them out here. They're abstract in the way that past forms were, like a set of variations or a fugue. They are simple things, which can change their personality ten times, a hundred times, like a chameleon! I've always dreamed of arriving at this point, and I'm just about there, even if it's still evolving. Without these techniques, I would never have been able to write two operas lasting an hour an a half each like Written on Skin et Lessons in Love and Violence.

Written on Skin, staged at the Royal Opera by Katie Mitchell
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey (2017)

What changes most from one opera to the next: the ingredients or the recipe?

Everything changes. What's left is the kitchen equipment: the pot and the pan, the things that are essential but that you forget about when the meal is over. If you had to throw away those utensils every time, it would be very difficult to start again! It's a simple analogy to which I haven't yet given a lot of thought, so I don't know if it holds. But anyway, it's what comes to mind.

Look at it another way: to erect a building, you need scaffolding. As soon as construction is finished, the scaffolding disappears, it's no longer useful. But you couldn't put up the building without it, and for very modern work, the scaffolding you need is very complex, very creative. But as soon as the building is finished, there would be no purpose to keep it. It's the same thing in my work. It's so abstract that it allows me many possibilities, but it doesn't bear any influence on the work's character. It's the art of combination. When you have several singers with different music happening in parallel, it's very difficult to write. It's essential to have some technical underpinning.

How does all this show on the score?

It changes from one page to the next. Sometimes, I work differently even in different parts of the same scene. Sometimes, I write on twenty staves, sometimes two is enough. Everything depends on context: one's technique must be flexible.

Most of the time, I know the timbre of the instrument that will play every note – not just its timbre, but also its sonic quality, its sensuality. It's important for the form: every instrument must have its shape which pervades the whole score. The audience can hear that without knowing it. So I don't want to add the instrumentation at the last moment. I don't write the melody before adding the harmony: I do the whole thing at the same time. But the first sketches are not as detailed as the final version: when you compose an opera, you have to move forward, you have to fill the space of an hour and a half's work, one can't make a hundred sketches with every last detail at the very start of the compositional process. That's also something I've developed, a way of moving more quickly within the work.

George Benjamin at work
© Matthew Lloyd

When you receive the libretto from Martin Crimp and you read it for the first time, can you already hear some musical elements?

No. Real music doesn't fall from heaven. It's a work of friction, of contact with the words themselves. One has to choose a type of material, to work it until it becomes a bit more flexible. I don't start at the beginning: I have to find a line, sometimes on page 8 or page 12, where I know that I can find something.

So what is it that you find? Is it a pillar of your scaffolding?

It could be a pillar, but most probably, it's something practical, it's a place where I can start composition. I get an instinct that I would be able to begin a first pass at the work, an attempt, even if it's a timid one. You need to feel the breath, the sonority, the speed, the form of the work. You don't find that straight away, one has to start somewhere. To find a place, perhaps a quiet or discreet one, where one can open a door to the work.

Do you ever have to come back to the libretto and make changes in the light of some compositional problem?

Yes, but not often, because I have a lot of respect for Martin. I'm aware that he has worked for months on every word, every comma and full stop – I'm not exaggerating. But there are times when, for lyrical reasons, the words have to move more quickly or more slowly. There can be melismas, or a very slow tempo. If I keep the original text at that point, I might take forty minutes getting to the end! So at that stage, I tell Martin that I need a cut. If I have an ensemble with a lot of voices, I might tell him that I need five or six additional lines for a voice that finishes too early. But most of the time, I don't touch his text, it makes a useful constraint for me. Writing is a game between the composer and his material, and a game needs rules! Complete liberty is less interesting, less fun – unless, that is, the rules are fixed too rigidly.

Christopher Purves, Iestyn Davies and Barbara Hannigan in Written on Skin
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey (2017)

Let’s come back to your work with Katie Mitchell, Barbara Hannigan… How do those collaborations influence or constrain your writing?

It’s not just the fabulous Barbara Hannigan I had in mind, it’s everyone who sang in the premiere. I’ve heard them, I’ve chosen them, I’ve invited them over, I’ve taken twenty pages of notes about their voice. I ask each singer what they like doing, what they don’t like doing, what length of note they can hold without breathing, which are their favourite note or notes (for Barbara, for example, it’s a high G sharp), where they move into head voice, all kinds of technical questions. i take all of that very seriously, which subsequently helps me to write.

What are your own favourite notes in your operas?

[Long pause] There’s one note that springs to mind, in Written on Skin. It’s the favourite of baritone Christopher Purves, who sang the Protector: a high E. Very often, in his vocal part, at almost every climax, I place the most expressive words on that E. But what‘s extraordinary about the human voice is that it has many expressive notes. There isn’t just one register: in every voice, there are eight or nine registers which shift and overlap.

When your operas are revived with different casts, do you consider changing the score to adapt to the new voices?

No, not at all. I've now heard six or seven productions of Written on Skin with widely differing singing styles and all of them were valid. Lessons was sung last week at Hamburg: the wonderful Stéphane Degout was unfortunately unable to come so he was replaced by Evan Hughes, a very young American baritone. It's a very different voice but a superb one, another way of reading the score but just as valid – even if love the extraordinary talent and remarkable abilities of Stéphane Dégout, for whom the music was conceived.

Barbara Hannigan and Stéphane Degout in Lessons in Love and Violence
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey (2018)

You've been a professor of composition at King's College, London for nearly twenty years. How do you teach the subject?

When I teach, I have in front of me young composers who are gifted and technically able. But there are things they don't know, they don't hear all that well, they don't master the form of their work to the required extent and, most of all, their ideas are not yet formed in the way that they themselves want. My mission is to help them to become themselves, to improve their efforts and to give them a more precise way to listen and to turn whatever they want into reality. I can't create a genius, but I can, in a modest way, help a young composer to improve the precision of his (or her) writing, his technique, his listening.

What is your view of today's generation of young composers?

When I was very young, the difficult thing was that the world of contemporary music was very dogmatic. There was a modernist, post-serialist direction which seemed the central one. There was minimalism in the United States, there were other aesthetics, but they were at the margins.

Change was needed, for this dogma to be shaken. But today's problem is that there are many schools, many styles, many different, creative, diverse directions. Everything is possible, truly! For freedom of imagination, it's wonderful. But if a composer has too much freedom, whether it's during a lifetime or inside a single work, it can be difficult to do anything. We're obliged to choose everything. So what's difficult for present day composers is to choose their path: there's no current direction that is particularly strong. So composers are obliged to look within themselves and ask, deeply, what they are, what they need to do. The danger is to duck this fearful challenge, to adopt a particular style and then behave like a photocopier.

Sir George Benjamin
© Matthew Lloyd

In the 19th century, writing an opera was a kind of culmination of a composer's career. In the twentieth, the genre became less essential. Now in the 21st century, how do you feel about the state of opera?

I'm aware that in the generations before me, composers were either frightened of opera or bored of it. That wasn't the case for everyone, but for sure: Boulez didn't write an opera. Nor did Dutilleux. Carter – one short opera at the end of his life. Messiaen, a grand opera – but only one.

Today, I see things differently: it seems to me that opera is very much alive. There's plenty of audience for modern opera and plenty of composers who want to write one: I see this with my current and former pupils. Is this the culmination of a career, of one's creativity? I can't answer that. But to maintain the tension, to write for voice, to have enough rhythmic and harmonic technique, to fill a great form with the whole thing collapsing, that's certainly a huge challenge!

I should add that in England – and I'm sure it's the same in Germany and France – there are institutions with an appetite for new operas. With Britten and Tippett, and later Birtwistle, British opera has always been alive. Covent Garden still commissions operas, as does Glyndebourne and Aix-en-Provence in France. There are so many new works everywhere! I'm not a pessimist for the future of opera – quite the opposite.

1. Les Règles du jeu, interviews with Éric Denut, éditions Musica Falsa, 2004.

Translated from French by David Karlin