BBC Music Magazine
The BBC Music Magazine Interview
Composer George Benjamin talks to Kate Molleson
George Benjamin began writing his first opera at the age of 12. ‘Setting the story of the Pied
Piper of hamelin,’ he winces. ‘And it was naive and terrible and thankfully came to an end halfway down page 34. Terrible! Unspeakably terrible!’ Who can corroborate? The world never heard those precocious pages, but the operas Benjamin went on to write – Into the Little Hill, Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence
– have changed the sound, scope, brutality and sensuality of 21st-century opera. All three were premiered in the last decade but were somehow a lifetime in the making.
Benjamin laughs as he tells me about his early endeavours – a neat, precise giggle. he laughs with clarity and conviction, like every aspect of his conversation. Thoughts are held until they are fully formed.
Words are only ever the exact ones. If he can’t find the right word, he’ll wait, hand suspended in the air, eyes screwed tight as he searches his mind. he won’t make do with sloppiness and, brilliant teacher that he is, the effect rubs off so that in his company I become acutely aware of my own language. None of this meticulousness seems to get in the way of his enthusiasm, which is boyish, eager, clever, a wide-eyed marvelling. At 58, Benjamin says that above all he is ‘so, so enamoured with the nuts and bolts of music. Utterly passionate. Completely enthralled.’
In his music, too, only the right notes will do. It’s what makes his soundworlds so spotless and so total, but also what has caused him absolute agony at various points of his life when the right notes wouldn’t come easily. ‘I wrote tons of music for plays when I was a kid,’ he says, ‘so it was a matter of sadness that I didn’t return to the theatre for 25 years.’ he couldn’t, blocked by his own creative impasse. Things wouldn’t fall into place for the kind of operas he wanted to write. ‘I gave it a quarter of a century of thought. I