George Benjamin, Barbara Hannigan and Written on Skin ten years after the premiere
Barbara Hannigan is the muse of many contemporary composers, including George Benjamin. He composed Written on Skin with her voice in mind. It was clear from the beginning she should sing Agnes. In July the 7th 2012 Hannigan sang the world premiere of Written on Skin.
During the preparations and in between the performances Hannigan kept me informed by an “e-mail diary.”
“George Benjamin and I met three years ago in his house. I was supposed to show him the possibilities of my instrument. We played a little composer-singer game without words, “composing” together. It gave me the opportunity to show him how my voice moves most comfortably.”
The first rehearsals took place in London, after which we moved to Aix-en-Provence, where the word premiere would be. The whole “making of” process was quite intense. My role is very demanding. Looking at the score you might think: finally a composer who does not take advantage of Barbara Hannigan’s high notes, or make her into a stratospheric trapeze artist. But the music still is extremely demanding.
The vocal lines lie very high and are long, spread out and loud. Rather difficult for the quick moving core of my voice. I had to approach the part very carefully. Particularly from the moment on when the tension in the opera slowly starts to increase, scene by scene, until the final climax, when I sing my big aria.
A few months before I received the score George changed a few notes for me – something he has sworn never to do for anybody! He rewrote several passages in my score by hand, which has helped me enormously.”
“I really think my role is phenomenally good. It feels like a fantastic preamble and the greatest preparation for Lulu, who I will sing in October for the first time. Agnes ends were Lulu begins. A sexually liberated woman with no problems with herself. A gift of a role!
One of the highlights for me was the “Sitzprobe” with the orchestra. It was the first time George heard his entire piece, with orchestra and singers. It was two weeks before opening night and we were all very nervous. But the entire cast stood behind him and his fabulous score. It was a very moving and emotional day.
All my colleagues (not only the singers, but the extras as well) were fantastic and we all got along marvelously. George had composed the music specifically for each one of us. A lot was demanded from us, not only vocally, but dramatically as well, but we all supported each other.”
“I think the production is unequalled and I adore Katie Mitchell, the director. It was the first time I worked with her. She pays a lot of attention to details, providing a lot of background information to the artists on stage. The public never notices that, but it had a tremendous influence on our performance. Working with Katie was a sensation, and I hope one day she will direct me in Lulu. “
“I loved the sensual scenes which were combined with violent ones. We had a special “fight director” who taught us to act as realistically as possible without hurting each other. I believe that was quite unique for an opera production. You also need a lot of trust in your colleagues.
I have to say: Agnes is a dream role, and I thought it was fantastic I got the chance to play her. All the reviews were full of praise, and the public was enthusiastic as well. It really was a dream.”
“I had been in Aix-en-Provence before, in 2008, for the first version of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. That performance was staged by Giuseppe Frigeni. In 2010 Sasha Waltz directed it. With her production we opened the season of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées.“
In 2008 we performed in the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume – small and very intimate. Very beautiful too. Because of the dimensions it is rather limited in its possibilities, though. For Written on Skin we were programmed in the biggest theatre of the festival, the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Very unusual for a modern, ‘fresh from the pen’-opera. Opening night, as you know, was a huge success, and all the subsequent performances were sold out.
I love the city. Aix is fabulous and so easy-going. The city encourages you to relax, even while you are hard at work. The festival is truly special. No highbrow business like you see at some other festivals. There is a true mix of different styles and types of performances. Symphonic music as well as chamber music.
They also have a fabulous young artists program, and I truly appreciate their efforts to get rid of the elitist stamp art has, particularly opera. Art truly can be real, and it can appeal to anyone.
I think Katie Mitchell and her team have tried with Written on skin to not only avoid stock opera gestures, but also to create something that actually did happen and that touches you. Something many of us have experienced personally, certainly women.”