Sounds of Learning Guide: WRITTEN ON SKIN

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W E H O P E T H AT YO U Accept the Challenge... open this book and begin to explore the universal themes that you will find in opera with your teachers, classmates, and parents. This challenge is like an exploration in which you examine different issues that people have faced for centuries. It is like taking an adventure through time and space. This book is a guide that will connect you to an art form, opera, that may take you outside of your realm of experiences. The stories and problems in operas have always been part of the human condition. In an opera the story will be presented in a way that will be different from the way you are used to experiencing a story. Through the music and the libretto, we hope you will be able to connect with the plot, the storyline or themes that may have been written in the 18th, 19th, 20th, or 21st century but are still relevant today. During your time of study and preparation with these materials, there is the expectation that you will be able to connect something from your exploration of opera to your own personal stories. Accepting this challenge also provides an opportunity for you to apply what you know to present-day situations and draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the story presentation. As you work your way through this book, we hope you will be prepared to experience the opera with a new set of lenses that will afford you the opportunity to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate what you have learned or experienced during the challenge. Opera Philadelphia hopes you will take advantage of the opportunity to reflect on your experiences on our Sounds of Learning ™ Dress Rehearsal Program blog. Through your reflections you will share with others your insights about your journey. Your reflections will also help us modify and adjust our program materials for future audiences and students. We hope you will accept this challenge, and join other students who are taking the journey to make connections between the past and the present in order to impact the future! I accept the challenge

G O A L S A N D O B J E C T I V E S of Sounds of Learning ™ D ress Rehearsal P rog ram Connect with the plot or themes

Connect something from your exploration of opera to your own personal stories

Draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the story presentation

Experience the opera with an open mind

Analyze, synthesize, and evaluate what you have learned or experienced during the challenge

Use the Sounds of Learning™ blog to reflect on your experience and provide insights about your journey


Best Practices in Arts Education is sponsored by Pennsylvania Alliance for Arts Education, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pennsylvania Department of Education

TA B L E O F Contents O P E R A 101 Defining Opera Throughout History 2 Philadelphia's Academy of Music 4 The Language of Opera 5 Opera Etiquette 6 So You Want to Sing Like an Opera Singer? 7 Operatic Voice Types 8 From Castrato to Countertenor 10

WRITTEN ON SKIN A Complex Combination of the Arts 12 Cast and Creative Team 14 A Reader's Guide to the Style of Martin Crimp 16 George Benjamin: A modern master 18 Synopsis 20

A D E E P E R D I V E I N TO T H E O P E R A Agnès: A Growing Sense of Self 22 The Sounds of Past and Future 24


DEFINING OPERA Throughout Histor y written by Steven Humes George Benjamin's Written on Skin continues the great operatic core purpose of moving an audience by bringing all of the arts together to tell that story. Music, dance, theatre, costumes, visual art, combined through opera, can lead to an experience that is nothing less than life-changing. The oldest opera still performed today is Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, written in 1607. During the Baroque period from 1600-1750, Italian aristocracy wanted to recreate the great classical dramas from ancient Greece and Rome. Such stories provided the ruling elite with a strong connection to the supernatural. When asked to write an opera for Grand Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga of Mantua, Monteverdi thought that Orpheus, the Greek hero of music, would be of great interest to his audience. Monteverdi's opera brought to life Orpheus’s dramatic journey to the underworld in an effort to save his love, Euridice. The premiere of L'Orfeo was a great success, and Monteverdi emerged as someone who could use music to propel not only a narrative but also deeply affect an audience. While Monteverdi got his start composing opera for the ruling elite, he helped bring opera to the public. Opera’s emotional stories created a frenzy in Venice, Italy, towards the middle of the 17th century. No fewer than nine public opera houses opened during this period as the public wanted more opera that reflected the culture of the time. Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea (1642) is a great example of this change. Poppea tells the story of one of Rome’s most evil rulers, Emperor Nero, and his love affair with Poppea. Monteverdi’s opera premiered in Venice, and Poppea’s sensational and bawdy story perfectly matched Venetian interests while creating a gripping and emotional drama.


Figaro (Brandon Cedel) and Susanna ( Ying Fang) embrace during the f inal scene of The Marriage of Figaro. Photo: Kelly & Massa Photography

The 18th century, known as the Age of Enlightenment, was the next great period of political and cultural change in Europe. People were talking about new forms of government and organization in society, especially the developing middle class. As society changed, so did opera. Composers felt the need to reform opera and move away from the complexity of the Baroque style and wanted to instead write music that was simpler and more focused on pure, raw emotion. Christoph Willibald Gluck was one of the first to achieve this with his opera Orfeo and Euridice (1762). Gluck’s music had a freedom that evoked the unaffected expression of human feelings. While Gluck's opera told the same story as Monteverdi's L’Orfeo, his music brought new life to the narrative that better reflected audiences’ tastes at the time. The later part of the 18th century marked a period of great revolt. In 1776, the American Revolution changed the world. A few years later, the French had their own revolution (1789) and the first modern democracies were born. Reflecting this new way of thinking, audiences

The Marriage of Figaro

The Barber of Seville



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Gioacchino Rossini

wanted to see characters like themselves on stage. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) did just that. It told a story about aristocratic class struggle that had both servants and nobility in leading roles. With the characters of Figaro and Susanna, Mozart gave opera relatable human beings. Mozart’s operas embody the tenets of the Enlightenment such as equality, freedom, and the importance of the lower classes. In the 1800s Italian opera developed further with the bel canto movement, which means “beautiful singing.” Opera continued to be about real stories and achieving honesty in expression. The most famous bel canto composers were Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868), Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835). The success of these composers can be measured in their ability to withstand the test of time. Rossini’s popular comedies, The Barber of Seville (1816) and Cinderella (1817), are still some of the most popular operas performed today. By the middle of the 19th century, the Romantic Movement led many composers to champion their own national identities. Composers and librettists created operas for the audiences they knew best. German operas like Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821), Russian operas like Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (1836), and French operas like Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836) were performed frequently in their native countries. In Germany, Richard Wagner brought the Romantic period to its peak by exploiting the grand potential of opera. How could all of the elements - orchestra, set, chorus, soloists, and more - be elevated to transform a story and deeply affect an audience? In The Ring of the Nibelung (1876), a series of four operas taking over 15 hours to perform, Wagner created one of opera’s greatest masterpieces. Opera in the 20th century emerged as a period of great experimentation. Composers like Giacomo

Puccini (La bohéme, 1896), Richard Strauss (Salome, 1905) and Benjamin Britten (Peter Grimes, 1945) continued to evolve their national styles. Others, horrified by the destruction of World War I (1914-1918) and other aspects of modern life, created music that was new and drastically inharmonious. Meanwhile, American opera had a huge hit with George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935) which included the musical styles of jazz and blues.

The Family Stand of We Shall Not Be Moved: John Henry (Aubrey Allicock), Un/Sung (Lauren Whitehead), John Blue ( John Holiday), John Little (Daniel Shirley) and John Mack (Adam Richardson) Photo: Dave DiRentis

Today, opera continues to grow and expand. Opera Philadelphia helps to shape the future of opera by producing important new works like Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph's 2017 opera, We Shall Not Be Moved, a story about Philadelphia youth and many of the issues facing society today. In October 2017, the opera went on to be performed at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 2018, it will make its European premiere. While Written on Skin is an opera that recalls a 13th-century troubadour tale, composer George Benjamin and playwright Martin Crimp are able to follow in the footsteps of Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, and others by crafting an opera that holds great significant and can resonate with audiences of its time.

Porgy and Bess

We Shall Not Be Moved



George and Ira Gershwin

Daniel Bernard Roumain


P H I L A D E L P H I A’S AC A D E M Y O F M U S I C A place for you

Photo: George Widman

Opera Philadelphia's home, the Academy of Music, opened in 1857. Opera is only one type of performance shown in the Academy. There are also ballets, concerts, and galas. The building is a historical monument and the oldest grand opera house in America still used for its original purpose. The Academy of Music is sometimes called the "The Grand Old Lady of Locust Street." The opera house was initially built with a plain white exterior as the architects wanted the beauty to be on the interior, as it was at the famous opera house, La Scala, in Italy. Later, the exterior was revised to look as it does today. Unlike other performance houses, the Academy of Music's seating was a 'U' shape. This was for the audience to have the best view from every angle possible. The first opera presented in the brand new opera house was Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore on February 25, 1857. The basement of the Academy of Music has a history, too. It was used as a dining hall because of its beautiful interior decoration. During World War II the hall was transformed into the Stage Door Canteen, serving refreshments and featuring appearances by entertainers performing 4

at the Academy of Music, such as Abbott and Costello, Duke Ellington, and Frank Sinatra. Today, The Academy of Music continues to entertain people through concerts, operas, ballets, and more. The wondrous hall dedicated to the arts has blossomed into the perfect place for a performance of any kind. Academy of Music Facts: The auditorium seats 2,509; 14 columns support the Academy’s tiers • The red and gold pattern on the Academy’s stage curtain simulates a pineapple, a Victorian-era symbol for “welcome.” • The first-ever indoor football game was held on the Academy’s Parquet level on March 7, 1889, between the University of Pennsylvania and Riverton Club of Princeton. • 1,600 people attended the first-ever public motion picture screening on February 5, 1870. •

Adapted f rom String Theory School ’s Sounds of Learning™ iBook


main sections of a play or opera a solo song sung in an opera dance set to music action on stage usic composed for a group of singers; the name of a group of m singers in an opera person who rehearses and leads the orchestra a song performed by two singers a specialist in drama, especially one who acts as a consultant to a theater company, advising them on possible repertory the text or words in an opera; an opera’s script a group of musicians who play together on various musical instruments a piece of instrumental music played at the beginning of an opera words that are sung in the rhythm of natural speech a sequence of continuous actions

Lawrence Brownlee, tenor, performs the title role in Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD. After its 2015 World Premiere with Opera Philadelphia, the opera traveled to Harlem and graced the stage of the historic Apollo Theater. It has since been performed at Madison Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Hackney Empire in London. Photo: Sof ia Negron


OPERA Etiquette AT T E N DI NG T H E OPE R A There’s nothing as exciting as seeing a performance in Philadelphia’s beautiful Academy of Music. If this is your first time at the opera, there are a few things for which you should prepare: You are attending the opera’s final dress rehearsal, the last chance for performers to run through the show before opening night. The goal is to treat this rehearsal exactly like a performance and perform the opera straight through without a pause. You may notice several computer monitors and large tables spread out over the seats in the center of the first f loor of the auditorium. Seated in this area is the production team: Director, Assistant Director, Costume Designer, Lighting Designer, Set Designer, and others. They’ll take notes and communicate via headsets with the many people backstage who help make all of the operatic magic happen: Stage Managers, Master Carpenter, Lighting Technicians, Stagehands, and others. They’ll be able to give notes so that changes can be instantly made. Should things go awry, they may stop and repeat a section to make sure that it is perfect. OPER A E T IQU E T T E 101 Opera singers are unique because they are trained not to use microphones when singing. As a result, it is important to remain quiet, listen carefully, and not interfere with the music and the story being told. With this in mind, remember that at the heart of opera is a story rooted in deep emotion. So, when the time is right, don't be afraid to laugh or extend your appreciation through applause! Performers need to know how their work is being appreciated.


In addition to showing respect to the people around you, it is important to appreciate the physical theater. Many opera houses or theaters are designated today as historic monuments. So that we can continue to use these cherished spaces, we must remember to leave them the way they were

found. This means keeping your feet on the f loor as opposed to on the back of the seat in front of you. In addition, any food or beverage must remain outside of the theater. Finally, you may be asking yourself what to wear to an opera. This answer can vary from person to person. Ultimately, you should not feel as if you will be turned away because of your attire. However, dressing up for the opera is a classic tradition, so don't hesitate to show off your best new tie or your favorite dress. The way you dress and carry yourself can only add to the opera experience. Please Do… • Applaud after the arias; you can shout “Bravo!” for men and “Brava!” for the women. • Use the bathrooms before the rehearsal begins or at intermission. • Be careful in the auditorium! Theaters can sometimes be old and difficult to navigate. • Turn off your cell phones and all electronic devices. • Obey all directions given by theater ushers and staff. Please Don't... • No food, gum, or beverages are permitted inside the theater. • No photographs or videos may be taken during the performance. • No talking or whispering during the performance.

For a fun video of what’s expected at the opera, visit:

S O Y O U WA N T T O S I N G Like an Opera Singer?

Soprano Christine Goerke leads Opera Philadelphia Emerging Artist Thomas Shivone in a master class at the Perelman Theater. Photo: Kelly & Massa Photography

Singing on the opera stage is very hard work! Singers are like athletes, constantly training to perfect their voices. They ask their voices and bodies to do what most of us without training can’t do: sing incredibly intricate and difficult music and project their voices to be heard over a 60-piece orchestra without microphones or amplification. Singing begins with the human voice, a very versatile instrument. It can produce sounds that present a wide range of frequencies that we call pitches. Our voices are able to change in volume as a result of the air we exhale from our lungs and control with our diaphragm, a muscle right behind our stomach that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. When we inhale deeply, the diaphragm lowers and the ribs and stomach expand as the lungs fill with air. Then the diaphragm guides the air out when it contracts, causing our vocal folds to vibrate. Vocal folds are fibrous bands that are stretched along the two sides of our larynx, or our sound instrument, just below the ‘Adam’s apple.’ When we hum, talk,

or sing, air passes through the larynx causing the vocal folds to vibrate, creating a sound that is then shaped by the other parts of our bodies including the mouth, tongue, teeth, and lips. To sing different pitches and volumes, singers must control the flow of air, through the vocal folds in our larynx. They practice vocal exercises daily so that they can quickly adjust to the demands of the music without thinking about it.

To see the vocal folds in action, visit To see how the diaphragm works, visit 7

O P E R AT I C Vo i c e Ty p e s Have you ever wondered why every person's voice sounds slightly different? The human voice is a fascinating and complex instrument with many factors that make each one of us sound unique. The length and strength of the vocal chords, how thick the vocal chords are, the shape of the nasal passages, mouth, and throat all help to determine whether a voice will be high or low, bright or warm. In opera, voices are classified into seven main categories (from highest to lowest): soprano, mezzosoprano, contralto, countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass. It is important to know that a person can only know their true voice type when they become an adult. The following people have distinguished themselves as past and present leaders of their voice type. Choose one opera singer to research and share your discoveries with your friends. Use the QR Codes to hear each voice type.

S O P R A N O is the highest female voice type with a traditional range of A below middle C to the C two octaves above that. The soprano usually plays the heroine of the story and is often the center of the romantic storyline.

Angela Brown soprano

Ying Fang soprano

M E Z Z O - S O P R A N O is slightly lower than soprano, with a range usually G below middle C to the Bb two octaves above. Mezzos are often supporting roles of motherly types or villains. They also will often sing trouser roles in which they portray boys or young men.

Stephanie Blythe mezzo-soprano


Denyce Graves mezzo-soprano

C O N T R A L T O is the lowest female voice, with a range of the F below middle C to the second G above middle C. It is a rare voice type, so the roles can often be sung by mezzo-sopranos. It is the darkest in timbre and is reserved for specialty roles, such as grandmothers, noble witches, and goddesses.

Marian Anderson contralto

Meredith Arwady contralto

David Daniels countertenor

John Holiday countertenor

C O U N T E R T E N O R is the highest male voice, with a range that is similar to the contralto: a below middle C to the F an octave and a half above middle C. Frequently these men achieve their high range through bridging their chest voice with their head voice (falsetto). While this voice type was less popular from 1800-1940, composers today utilize countertenors more often.

T E N O R is considered the highest “natural” male voice, with a range of D below middle C to the C above middle C. Beginning in the Classical era (1775-1825), the tenor has been assigned the role of the hero or the love interest of the story.

Lawrence Brownlee tenor

Jarrett Ott baritone

Juan Pons baritone

Bryan Hymel tenor

B A R I T O N E is the most common male voice type, with a range midway between tenor and bass, from A an octave below middle C to the G above middle C. The baritone is often the comical leader, but can also be the villain who stands in the way of the soprano and tenor’s love.

B A S S is the lowest and darkest of the male voices, with a range of E almost two octaves below middle C to the F above middle C. Basses can portray characters who convey wisdom or nobility, but also comedic characters.

Samuel Ramey bass

Photo Credit: Angela Brown - Roni Ely; Ying Fang, Denyce Graves, Jarrett Ott, Bryan Hymel - Dario Acosta; Meredith Arwady, David Daniels - Simon Pauly; John Holiday - Fay Fox; Lawrence Brownlee - Ken Howard; Samuel Ramey - Christian Steiner; Morris Robinson - Ron Cadiz

Morris Robinson bass


F R O M C A ST R ATO TO C O U N T E R T E N O R Uncovering the mysteries singers were issued with regularity, century after century. We know that this problem was solved in the Byzantine Empire by the employment of eunuch (pronounced YOO-nuck) singers, also known as castrati, as early as the 9th century, but these castrated men were prohibited from singing in church when Constantinople fell to Western forces during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

by Benton Hess One of the roles in George Benjamin’s widely acclaimed, thrilling opera Written on Skin requires a singer who inhabits a vocal category which is probably the most misunderstood of all vocal categories: the countertenor. A countertenor is a male singer who has developed and strengthened his falsetto register to the point that he is able to produce sounds with power, beauty, and flexibility in the same range as the typical female mezzo-soprano, roughly a full octave above the normal range of a male baritone. Three questions immediately arise, and they all begin with “why.” • • •


Why is there such a vocal category to begin with? Why does a male singer decide to develop his voice in this way? Why do contemporary composers write music for countertenors?

The concept of men singing in a traditionally female register can be traced back to the earliest days of Christianity. In 265 A.D., Paul of Samosata was charged with the crime of employing women as church singers. In 578 A.D. clergy in France prohibited girls singing in church, and similar injunctions against female

The solution for the Church of Rome had been different at first. Although there were occasionally a few uncastrated adult males singing treble parts in falsetto, women were typically replaced by boys in the choirs, and that was satisfactory to a point. But by the time the middle of the 15th century rolled around, and composers were writing more and more complicated music, the young boys lacked the vocal technique, physical stamina, and musical sophistication required to hold the part. How or why the Roman Church began to use castrati in the church choirs of Italy in the mid-16th century is something we will probably never know, but use them they did, and with great success. The castrati were a hit, not only at church, but also in the opera house, where they played all kinds of roles, both male and female, both lover and warrior, both hero and villain. The castrati became the rock-stars of their age; they were paid extravagant fees, rubbed elbows with the aristocracy, had roles written for them by the greatest composers of the time (Monteverdi, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Rossini, to name but a few), and ruled the European musical world for the better part of three centuries. By the mid-19th century the fascination had worn off and perhaps people finally began to realize what a barbaric practice - castration for the purpose of preventing the maturation of the male singing voice - this truly was. But Italy didn’t pass any laws against it until 1870, and there were still castrati in the Sistine Chapel Choir until 1910. Top left: Written on Skin star Anthony Roth Costanzo Top right: British countertenor Alfred Deller

In the mid-20th century, when there was a powerful resurgence of interest in music from the Baroque era, the castrato roles written by Handel and his contemporaries were taken over and performed mostly by mezzo-sopranos. Still, there were a few men who remained fond of this musical style and wanted to show off their strong, beautiful, and flexible falsetto register. Alfred Deller, a first-rate British singer who was interested in performing music according to its original intention, was one such person. At first, Deller started out calling himself an “alto,” but changed over to the archaic term “countertenor” in the middle of his career. A countertenor is the only singer who actually has somewhat of a choice about his voice category. Ordinarily, one’s category is determined by the range and the color of the voice. For instance, if you are male and have a high voice with a bright timbre, you are almost certainly a tenor. Most (but not all) countertenors are naturally baritones, but they, for whatever reason, identify with their fortified falsetto sound and feel that that is the voice with which they can be most expressive. So, they choose to develop that part of their instrument. Many modern composers besides George Benjamin have utilized countertenors in their compositions. Benjamin Britten wrote the role of Oberon in his opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the aforementioned countertenor

Alfred Deller. The same composer’s opera Death in Venice, calls for a countertenor as well. Other contemporary composers who have written music for countertenor include John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Peter Maxwell Davies, Jonathan Dove, Philip Glass, Hans Werner Henze, György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Aribert Reimann, Alfred Schnittke, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and many others. If in the end a composer is looking for a mysterious or other-worldly sound, or perhaps a sound that speaks of innocence and vulnerability, the countertenor voice may be just what he’s looking for.


throughout history Brian Asawa Terry Barber Robin Blaze James Bowman Max Emanuel Cencic Michael Chance Nicholas Clapton Tobias Cole Robert Crowe Anthony Roth Costanzo Alfred Deller David Daniels Christophe Dumaux Paul Esswood Franco Fagioli Jeffrey Gall Theirry Grégoire David Hansen John Holiday

René Jacobs Phillipe Jaroussky Glenn Kesby Axel Köhler Jochen Kowalski Gerard Lesne Tim Mead Bejun Mehta Drew Minter Russell Oberlin Cezar Ouatu Henry Purcell Derek Lee Ragin Matthias Rexroth Steven Rickards Andreas Scholl David Trudgen Drew Walker Lawrence Zazzo

THE LAST CASTRATO Even though it has been more than a century since any person has heard

a castrato perform, one recording remains of a castrato who was for many

years in the Sistine Chapel Choir, Alessandro Moreschi. Signor Moreschi

was never a great singer and many believe he was past his prime at the time

of this recording. Still, it’s the only recording we have, and we can’t help but wonder what the truly great castrati must have sounded like.

Listen here: 11

WRITTEN ON SKIN A Complex Combination of the Arts by Dr. Lily Kass The Interaction Between the Arts What do a novel, a play, a symphony, a painting, a sculpture, a modern dance, a ballet, a music video, and a feature film all have in common? They are all works of art. What we refer to in general as “the arts” includes literature, music, the visual arts, drama, and dance. From the beginning of recorded history, humans have used the arts to make sense of the world around them, to process emotions, and to create beauty. The arts are often separated out, for example, in school. In an art class, you might draw and paint while in a music class you might sing or play an instrument. Many great thinkers have considered the purpose of each individual art. They ask questions like, “What is the greatest power of each art? What can a painting do that a poem cannot? What human emotion can a dance depict better than a sculpture can?” It is worthwhile for us to consider these questions as well. However, the arts are also very interconnected, and they have always been. One work of art often responds to another work of art, even across genres. These works of art answer questions such as: Is it possible to use one art to describe another? How can one art add to the power of another art? There are poems like W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” which react to a painting, in this case “The Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel. The French artist Edgar Degas was famous for his paintings and sculptures of dancers. The famous ballet “The Nutcracker” was based on a short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. In addition to these examples of one art responding to another art, there are multimedia works of art such as film. If you went to a superhero film where the actors read their lines dramatically but there were no capes or special effects, you would be disappointed: films almost always rely on visual elements as well as the literary 12

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel (1555)

text of the script. Without triumphant chords playing on the musical soundtrack, the hero’s victories would seem less exciting. Opera as a Multimedia Art Opera is a multimedia art just like film – all of the different arts come together in an operatic work. Opera is based on a double foundation of music and poetry. A composer writes the music that the instruments and singers play, and a librettist writes the words that the singers sing. The composer and librettist work together to make the combination of words and music effective. Sometimes, it might be good for the words and music to do similar things at the same time to emphasize a point. For example, if the librettist has written the word “fly,” a composer might ask the singer to sing this word on a collection of notes that go upward in pitch so that the music imitates the word and sounds like it is flying. This is called “word painting.” On the other hand, it is sometimes more dramatic for a composer to take a word written by the librettist and add a different meaning to it through music. For example, if a singer is singing the word “happiness,” and the composer has the orchestra play loud, angry-sounding, dissonant chords during this word, the audience will probably guess that the character in the opera is not in fact happy, or that there is some sort of trouble brewing for that character.

death. The story is full of love and passion and betrayal and defiance, all strong emotions that translate well to the operatic stage. These emotions are all universal, and the story could have been told at any time and in any place. This particular story, however, was told for the first time in the 12th century in Provence, France, and it was recorded as a true story of the life of a troubadour named Guillem de Cabestany, who was the lover whose heart was eaten.

Dancers Bending Down by Edgar Degas (1885)

In addition to the very important relationship between literature and music in opera, the visual arts and dance, are also extremely important. The costumes, props, scenery, and lighting of an opera are all visual elements that greatly add to the audience’s experience of the opera. If the stage grows dim, we might expect night to be falling; if a character wears a crown, we might assume he is a king or a prince. These are visual cues that tell us a lot by themselves, and they combine with the text and the music to flesh out the story the opera is trying to tell. In addition, there is often dance in opera. Even in operas in which there is no dance, there is always the movement of bodies. Singers gesture with their hands, and they show their feelings through their body language and facial expressions. As audience members, we take in all of these different artistic elements simultaneously, and each part adds to the whole, bringing the story to life in a way we can experience with our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts. Written on Skin Written on Skin is an opera, so we know already that it will combine the arts in different ways. However, it also goes a few steps farther. Written on Skin, like many other operas, is based on literary source material. In this case, the opera is based on a story about a married woman who has an affair. The woman’s husband finds out about the affair, and he kills the woman’s lover. The husband cuts the lover’s heart out of his body and feeds it to his wife for dinner. The wife is so upset by this horrific act that she throws herself out of a window, to her

Troubadours were medieval singer-songwriters who entertained at court. Written on Skin is therefore an opera based on a work of literature about a musician. George Benjamin and Martin Crimp took the story of Guillem de Cabestany as an outline for their opera, but they made a lot of additions and changes. One of the major modifications that they made was to change the profession of the lover. Rather than a troubadour named Guillem de Cabestany, the lover in Written on Skin is a writer of books, called simply “the Boy.” A written and illustrated text is at the core of the opera, and it even gives the opera its title. (In the Middle Ages, books were written on parchment, which were specially prepared skins of animals such as sheep, goats, and cows.) This change in the lover’s character from someone who creates stories in music to someone who creates stories in images and words on the page adds another dimension to the opera. Opera always has to do with music, because in an opera, music is being played and sung constantly. If Written on Skin had been about the creation of music as well, the piece might have fallen flat from lack of variety. Written on Skin is about the relationship between the different arts (words and images on a page), and it presents a fusion between the different arts onstage, pulling the audience inside the dramatic story with words, music, art, and movement.


WRITTEN ON SKIN C a s t a n d C r e a t i v e Te a m Final Dress Rehearsal – Wednesday, February 7, 2017, 2:00 p.m. at the Academy of Music. Music by George Benjamin. Text by Martin Crimp. Performed in English with English supertitles. Approximately one hour and thirty-five minutes with no intermission descriptions by Dr. Dan Darigan

THE PROTECTOR Mark Stone baritone A wealthy and powerful landowner, the Protector rules what he owns with an iron fist. The fields and forests, his house, the people who live on his land, even his wife he considers nothing more than his “property.” He hires the Boy to write and paint a book, to be written on skin, that celebrates his life and good deeds, while showing his enemies in Hell and his own family in Paradise. He soon realizes that Agnès is distancing herself from him and then, one winter night, he has a nightmare that not only are his people rebelling against how much his book costs but that Agnès is “gripping the Boy in a secret bed” and cheating on him. His last mean-spirited and cruel trick pushes Agnès even further away and his final, desperate attempt to control her fails to his great loss.

ANGÈS Lauren Snouffer* soprano Agnès is the young wife of the Protector, who was married to him at the age of 14. He keeps her inexperienced, unworldly, and sheltered and has refused to allow her to learn to read or write. After meeting and falling in love with the Boy, who was hired to write and paint the family’s history, Agnès realizes that the relationship she has with her husband isn’t enough, and her curiosity drives her to want and experience more. She slowly becomes more independent, and embracing her newfound strength as a woman, stands up for herself both with the Boy when she thinks he cheated on her and even more with so the Protector. In the end, her influence changes the course of events so that it alters the way the book ends.


FIRST ANGEL & THE BOY Anthony Roth Costanzo countertenor Interestingly, this character plays two different roles in this opera. He’s first seen as one of three angels in Scene I who takes us back some 800 years to a time when books were rare and precious. These books were hand-written and illustrated on treated animal skin. During this scene, Angel 1 changes clothes and enters the house of the Protector, now as the Boy. He is hired to celebrate the Protector’s life and to provide a history of his family in an illustrated book. As the Boy works, Agnès visits him and as the two fall in love, her suggestions and questions begin to alter the content and direction of the the book itself. In the last scene of the opera, the Boy returns to his role as Angel 1 and delivers its tragic ending.

SECOND ANGEL & MARIE Kristina Szabó* mezzo-soprano As with the Boy, the Second Angel changes her clothes and makes an appearance in the opera as Agnès’s sister. She and her husband arrive at the Protector’s house in Scene V “The Protector and the Visitors—John and Marie.” Marie begins interrogating the Protector about the Boy, the book, and Agnès to the point that the Protector gets angry and threatens not to let them pass his gate. Later, in Scene VIII & IX the couple returns, reenacting the lie the Boy is telling the Protector. The rest of the time, the singer who plays Marie is seen as Angel 2.

THIRD ANGEL & JOHN Alasdair Kent tenor Like Angel 2, John plays the role of an angel except for his appearances with Marie, his wife. When Marie argues with the Protector, it is John who tries to defuse the situation making him a softer character. This allows the Protector to believe that he is complicit in allowing the lie that Marie and the Boy are having an affair.

C O N D U C T O R Corrado Rovaris D I R E C T O R Will Kerley


Amanda Consol


Howard Hudson*

C O S T U M E & S E T D E S I G N

Tom Rogers


Lisa Anderson*


Gregory Boyle


*Opera Philadelphia debut

Jen Shaw


A READER'S GUIDE to the Style of Martin Crimp by Dr. Dan Darigan The first time I read through the text of Written on Skin, I did so without a video recording to help visualize the action on stage. I remember feeling that the text alone left me confused by a number of the scenes. It was clearly different from librettos I have read in the past. However, as I reread the text a few more times and had the opportunity to watch a video of the opera, the story became more clear and I began to appreciate the unique style of the piece. This article is meant to guide you through the story and text of Written on Skin with the hopes that you too will be able to enjoy this opera. First, it’s important to know that Written on Skin is an opera that blurs the past and present. Inspired by a 13th-century troubadour tale, Written on Skin goes beyond just recalling the story of Guillem de Cabestany. Martin Crimp’s addition of a trio of angels is what allows the story to exist in two different time periods. At first, these angels appear in modern time. However, they soon reappear 800 years earlier and influence the lives of those who live in it - Agnès and the Protector. The most influential of these angels is Angel 1 who, as the Boy, establishes a pivotal relationship with Agnès. The role of the angels is further identified in Scene III, “Chorus of the Angels.” They sing, “Stone the Jew: make him wear yellow. Crusade against the Moslem: map out new territory with blood.” The text clearly takes you away from the narrative just established between Agnès, the Protector, and the Boy. With such text, it seems clear that Crimp is emphasizing the ambiguity of time. The text brings us back to World War II, then further to the Crusades in the Middle Ages. We end up at the brutality of the biblical creation story. With powerful and cruel voices the angels sing, “Invent man and drown him…bulldoze him screaming into a pit.” They also sing of hostility 16

Noted contemporary British playwright Martin Crimp brings to opera a truly unique language and style. Photo: Gautier DeBlond

toward women, “Invent her. Strip her. Dress her. Strip her again. ...Blame her for everything.” The text of this scene comes as quite a surprise and leads us into the next scene with Agnès and the Boy. Beyond having the ability to pass through time, it should be noted that the angels serve a function of providing direct commentary to the audience. For example, in Scene I, the three angels emerge in modern attire and warn against the ills of the present day life. “Strip out the wires and cover the land with grass,” they exclaim. “Shatter the printing press. Make each new book a precious object written on skin,” they continue. Keep in mind the printing press was first invented in 1440 before which the majority of books were hand-written using homemade ink, the feathers of geese or swans, and, instead of paper, calf skin which had been cleaned, stretched, and dried.

In the end, understanding the many roles and abilities of the angels will help you to grasp the narrative of the opera fully. Another thing you should know about this opera is that it has a very unique language. In Scene II, the Protector, having just met the Boy, boasts: “Stand here. Look. My house is perfect. At night stars wheel over my vines according to the strict mechanism of the world. And by day - says the Protector fruit trees, blue heads of iris, pink cups of eglantine turn to the sun.” What clearly stuck out to me was the line, “- says the Protector -”. The use of third-person narrative caught me off-guard, as people don’t speak this way in everyday life. As I continued to read, I realized that this style remained prevalent. In fact, I found that Crimp used it over fifty times. While awkward at first, it eventually became something I got used to. Still, it made me wonder why Martin Crimp would make this choice. One answer seems to be that it supports his goal in blurring the past and present. The use of third person certainly prevented me from being fully transported into the past. An article by Rachel Beaumont for the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London, cites composer George Benjamin’s appreciation for this choice. Benjamin says, “This way of telling a story means that the language lifts a few inches off the ground, and that’s where there is a space for music to enter. Theatrically, I’m attracted by this technique because to me it seems unreal, and it provides a space, if not a need, for music.” Benjamin goes on to say, “The singers can demonstrate to the audience that the dramatic situation is artificial: what’s on stage does not pretend to be reality…there is no attempt to disguise the strangeness of the [operatic] medium.”

It is likely the case that discovering the true intentions of Martin Crimp would require a much deeper conversation. Still, it is important to know that this literary device exists and plays a strong role in the way Written on Skin is told. Finally, as you read Written on Skin, observe the many ways in which the the text is formatted. For example, in Scene V, the Protector’s text reads, “ - to be sleeping but in the dark her eyes are wide open and all night I hear her eyelashes scrape the pillow click click like an insect.” The text included in this student guide remains as originally published. When you read through the text, try and keep every space, punctuation, and ellipsis in mind. With each variance, make a decision that changes the way you read or recite the line. You could pause, reinflect, or even change your volume/tone. Taking advantage of these opportunities will only enhance your experience with the story. In the end, Written on Skin is an opera that continues to make me think. The text and music create so many complex layers and the piece itself stands out as something truly unique. As you prepare for this opera, start by unpacking the text. Read along and mark any of the passages you have trouble understanding. Then go back and see if upon second glance these sections carry new meaning. Remember, my appreciation for this opera was not something that set in right away. However, as I continued to approach this opera from different angles, my affinity grew and grew. I now understand why it stands today as one of the premiere operas of the 21st century.


GEORGE BENJAMIN A modern master by Michael Bolton Written on Skin composer George Benjamin was born in 1960. His father worked in publishing and his mother was a designer who founded a luxury gift store in London. Benjamin was attracted to music right away, but mainly pop music, like The Beatles. But when he saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia in 1966, he said he was “transfixed and overwhelmed, thrilled by [it]. When I got home I never listened to my pop records ever again. I was sort of, like, converted in a very radical way to classical music in just one afternoon.” He began playing the piano the following year and was composing by the age of nine. George Benjamin’s musical life would proverbially change when he was fifteen and introduced to Olivier Messiaen, the legendary French composer and organist known for his rhythmically and harmonically complex and innovative music. Benjamin soon began studying composition with Messiaen at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, commuting every month to sit in his class. He said Messiaen, “was the most wonderful, devoted, enthusiastic, and inspiring teacher; I loved and revered him and I owe him more than I can ever express.” He reveled in his studies with Messiaen and was soon making a name for himself as a talent to watch, and even procured a contract with the famed music publisher Faber when he was just sixteen years old. Benjamin continued his studies at King’s College, Cambridge and his first large orchestral work, Ringed by the Flat Horizon, took place at the famous London Proms when he was only twenty years old, making him the youngest composers ever to be performed there at the time.


While his musical career was launched with much fanfare, his musical output slowed as he got older, with slightly over two dozen published

compositions during his lifetime. Frequently, Benjamin likes to reinvent his musical language with each new composition, making the process that much more strenuous. It took Benjamin two and a half years to write Written on Skin. In an interview for the blog James Strecker Reviews the Arts, Benjamin shared this about his composition process, “I immerse myself in my work to a rather extreme degree. Once things begin, it’s very hard for me not to be inhabited by what I’m writing during all waking hours -and probably quite a few dreams too. A task as gigantic as an opera therefore requires uninterrupted concentration on the task in hand, so I virtually stop teaching, reduce my travelling to almost nil and refuse conducting engagements. The hope is to submerge oneself to such an extent that the compositional process begins to flow and, eventually snowball. Though onerous, it’s also a thrilling journey, watching the seasons pass as, scene by scene, the work expands.” Premiered in 2012 at the Aix-en-Provence opera festival, Written on Skin has garnered glowing international acclaim, frequently being described as a “masterpiece”, “spellbinding”, “haunting”, and “profound.” This production at Opera Philadelphia by Will Kerley marks the first new production of the opera in the United States and one of the few new productions internationally. The composer’s next opera, Lessons in Love and Violence, also a collaboration with Written on Skin librettist Martin Crimp, is scheduled to premiere in London in 2018.

WRITTEN ON SKIN Synopsis Set and Costume Designs by Tom Rogers

PART I Scene I: Chorus of Angels “Erase the Saturday car-park from the market place, fade out the living, snap back the dead to life.” A Chorus of Angels takes us back 800 years, to a time when every book is a precious object “written on skin.” They bring to life two of the story’s protagonists: the Protector, a wealthy and intelligent landowner “addicted to purity and violence,” and his obedient wife, his “property,” Agnès. One of the angels then transforms into the third protagonist, “the Boy,” an illuminator of manuscripts.

Agnès Scenes I & II

Scene II: The Protector, the Boy, and Agnès In front of his wife, the Protector asks the Boy to celebrate his life and good deeds in an illuminated book. It should show his enemies in Hell, and his own family in Paradise. As proof of his skill, the Boy shows the Protector a flattering miniature of a rich and merciful man. Agnès distrusts the Boy and is suspicious of the making of pictures, but the Protector overrules her and instructs her to welcome him into their house. Scene III: Chorus of Angels The Angels evoke the brutality of the biblical creation story, “invent man and drown him,” “bulldoze him screaming into a pit,” and its hostility to women, “invent her/strip her/blame her for everything.” Scene IV: Agnès and the Boy Without telling her husband, Agnès goes to the Boy’s workshop to find out “how a book is made.” The Boy shows her a miniature of Eve, but she laughs at it. She challenges the Boy to make a picture of a “real” woman, like herself, a woman with precise and recognizable features, a woman that he, the Boy, could sexually desire. Scene V: The Protector and the visitors, John and Marie As winter comes, the Protector broods about a change in his wife’s behavior. She hardly talks or eats, has started to turn her back to him Agnès Scenes III & IV in bed, and pretends to be asleep, but he knows she’s awake and can hear her eyelashes “scrape the pillow/like an insect.” When Agnès’s sister Marie arrives with her husband, John, she questions the enterprise of the book, and in particular the wisdom of inviting a strange Boy to eat at the family table with Agnès. The Protector emphatically defends both Boy and book, and threatens to exclude John and Marie from his property.


Scene VI: Agnès and the Boy The same night, when Agnès is alone, the Boy slips into her room to show her the picture she had asked for. At first she claims not to know what he means, but soon recognizes that the painted image of a sleepless woman in bed is a portrait of herself, her naked limbs tangled with the covers. As they examine the picture together, the sexual tension grows until Agnès offers herself to the Boy.

PART II SCENE VI - The Workshop - The Boy takes Agnès into the Workshop Scene VII: The Protector’s bad dream to show her what he has made. The Protector dreams not only that his people are rebelling against the expense of the book, but also, more disturbingly, that there are rumors of a secret page, “wet like a woman’s mouth,” where Agnès is shown “gripping the Boy in a secret bed.” Scene VIII: The Protector and Agnès The Protector wakes up from the dream and reaches out for his wife. She, however, is standing at the window watching black smoke in the distance, as the Protector’s men burn enemy villages. She asks her husband to touch and kiss her, but he’s disgusted at being approached in this way by his wife and repels her, saying that only her childishness can excuse her behavior. She angrily refuses to accept the label “child,” and tells him that if he wants to know the truth about her, he should go to the Boy: “Ask him what I am.” Scene IX: The Protector and the Boy The Protector finds the Boy in the wood “looking at his own reflection in the blade of a knife.” He demands to know the name of the woman who “screams and sweats with you/in a secret bed,” is it Agnès? The Boy, not wanting to betray Agnès, tells the Protector that he is sleeping with Agnès’s sister, Marie, and conjures up an absurd scene of Marie’s erotic fantasies. The Protector is happy to believe the Boy, and reports back to Agnès that the Boy is sleeping with “that whore your sister.” Scene X: Agnès and the Boy Believing that what her husband said is true, Agnès furiously accuses the Boy of betraying her. He explains he lied to protect her, but this only makes her more angry: it wasn’t to protect her, it was to protect himself. If he truly loves her then he should have the courage to tell the truth, and at the same time punish her husband for treating her like a child. She demands that the Boy, as proof of his fidelity, create a new, shocking image that will destroy her husband’s complacency once and for all. 20

Agnès Scenes X & XI

PART III Scene XI: The Protector, Agnès, and the Boy The Boy shows the Protector and Agnès some pages from the completed book, a sequence of atrocities that make the Protector increasingly impatient to see Paradise. The Boy is surprised: he claims that these are indeed pictures of Paradise here on earth; doesn’t the Protector recognize his own family and property? Agnès then asks to be shown Hell. The Boy gives her a page of writing. This frustrates Agnès because, as a woman, she hasn’t been taught to read. But the Boy goes, leaving Agnès and her husband alone with the “secret page.”

Agnès Scenes XII, XIV, & XV

Scene XII: The Protector and Agnès The Protector reads aloud the page of writing. In it the Boy describes in sensuous detail his relationship with Agnès. For the Protector, this is devastating, but for Agnès it is confirmation that the Boy has done exactly as she asked. Excited and fascinated by the writing, indifferent to his distress, she asks her husband to show her “the word for love.”

Scene XIII: Chorus of Angels and the Protector The Angels evoke the cruelty of a god who creates man out of dust only to fill his mind with conflicting desires and “make him ashamed to be human.” Torn between mercy and violence, the Protector goes back to the wood, and, “cutting one long clean incision through the bone,” murders the Boy. Scene XIV: The Protector and Agnès The Protector attempts to reassert control over Agnès. She is told what to say, what she may or may not call herself, and, sitting at a long dining table, is forced to eat the meal set in front of her to prove her “obedience.” The Protector repeatedly asks her how the food tastes and is infuriated by her insistence that the meal tastes good. He then reveals that she has eaten the Boy’s heart. Far from breaking her will, this provokes a defiant outburst in which Agnès claims that no possible act of violence, “not if you strip me to the bone with acid,” will ever take the taste of the Boy’s heart out of her mouth. Scene XV: The Boy/Angel 1 The Boy reappears as an Angel to present one final picture: in it, the Protector takes a knife to kill Agnès, but she prefers to take her own life by jumping from the balcony. The picture shows her as a falling figure forever suspended by the illuminator in the night sky, while three small angels painted in the margin turn to meet the viewer’s gaze.


AG N ÈS A Growing Sense of Self

Soprano Barbara Hannigan and Countertenor Bejun Mehta perform the roles of Agnès and the Angel 1/Boy in the Royal Opera House production of Written on Skin. Photo: Royal Opera House / Stephen Cummiskey

by Joanna Poses Written on Skin is a work that is deeply concerned with a woman’s growing sense of self. At the start of the opera, we learn some key pieces of information about Agnès—that she is intelligent, illiterate, childless, the property of her husband and that she was married at 14. What can we learn from these facts about the situation of women through the ages and what can we understand about the particular situation of a woman living in Medieval Europe? Of all the things we know about Agnès, it is, perhaps, the things that we know about her marriage that are most shocking to us from the point of view of the 21st century. Not only is this woman defined in relation to her husband, but she apparently has no agency over her own life. Her husband is defined as her “Protector,” but he understands and cares little about her inner life. Throughout the opera, she demonstrates curiosity 22

in the world beyond her home as well as the knowledge and culture that the Boy introduces into her home. Her husband is not interested in her curiosity, a quality that animates an individual’s mind. He demands her obedience, her acknowledgment that she is, indeed, his property. This would have been a typical expectation for a marriage of this period. A husband and wife were not expected to be equals within a marriage; a wife was expected to be submissive to her husband.1 These dynamics point to some key aspects of life in the Middle Ages. Women’s lives in Medieval Europe were circumscribed in various ways. The Catholic Church had consolidated power and the clergy’s ideas about women determined and restricted women’s behavior. (It is striking that religious men who lived in monasteries apart from women had so much influence over women’s lives.) The clergy’s thoughts about women were largely shaped by the stories of three Biblical women— Eve, Mary, and Mary Magdalene.2

Eve was regarded as a representative of woman’s evil nature and of death because her curiosity led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Mary, the virgin mother of Christ, was regarded as a representative of life, virtue and motherhood. Mary Magdalene, a sinful woman who repented before Christ, was regarded as the possibility for redemption. Against these religious archetypes which highlighted the values of the time, chastity was a priority. Women were commonly sorted into three groups—virgins, married women, and widows. Remember, any woman who had never married was expected to be a virgin, regardless of her age. Chastity would have been expected of virgins and widows, but it was also a value for married women who would balance the demands for procreation with chaste behavior and desires. Writers of the time emphasize a couple’s sexual obligations toward each other in terms of “conjugal chastity.”3 While these observers recognized the necessity of sex within marriage in order to provide offspring, they also stressed the importance of fidelity and moderation. There was a greater expectation of fidelity from wives than from husbands in order to protect the legitimacy of any children. Agnès therefore transgresses the values of her time in various ways. She is implicitly compared to Eve during her interactions with the Boy and she explores sexuality that is divorced from the procreative imperative. Agnès’s curiosity is not just sexual and her lack of education points to other realities of her time. Her inability to read and write would have been typical--indeed, few men of this period were literate. The opera does, however, compare sexual knowledge with other types of knowledge. Agnès’s growing attraction for the Boy is framed against her desire to learn about books and the allure of

images and words. (The opera also points to things that Agnès knows that the Boy does not; she taunts him that he does not know what a woman actually looks like. This might be an allusion to the fact that during the Middle Ages, there was still much that was unknown and misunderstood about women’s anatomy and biological functions.4) This conflation of different forms of knowledge clearly lived in the imagination of the Middle Ages. Though there were educational opportunities for high-born women and women who had taken religious vows, there was also resistance to the existence of educated women. An anonymous writer in 1438 accused Isotta Nogarola (regarded as the most learned woman of the century) of engaging in incest and proclaimed: “an eloquent woman is never chaste; and the behavior of many learned women also confirms this truth.”5 To be educated and to have scholarly ambitions left women like Nogarola susceptible to accusations of immoral behavior. This immorality was framed in terms of sexual impropriety; a knowledgeable woman was vulnerable to charges that she had the wrong kind of knowledge. Nogarola ultimately devoted herself to the safer realm of religious study. In Written on Skin we are presented with a woman who takes increasing control of her own life and decisions. She violates the rules and conventions of her time and she ultimately chooses her own escape from these constraints. In pursuing her desires, she points the way forward for later women who will have easier access to both education and equality within domestic relationships.

Vecchio, Silvana. “The Good Wife.” In A History of Women in the West: II. Silences of the Middle Ages. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, (ed). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 111-112. 1

Dalarun, Jacques. “The Clerical Gaze.” In A History of Women in the West: II. Silences of the Middle Ages. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, (ed). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992. 2

Vecchio, Silvana. “The Good Wife.” In A History of Women in the West: II. Silences of the Middle Ages. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, (ed). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 112-113. 3

Thomasseet, Claude. “The Nature of Woman.” In A History of Women in the West: II. Silences of the Middle Ages. Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, (ed). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992. 4


Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, pg. 31.


T H E S O U N D S O F PA S T A N D F U T U R E George Benjamin's Instrumentation BASS VIOL The ancestor of the cello is the bass viol. The bass viol was a popular instrument in Europe from the early sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century. Although the cello and the bass viol may look similar they have several distinct differences. The cello has four strings; the bass viol has six. The bass viol has frets on its neck, like a guitar. The modern cello’s strings are made of metal, a bass viol’s strings are made from animal gut. This gives the bass viol a softer sound. by Maria Ryan Since the very first operas in the early seventeenth century composers have experimented with using different instruments to accompany singers. As opera has developed certain traditions have evolved: at an opera we may expect to hear violins and other string instruments, as well as woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments found in the orchestra. However, because opera is an inherently dramatic form, many composers look beyond the instruments of the orchestra for instruments that can create specific effects. In Written on Skin, composer George Benjamin uses some unusual instruments in unexpected ways. The following article is a guide to some of the sounds you may hear coming out of the orchestra pit when you see Written on Skin at the Academy of Music.

We first hear the bass viol in Scene VI, where we find Agnès alone. She is soon joined by the Boy, who shows her an illustrated page of a house in winter. Throughout this scene we hear the bass viol playing very high in its tessitura giving it an eerie sound. Listen here:


SOUNDS OF THE PAST In Written on Skin, the past and the present are collapsed onto one other. We see the medieval world of the Protector and Agnès through the device of a group of angels retelling their story. George Benjamin uses several instruments in the opera that may remind the audience of the sounds of the past, and even the supernatural elements of the narrative.


The glass harmonica (also known as armonica) was invented by Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century. The instrument is a series of nestled glass bowls of various sizes that are rotated through use of a pedal. It produces its sound by the player running her dampened fingers over the rotating rims of the vibrating glasses. The glass harmonica creates an otherworldly, piercing sound. The glass harmonica has long been associated with madness. It was rumored

that the lead rims of the glasses caused the player to be poisoned, leading to hallucinations. The glass harmonica was famously used in the mad scene of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. The glass harmonica plays throughout the opera, but is perhaps most clear at the beginning of Scene XV, the final scene of the opera just after Agnès has tasted the Boy’s heart. The scene opens with a solo glass harmonica. Why do you think George Benjamin chooses to use a glass harmonica at this moment? Listen here:

FOUND OBJECTS We expect to hear certain instruments in an orchestra, for example, violins, woodwind instruments, and brass instruments. In Written on Skin you will also hear some sounds that are created by things that are not designed as musical instruments. There is a long tradition of composers using found objects to create unusual sonic effects in their music. Found objects can be from the natural or the man-made world. TYPEWRITER

In 2017 we are used to the somewhat muted sound of typing on laptops or tablets. However, for most of the twentieth century mechanical typewriters were the most common technology for typing. Typewriters produce printed letters through the typist hitting heavy keys that strike a ribbon that impresses ink onto paper. Typing on a typewriter creates a distinctive percussive tapping sound. Benjamin is not the first composer to use

a typewriter in a stage work. One hundred years ago, the ballet Parade (1917) with music by Erik Satie included noise-making instruments such as a typewriter, milk bottles, and even a siren. The typewriter can be heard in Scene XI when the Boy is showing the Protector some pages from the book (listen from when the Boy says “here are your cherry trees”). The typewriter accompanies the Boy singing about Marie at the shopping mall and John at the airport – contemporary things that are beyond the Protector’s experience. The score instructs the percussionist to do “fast, random typing,” perhaps to reinforce the Protector’s confusion and incomprehensibility of the technologies of the future. Listen here:

PEBBLES The percussion score for Written on Skin instruct the percussionist to find “pebbles (2 pairs – small and large).” Pebbles are small rocks whose edges have been made smooth through erosion. Their smoothness and small size mean that they are ideal percussion instruments – easily held in the hand, and making a pleasing sharp sound when struck against each other. By calling for two different sized pairs of pebbles the percussionist can create both high and lower pitched sounds. The pebbles can be heard in the climactic scene where the Protector forces Agnès to eat the Boy’s heart (Scene XIV ). Listen for the pebbles in the instrumental section while Agnès is eating. The percussionist creates clacking sounds by striking the pebbles against each other, perhaps to imitate the biting of teeth. You can also listen for the cellos playing col legno creating a similar percussive effect. Listen here: 25

EXTENDING THE ORCHESTRA Different cultures have developed different musical instruments. Most of the instruments in the orchestra developed in Europe, although instruments from throughout the world share certain commonalities. In Written on Skin, George Benjamin uses several instruments that are typically not used in an opera orchestra, thus extending the sounding possibilities of the opera. MANDOLIN


The tabla is a small pair of tuned hand-drums from South Asia. Playing the tabla requires a lot of skill as the player uses the movements of his hands and fingers to change the pitch and tone color of the drum. In his score George Benjamin calls for two sets of three mini-tabla, to be tuned very high. The mini tablas are played at the end of Scene IX when the Protector narrates his delight in choosing to believe that the Boy is having an affair with Marie not Agnès. Two percussionists play soft, insistent rhythms with their fingers.

The mandolin is a small guitar-like instrument with frets that is plucked with the fingers or a plectrum. Although it is rarely heard in orchestras, it has been popular for informal music-making for the last four hundred years. In Written on Skin the two first violins double on mandolin. The mandolin is first heard in Scene II, where the Boy shows the Protector an example of his illumination. The mandolin is heard at the same time as the harp. Listen out for the particular “twangy” sound of the mandolin, which sounds more metallic and piercing than the violin family or the harp. We hear the mandolin again at the beginning of Scene XI, where the Boy is once again showing the Protector a page from the manuscript. Why do you think Benjamin chooses to use the mandolin at moments where the characters are looking at the book? Listen here: 26

Listen here:

GLOSSARY col legno a direction to string players to strike the string with the wood of the bow, not with the hair. frets strips of material (gut, cord, or metal) across the fingerboard of a string instrument that indicate the length of string needed for a certain note. mad scene a scene in an opera where a usually female character displays that she is having a mental collapse. Mad scenes often demonstrate the virtuosity of the singer. orchestra pit the area of the theater in front of and below the stage where the orchestra performs from. The orchestra pit allows the conductor to see the singers on stage and the musicians to remain hidden without disrupting the audience’s view tessitura a term that indicates the position of certain notes in relation to a voice or instrument’s complete range.

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generous grant from The Annenberg Foundation. Dedicated funding for the Sounds of Learning™ program has been provided by:

THE WILLIAM PENN FOUNDATION WALLY LOEB Wells Fargo Hamilton Family Foundation Universal Health Services Deluxe Corporation Foundation Eugene Garfield Foundation The Hirsig Family Fund of the Philadelphia Foundation The McLean Contributionship Louis N. Cassett Foundation Victory Foundation

Written and produced by: Opera Philadelphia Community Initiatives Department © 2018 1420 Locust Street, Suite 210 Philadelphia, PA, 19102 Tel: 215.893.5925 Michael Bolton Vice President of Community Initiatives Steven Humes Education Manager Veronica Chapman-Smith Community Initiatives Administrator Katie Kelley Graphic Designer Special thanks to: Frank Machos Executive Officer, Office of Arts & Academic Enrichment School District of Philadelphia The Office of Strategic Partnerships School District of Philadelphia Dr. Dan Darigan Benton Hess Joanna Poses Dr. Lily Kass Maria Ryan Curriculum Consultants

Opera Philadelphia is supported by major grants from The William Penn Foundation, the Wyncote Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Additional support is provided by the Independence Foundation and the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. Opera Philadelphia receives state arts funding support through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Support provided in part by the Philadelphia Cultural Fund.

Dr. Bettie Joyner Kleckley Dr. Nanci Ritter Program Evaluators Maureen Lynch Operations Manager, Academy of Music Frank Flood Assistant Operations Manager, Academy of Music Cornell Wood Head Usher, Academy of Music Academy of Music Ushers




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