Wild Things


“And let the wild rumpus start!”

The words of Max, the young hero of Oliver Knussen’s opera “Wild Things” based on Maurice Sendak’s book, as sung by soprano Claire Booth at the opera’s golden section, part of the Knussen opera double bill at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival.

Oliver Knussen (above). Photograph David Sillitoe. 

Claire’s determination to have these opera’s put on was the spark that lit the fire of this astonishingly fab production designed and directed by Netia Jones who has brought Sendak’s illustrations to life with projected animations.

It has taken her 4 years of solid work to realise this concept after Sendak (renowned for being prickly with people he didn’t know) gave her the go ahead:

“I like you and I trust you. Go where your imagination takes you.”

Maurice Sendak (left)

Here’s her own Guardian account of meeting Sendak.

One can only imagine how complex the technology is behind this show. Characters interact with animations: Max appears to throw a teddy bear across the stage, Wild Things follow his movements with their eyes, a nurse-eating lion tries to eat an onstage dog, a pig talks, a giant baby frowns in disgust, a cat milkman gives the leading lady a lift in his truck across the stage.

Sendak’s cover for “Where the Wild Things Are”.

It’s utterly convincing and a fantastic solution to the huge furry costumes that dogged (if you’ll pardon the expression) the opera’s first outings.

Visionary Chief Exec. of Aldeburgh Music, Jonathan Reekie (below), has yet again worked  miracles and made it happen. He should be given a really, really grand and sparkly international prize for his efforts. 

Anyone who has yet to visit the spectacular Snape Maltings and host of fantastic new studios and performance spaces that Jonathan has somehow brought about must dash over immediately. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Aldeburgh Music has interesting and diverse programme of music all year round, fantastic creative residency programmes (which I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of) and world class training courses for musicians.

The famous Snape Maltings concert hall (below left) and some of the surrounding art spaces (right) hidden amidst the spectacular Suffolk landscape. 

It’s mind boggling to think that Olly (as he’s universally known) Knussen wrote “Wild Things” at the age of 27. The music is exquisitely crafted with kaleidoscopic instrumental colour; exciting, daring and deeply moving. I start sobbing in the beautiful horn solo that marks Max’s dream passage by boat back home. I’m not the only one.

There are far better descriptions of this production and Olly’s music in general in a deluge of recent articles and blogs including that of Tom Service in the Guardian:

“Oliver Knussen’s music packs as much incident and expression into mere minutes than some composers manage in a lifetime”

and of distinguished tenor, Christopher Gillett:

“I reckon that during a lifetime you might be lucky enough to meet one person you could safely call a genius…… I think I’ve been lucky enough to meet and even work with two. One is Carlos Kleiber ….. and the other, who I hold even above Kleiber on the genius front, is sixty today. He is Oliver Knussen. Olly. The Olster, Master of All Things Ol.”

Multi-talented Chris (click here to check out his wonderful writing and photography) is married to the fabulous Lucy Schaufer who stars as Jennie the Dog in the second opera of the double bill, Higglety Pigglety Pop!. She gives me a vivid description of what it’s like trying to sing this demanding role wearing 3 massive sheepskins over padded body suit plus full dog headwear.

Impossibly handsome and talented conductor/composer/pianist Ryan Wigglesworth (right)

It feels like a good moment to mention the glittering cast of the operas, which included  Susanna Andersson, Susan Bickley, Claire Booth, Lucy Schaufer, Graeme Broadbent, Graeme Danby, Jonathan Gunthorpe,Christopher Lemmings and Charlotte McDougall.

Negotiating the complex score were the ever-classy Britten Sinfonia led by star violinist Jacqueline Shave and conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth who has been 2-timing the Knussen double-bill by somehow managing to carve an ENO prod of Glanert’s “Caligula” in the same week.

When I asked him what he does to relax he tells me that he has recently become interested in horse training.

Romantic scene from the film Brokeback Mountain (2005) adapted from the short story of same title by Annie Proulx. Read on for context.

Speaking of which, I learn with some hysteria that hard core 12 tone maximalist American composer Charles Wuorinen (right)  has written an opera based on Brokeback Mountain. I leave you to imagine the libretto for yourselves.

Compared to its voluptuous predecessor, the music of Higglety Pigglety Pop! (1985) is pared right down, glowing with clarity.  Every word pings above the luminous instrumental textures, harmonic colours glow with overtones. Classic Knussen jewel-case craftsmanship.

This time I break down at the closing sequence of repeated mini operas within an opera. It creates a strange sense of continuum, transcendence. As the audience breaks into thunderous applause we see Netia’s final projection:

For Maurice

Maurice Sendak 1928 – 2012

10th June 1928 – 8th May 2012

Composer Julian Anderson, who incidentally has written a brilliant series of articles on Olly’s music, interviewed Olly later the same day about he and Sendak first met. The story is incredible, but true.

A keen lover of classy story book illustrations, Olly first discovered Sendak’s drawings by accident in a bookshop one day, and immediately liked what he saw.

“Czar Sultan” (c. 1907) by Pushkin, illustration by Ivan Bilibin, a hero of Olly’s.

Two weeks later whilst at the famous Tanglewood Summer School in New England, home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a friend of a friend walked up to him and asked him if he’d be interested in setting any of Maurice Sendak’s books to music? And then handed him Sendak’s phone number. 

“What’s the greatest children’s opera?” was Sendak’s opening line at their first meeting. Deciding to avoid the more obvious “Hansel and Gretel” answer, Olly opted for “Boris Godunov”.

“Correct” said Sendak, and a lifetime’s friendship and artistic collaboration was sealed.

Olly once asked Sendak what he thought of the illustrations of Arthur Rackham (left). Sendak replied (perhaps harshly) that he was the Charlton Heston (right) of illustrators: the first thing one notices is that it’s a Rackham, rather than the picture itself.

One can only marvel at Sendak’s intuitive genius at singling out a relatively unknown 23 year old British composer to turn his famous “Wild Things” into an opera.

It’s as though he’s taken it and musically pictured … one step beyond what I’ve done… He’s carried it into another generation … He has moved it into his time, but with an authenticity and truthfulness that I feel.”         Sendak on Knussen

Interestingly, the composer observed what a great writer for voices Sendak is. (Sendak wrote the libretto, in case I didn’t mention it before).

There were hilarious accounts of the disastrous first production, with its out of control dry ice machine and impossibly cumbersome monster costumes that made the singers violently angry and then pass out from heat exhaustion.

Apparently there were grumbles about the opera being too complex for children. “Though we never had complaints from the kids”, said Olly. As Sendak remarked, “Children are the only reasonably sane audience”.


Julian also asked Olly about his close friend, composer Toru Takemitsu (left).

“He had a very unusual way of looking at music, at things”, said Olly, and then proceeded to tell us about “Toru”’s reaction on seeing the spectacular Fourth Bridge near Edinburgh:

“Edgar Valese!” he cried.

There were a great many cracking stories in this all-too-short talk, but one of my faves concerns Takemitsu’s meeting with the aging Pablo Casals. Here it is as related by Olly in Takemitsu’s voice:

TT: “Do you rike contempolaly music?”

“Like contempolaly music veeely much” say maestro.

TT: “Which contemporlaly music like best?”

“Cesar Flanck.”

The 48 hours following my landing from Denmark were pretty intense. The night before the operas, I heard Olly conduct the Scottish Chamber Orch playing Ives, Berg, Stravinsky and Goehr, with solo piano played by another lifelong friend and colleague of Olly’s, Peter Serkin, for whom he is currently writing a piano concerto.

Peter Serkin.

This man has just changed my life. He is without question the greatest pianist I have EVER heard live, and a musician of transcendental power, wisdom and ability.

He manages to play the piano with multiple voices that stretch over long melodic arcs as if by different lengths of elastic. It sounds orchestrated. Chords released note by note, individual NOTES release by degrees. It’s spell binding.

Ryan tells me he’s using the flutter pedalling technique beloved of his father’s teacher Busoni, whose favourite piano exercises for students included playing super legato long lines with one finger only, joined by infinitesimally subtle pedalling.

When asked about Liszt (left)’s controversial 12345, 12345 fingering in his piano music, Serkin replied that it’s a perfectly decent solution. “The thumb under is overrated”,  he says.

Father, pianist Rudolf Serkin; grandfather, violinist Adolf Busch, Peter Serkin is of the bluest musical blood. After the matinee opera double bill and talk, he gives a solo recital of pieces by Goehr, Wuoronin, Olly and Beethoven.

The Diabelli Variations.

Thank God I’ve spent years practising meditation. It helped me follow this extraordinary performance through to the end. As one inspired Irish Times critic said of the performance: ‘Serkin demands as much of his audience as he does of himself”.

He took incredible risks with the performance, pushing musical expression to its limits. Yet again that day I found myself in tears.

Manuscript of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, written between 1819-1823

If I try to explain my reaction to Greethoven it will be embarrassing, but what the hell, I’m going to try. It’s as if this great soul is trying to address the very nature of existence itself via every single possible pathway using the abstract medium of sound; through logic, philosophy, intuition, passion, grace, the gamut of emotions, ultimately finding a state that transcends the lot.

There, told you it would be embarrassing.

In case I didn’t mention it before, all these wonderful concerts are part of Olly’s 60th birthday year celebrations. If Al Quaeda had suddenly decided to bomb Aldeburgh’s magnificent Lighthouse restaurant (left) during his birthday dinner, British music would have suffered severe losses.

Many lifelong friends of Olly’s were present, including composers Mark Turnage, Colin Matthews, Simon Bainbridge (Olly’s only composer rival in height) and George Benjamin who has taken precious days out from his new opera “Written On Skin” about to premiere in Aix en Provence.

Aldeburgh beach

Also present were some of the new generation of UK composers including Tansy Davies, whose piano concerto Olly just premiered with the BCMG and composer Huw Watkins on piano, also there with wife, composer Helen Grime.

Benjamin Britten’s former nurse also showed up. I didn’t ask her any tricky questions except “red or white?”

Managing Director of Faber Music, Richard King, gave an impassioned and emotional speech about Olly, describing him as one of the all-time giants of music. He wasn’t just referring to his Viking stature.

Julian Anderson’s final question to Olly in his earlier talk concerned the future of classical music in our society.

Following this line of thought, but detouring for just a mo, composer Thomas Adés told me that he’s just met the Queen:

“I was momentarily lost for words and she almost moved on, but she turned back and said,

“Music is important”

Writer and journalist Philip Hensher, who didn’t get to meet the Queen as he was caught up in a conversation with author A.S. Byatt  in the adjoining room, recently wrote a sobering article in the Indy entitled, “Will no one mourn the death of classical music?” at a time when British music is largely represented by X factor finalists. 

Olly’s response to this most serious of questions, like Serkin’s piano playing, lifted us above the mire to see the bigger picture. It went something like this:

“The term classical music has been completely devalued and has now come to be associated with guests on breakfast TV who are everything about how it looks, and nothing about the thing itself. I would now prefer to call it “Art Music,” if you can forgive the elitist undertone.

Contemporary classical music is in the process of being completely disenfranchised.

It didn’t occur to me that music wasn’t the most important thing in the world until some cruel schoolteacher told me so at the age of 9.

Yes, economics are important in the short term, but real music must survive, always. I now realise that it’s everything else that’s expendable and I will continue to do what I do until I snuff it.”

Hear, hear.

Happy Birthday, Olly.

Stay tuned for the next episode of Z-Blog…