Tim Benjamin

composer, writer, storyteller

Le gâteau d’anniversaire


Le gâteau d’anniversaire is a one act comic opera for three voices and piano or ensemble, commissioned by CNIPAL and first performed at the Opéra de Marseille on 18th March 2010 (two performances). It was subsequently performed on a short tour by Radius in a different production.

With a text in French, Le gâteau d’anniversaire is an allegorical comedy about an artisan baker, Louis, who falls asleep dreaming of all the kinds of bread he can make. In his dreams, he is attacked by two phantoms, Marie and Antoinette, who tell him he must make cake, which he abhors. He drives them away by reciting the Déclaration des droits de l'Homme, but they eventually behead him! At length he wakes up from his nightmare, only to discover that he has forgotten to bake a birthday cake for his twin daughters, Olympe and Theroigne.


  • Louis (bass-baritone)

  • Marie / Phantôme (soprano)

  • Antoinette / Phantôme (mezzo-soprano)


The first performance was given by CNIPAL, with Elodie Kimmel (soprano), Ai Wu (mezzo-soprano), Geoffroy Buffiere (bass), and Nina Uhari (piano).

A 2010 tour by Radius included Laura Sheerin (soprano), Emma Hall (mezzo-soprano), Jonathan Ainscough (baritone), and Jamie Thompson (piano), and was directed by Rebecca Lea.

From the Radius production of 'Le gâteau'
From the Radius production of 'Le gâteau'

About the opera

Le gâteau d’anniversaire was conceived as a theatrical investigation of two subjects. First, the oppression of, and liberation from, accepted convention and custom (why must we all declare our love on St Valentine’s Day? Why must we all send cards at Christmas to those we otherwise ignore?). Secondly, the power of the subconscious to influence the conscious self through the medium of dreams. While we are asleep, we are free from custom and public displays of conservatism and convention.

I chose to combine these two subjects in a farcical comedy combining linguistic puns with poking some fun at the sometimes pompous and self-absorbed traits of the serious bread enthusiast (or “paniphile”).

The power and functional capability of dreams, or the subconscious in general, is of particular interest to me as a composer. Many of my recent works have been concerned with the expression of the subconscious (guilt, death, and sex in Mrs Lazarus; institutionalisation and self-identity in The Rosenhan Experiment; paranoia and perception in The Corley Conspiracy) and Le gâteau follows in this line of works.

Problems that dog us in waking hours often meld and merge in sleeping hours to form a bizarre stream of (sub)consciousness in our dreams. When we wake, the solution to problems can crystallise from the incoherence of our dreams – or sometimes, things forgotten to our conscious selves are remembered by our subconscious.

Following the early interpretations of Freud and Jung, dreams are now thought to be continuous with waking behaviour – if you are outgoing and extrovert while awake, then you will tend to be the same in your dreams. The idea that dreams exist to solve problems, however, has relatively little scientific support, despite famous anecdotes such as that of Elias Howe: Struggling to invent a machine to sew fast and efficiently, Howe fell asleep at his workbench one night and dreamt he was chased by cannibals with spears that had holes in the points. When he woke, he realised that if he used a needle with a hole in the tip, his sewing machine would be viable – and to this day, sewing machines have just such a needle. This sensation is familiar to me as a composer: frequently, an intractable episode in a new piece will be resolved while I sleep, and I often awake to find the solution ready-formed in my mind.

Such “problem solving” aspects to dreams reflect the Jungian archetype of the “shadow” and its creative and gift-giving aspects and are reflected in my new work. The character of the baker Louis is consistent through his dreaming and waking self, but his world is in shadow or inversion, in which he is tormented to give up his singular passion, and his beloved sisters become terrifying apparitions.

I chose to present such deep subjects through a comedy or farce based on the famous (yet apocryphal) quotation of Marie Antoinette to “let them eat cake” when hearing that the public had no bread. In English, the distinction between “cake” and “bread” is clear, but in French there is a finer difference between “brioche” and “pain”. Nonetheless, after meeting several friends so obsessed with breadmaking that they gave names to their sourdough starters, I decided that this, together with the traditional figure of the comic baker would provide a good vehicle for a comedy and narrative for my more serious material. There are several musical jokes (for example, the incongruous resounding C-major chords under the words “pain ordinaire”…). A further level to the comedy is provided through the use of the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du citoyen, and the subsequent transformation of the apparitions Marie and Antoinette into Olympe de Gouges and Théroigne de Méricourt, with whom we recall the satirical Déclaration des droits de la femme, and its invocation: “Femme, réveille-toi!”


30 minutes


soprano, mezzo-soprano, bass-baritone, piano


A recording of a performance by Laura Sheerin, Emma Hall, Jonathan Ainscough, and Jamie Thompson.

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If you would like to see a score and/or require a set of parts for this music, please contact me.