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But what is it?

By Tim Benjamin  |  July, 2014 (written for the tour programme for the opera Madame X)


“What is Art?” – I am sure many of us have chewed over this intractable question.

In Madame X, I attempt to address the question by putting it slightly differently: “What is art for?” The question has been famously addressed by Oscar Wilde, who concluded that all art is “quite useless” – and the more useless, the better it is.

In addition to Masetto (a painter) and Zerlina (his lover), there are three major characters who exploit art (via Masetto): Mr Wilmore (representing “new money” or perhaps the “new world”), Lady Brannoch (representing “old money” and the “old world”), and Botney, who is much more temporal, representing commerce, business, and corruption. We also have “the public”, represented by two couples, who come to see Masetto’s exhibition and make all the kinds of comments that one overhears in art galleries (and during the interval at the opera…), the kind of comments that make your toes curl, your hackles rise, or your coffee come out of your nose.

All of these characters are “users” or consumers of art, exploiting art for their own ends and viewing and interpreting it through their own eyes, with their own agenda.

The painter, too, is another “user” of his own art: why does the artist create art? My character Masetto only ever speaks (sings) the titles of well-known paintings (“The Laughing Cavalier”, “Liberty Leading The People”, etc). Why? Well, we (along with the on-stage characters) are then forced to interpret Masetto, in a similar way to how we instinctively try to interpret paintings and music, whether or not those works are intended to be interpreted, even, and inevitably contrary to any intention of the artist creator.

The only character in the opera who is not a “user” of art is Zerlina. That’s because she’s the subject of all the art in the opera: Masetto is incapable of depicting anyone else. This has far-reaching consequences as the plot unfolds to its grisly climax…

As an opera “about art”, I began with high art and specifically painting because when you say “art” to people, they immediately think of paintings. Of course, they then start to think of all the other types of art, and then you end up arguing about “what is art?”, and if you are really lucky you then argue the question “what is music?”.

In Madame X, I have used a wide variety of musical starting-points, in a similar way to Masetto’s use of famous paintings. You might spot Don Giovanni instantly from the names of Masetto and Zerlina, but the dominant musical influence is that of the Baroque. In particular, I have re-visited that era’s “doctrine of affections”, the principle of using well-known reference points to trigger an “affective state” or Affekt in the listener, and to play with these Affekte to do something unexpected, to trip up the listener and reveal something new.

It’s not just the Baroque in Madame X, though: in addition to Handel, Purcell, and Dowland, you’ll perhaps also be reminded of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss (J and R!), Britten, and others, including much more recent music. After all, no tour through the history of art can be complete without visiting the avant-garde!

These musical touch-stones are familiar, and that’s the point: we think we know them, and what they mean, although really we don’t and in truth we can never know them. The illusion of being on firm ground is a ripe opportunity for me as a composer to play on and subvert expectation, to use the essence of “affect” in new ways. This also allows me to build up many layers of meaning in the opera: on the surface, the music is playful and apparently recognisable, but beneath lurk symbols both familiar and new, ultimately, perhaps, to shed some light on the question of art’s purpose.


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