Masetto and Zerlina – a young immigrant couple – are impoverished, cold, and starving. Masetto, a brilliant portrait artist, is being ripped off by his unscrupulous agent, and circling art collectors will not take “no” for an answer.
Shivering in a shabby loft, struggling to make ends meet, and exploited by the wealthy and powerful collectors Lady Brannoch and Mr Wilmore, Masetto lives for his art, protected only by his muse and love, Zerlina. Their plight becomes increasingly perilous, desperate, and deadly, until at last: revenge.
‘Madame X’ is a new opera by Tim Benjamin, inspired by the Italian operas of Handel and by Jacobean revenge drama. This dark, passionate and obsessive tale is peppered with black humour and explores the potent combination of money and power in the world of art.
I asked composer Tim Benjamin to tell us more about the genesis of his new opera:
What is the inspiration behind Madame X?
Madame X is a tale of skulduggery in the world of art, specifically portrait-painting. It is created in the style of the Jacobean (and Elizabethan) “revenge” dramas, of which the necessary ingredients included a dastardly plot, a murder, a ghostly visitation, and a gory revenge preferably taking in the entire cast. My opera (I also wrote the libretto) makes the most of these ingredients, finding a lot of fun in them too: it’s not “tragedy” in a particularly sad or weepy sense – though it has its moments! – indeed there’s a fair bit of comedy in the plot.
‘Madame X’ is the name of a painting by John Singer Sargent. Has this painting had any direct or indirect influence on your work?
The Portrait of Madame X by Sargent has an interesting background: Sargent and a notorious young socialite, Virginie Gautreau, collaborated to produce something of a publicity stunt for both of them. In the event it back-fired, the painting (today considered a masterful study) shocked and scandalised, and had a poor public and critical reception; Gautreau was humiliated and Sargent permanently left Paris to move to London.
Now, while interesting, that isn’t the story of my opera Madame X, but it is one of the many fascinating stories behind now-famous artists and their works that form the essence of the plot of the opera.
Madame X (the opera, not the painting) features a brilliant but impoverished artist, Masetto, and his lover and muse, Zerlina, who are exploited by characters that represent various forces that have shaped the history of art: Mr Wilmore is an American capitalist (“new money” and art-as-investment), Lady Brannoch is an aristocrat of Old Europe (“old money” and patronage), Botney is a double-dealing agent, and The Public who are … the public, featured at play, often drunkenly, and at church; alcohol and religion are, of course, both major influences in the world of art.
The character Masetto only ever speaks (well, sings) the titles of famous paintings. We, the listener, and the other characters on stage must interpret his meaning from these titles. One of these utterances is, naturally, “Madame X…” – but this happens at a key moment in the plot, which I won’t spoil here, so you’ll have to come and see it to find out why!
What are your key musical inspirations in creating this opera?
The sharp-eyed reader will have spotted that Masetto and Zerlina are characters from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and that opera is an influence or inspiration for this. The plot is (very) loosely similar; one could say that the equivalent of the Don in Mozart is “Money”and the women that he pursues are “Art” in Madame X. The primary musical influence is however Handel, specifically his Italian operas (Giulio Cesare, Cerce, Rinaldo, Rodelinda…).
Just as there are numerous references to famous paintings in the libretto, there are references to famous movements in classical (and not so classical) music in the score. Not quotations as such, and not pastiche, but what I might call adaptations or “re-tellings”. These encompass not just Handel, but also composers from Mozart to Britten, and more.
There are one or two quite specific musical references; for example I have used a motif from Beethoven’s final piano sonata which (at least according to Mann’s ‘Faustus’) represents “Fare-thee-well”, as it does also in my opera.
The strong Baroque musical influence is also reflected in the small orchestra, which features a harpsichord (doubling chamber organ), and naturally this prominent sound strongly shapes the overall feel of the piece. The part is not written (as in Handel) in figured bass – as that would pose more than a few challenges given the constantly-shifting harmonic (albeit often tonal) landscape of my score – it is fully written out, but still requires the player to conjure up the essence of semi-improvisatory Baroque performance.
What/who do you think art is for? (!)
From the point of view of who? We all have our own function for art, and these functions seldom if ever coincide with the intentions of the original artist. Take Mona Lisa for example – it is one of the most visited paintings in the world, and it has been used to sell everything from crisps to coffee to software to Lego to headphones to airlines! But none of that was the intention of Leonardo, who was simply commissioned to produce a portrait of the wife of a wealthy silk merchant. So what is Mona Lisa for? For tourists to queue up and look at? For ad-men to sell with? For silk merchants to show off their money and wives? A store of cultural capital and prestige for the French Republic? Or for a jobbing portrait-painter to earn a crust?
All of these, and more, are “functions” of this particular work of art, and every other work of art to differing extents, and all of these are addressed in Madame X, especially when they brush up against each other and cause conflict. My character Masetto is an archetypical artist, and while he might just take each job as it comes and do the minimum that is required to satisfy the client, he also has his own motives, and it is the expression of these motives that transform a merely functional commission into a great work of art.
To relate this back to music, Stravinsky is reputed to have said that the key to being a successful composer was to think what you want to write next, and then persuade someone to commission it! This is quite the opposite to what the silk merchant might have expected when he hired Leonardo, but perhaps the artist had a vision of an enigmatic smile, and all he needed was to find a wealthy patron, with a suitably beautiful wife, to pay him to paint it…
MADAME X, the new opera by Tim Benjamin, is featured in the 2014 Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre, London, 25th, 26th, and 27th August.