Northern maestro Tim Benjamin on inspirations behind dark ‘bitesize’ operas

In the 22 years that have passed since RNCM graduate Tim Benjamin – adopted northerner, entrepreneur and musical prodigy – won the BBC’s coveted Young Musician of the Year Composer’s Award at the tender age of 17, everything has changed.

He’s gone on to forge his own path in a notoriously challenging industry; speaking at TED conferences, writing film scores, and setting up a scholarship for young composers.

And next week he launches his newest work promoting classical music to the northern masses.

Life Stories, a double-bill of dark drama from two short stories by Chekhov and Anthony Peter, will see the pair of one-act operas exhibited to a range of northern audiences for a ‘boiled down full opera experience’.

MM caught up with Tim before the show opens on July 1 at the RNCM to chat about why opera matters, how the north has influenced his music and why people don’t go into the arts for the money.

“The new show isn’t written in a patronising way, but I really like the short format,” explained Tim.

“It’s a bit like short films – people watch them because they present one thing in a succinct way. And that’s what I’m trying to get at with this piece of theatre.

“Each of the two stories is a little bit longer than an episode of EastEnders, but it’s the same amount of drama in the same amount of time.

“It’s not that people don’t like to concentrate for long amount of time, but people want to watch something that’s a similar length to a TV programme, something they can take in one go.

“Think of it as very much like short stories with a twist at the end. For a first opera they’re perfect, and the music’s very nice!”

TED MEETS TIM: The composer recently gave a TEDx talk on inspirationand how to harness it

The first story, Rest in Peace, is set in Moscow of the future, and is based on the Chekhov story of a homeless man reflecting on his life.

Uniquely, it is told entirely from snippets of speech from the protagonist’s life from birth to death.

And before the final judgement is made, we as the audience are addressed personally in a combination of humour and tragedy set against the atmospheric soundscape of music drawing influence from Purcell.

“At the end, he gets a terminal illness and dies,” Tim added.

“It sounds bleak but he’s got some ups and downs and it’s quite comic because he’s lived quite a boisterous life!

“But it does have a serious side to it. The aim’s to get people thinking about how homeless people get to be where they are, rather than our normal thought process of simply where they’re going.”

Speaking about his past and inspirations for choosing a story based on homelessness, Tim recalled one particularly distinct childhood memory which helped shape his choice.

“My dad was a vicar growing up and we used to regularly get this camp come to visit us,” he said.

“I remember one visually striking person in long clothes, Mr Watson the tramp.

He was raggedy and would stand outside lecturing whoever would listen – and many times to nobody at all – on random things.

“I was frightened but I realised essentially he was telling stories from his past, and some of his mannerisms have been passed on.

I never really wondered how he ended up like that but something must have happened to him.”

The second opera, Silent Jack, tells the story (loosely based on a historical character) of a woman born into a wealthy family but whose tale turns sour as everything around her falls apart.

“Her dashing soldier husband invests in the 18th century South Sea Bubble but loses the money and runs off with a servant girl,” explained Tim.

“In order to make ends meet she becomes a highwaywoman, but one who can never speak for fear of being outed as woman.

“And it all ends with the twist of her robbing the stagecoach with her ex-husband inside! That’s got all the ups and downs of the complexities of how they came to be dispossessed, and the interesting ways they came to be.

“Admittedly, it’s a slightly strange story in that it’s only told through things that have been said, but I thought it’d lend itself well to the stage.”

As Life Stories set of operas is due to tour across the north west before heading down to London, MM asked Tim whether he felt we normally get a raw deal when it comes to the arts in this part of the country.

“It’s true to an extent. After all, the country’s two biggest opera companies are in London,” he said.

“But there’s so much good quality opera in the north. It is there, but in terms of the money, it doesn’t get what London does. With London’s opera companies having two execs on more than £150k each, we certainly don’t have that.

“But what we are good at is making a small arts council grant go a long way – while keeping the same production values!”

Tim, who lives in Todmorden, a little market town in West Yorkshire, said he loves to play unusual and intimate venues.

“In my home town we’ve got a wonderful Edwardian theatre, which sounds great with unamplified music.

“Recently we put on the first opera here in a hundred years and people got a taste for it and now come back for our shows. As soon as you give it to them full-blooded, with no compromises, people like it.”

After graduating from the Royal Northern College of Music with a first-class honours, Tim spent many of his formative years in Manchester, living in places like Rusholme and Longsight ‘before they were tarted up’.

Speaking about his move to Yorkshire, Tim said that it’s a happy compromise.

“Here in the north you’ve got both – the industrial town and the great countryside. It’s a unique atmosphere with the landscape, the great big hills, and for me, the building I found to live in was a derelict manor.”

But while on the face of it, composing might be the idyllic life we all dream of, it’s not all fun and games.

Getting commissions is notoriously difficult, which has led Tim to develop other strings in his bow to make sure he’s got a stable income.

“It’s very necessary, especially if you’re writing contemporary classical music; you’re not doing it for the money,” he said.

“An artistic career isn’t a stable thing. I’ve been lucky enough to have a reasonable start up, but I was young and didn’t have much to lose. Those skills have been really useful to put on shows.”

With a varied career and an even more varied musical palate, Tim’s love for music comes from his punk background. We asked him how this has changed since winning the BBC award at age 17.

“It’s funny; I suppose a lot of my tastes then are the same now,” he said.

“Back then I was into punk – I liked the slightly raw edge to music, as well as Purcell who you wouldn’t associate with the punk music!

“I don’t know whether my music sounds like someone else’s, though. To me I can hear bits of different composers in myself.”

Life Stories will premiere at the RNCM next Wednesday, July 1. Tickets, priced £12, are available here.

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