This weekend the Barbican is celebrating the music of contemporary composer Oliver Knussen. Soprano Claire Booth, who has collaborated with Knussen regularly over the last ten years, will be singing the role of Max, the young protagonist of the opera Where the Wild Things Are, based on the book by Maurice Sendak. We spoke to her ahead of the performance.You’ve worked with Oliver Knussen quite a lot over the last few years. How did your collaboration come about?
We met about a decade ago. I was student at the Britten Pears school in Aldeburgh on the contemporary music course, which he was in charge of. He heard me sing some of his music and I guess he must have liked what he heard because a couple of months later I was asked to sing at his 50th birthday celebration at the Southbank. I must have had at least two projects a year with him every year since.
How did you get involved with this production of Where the Wild Things Are – which has also been performed in Aldeburgh and LA?
The impetus for putting the operas on didn’t really come from Olly, but from myself and my friend and colleague Ryan Wigglesworth [who’s conducting the performances]. Together with the director Netia Jones we establishged the idea of launching a new production of his fantasy operas Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! because they haven’t been staged in the UK since their premieres nearly 30 years ago, although they have been done in concert form quite a lot. Through Olly we were able to approach Maurice Sendak, the creator of these books, directly and he gave Netia permission to use the images from the book to create gigantic animations for the production.
You play the role of Max, the young boy who discovers the land of the Wild Things. What are the challenges the role poses?
I need to have enough energy to cavort about the stage but also to stand and sing – and not to sing like a seven year old boy. Olly’s used the conceit of a woman playing a boy so I don’t think he expects me to sing like a treble. I think any theatrical singer would say that if you understand the role your voice will find the vocal colours to complement it. My five-year-old son is called Max – he’s a little bit younger than Max in the opera – but he’s quite a good model in terms of ridiculous amounts of energy.
Would you say it’s an opera for children or adults?
I think Sendak himself said ‘I just write stories, people say they’re for children’. Where the Wild Things Are is not a cute story about a little boy who starts off naughty and becomes good. It’s a story about a little boy who’s very naughty, gets shouted at by his mum, falls asleep in a sort of tantrum and then dreams himself into a land where he’s very scared and lonely and he’s got to solve these problems the only way he can. And in a way that’s something that’s not so different from being an adult but can be quite different from the saccharine idea of lollipop-loving children. It’s just an opera for people who like music. Both these operas are only 45 minutes long so in a way they’re ideal for children because they’re quite short and the subject matter is something they might know. My son loved it!
You’re also performing Knussen’s Requiem: Songs for Sue this weekend, which was written for you to sing. What difference does that make to your performance?
In 2006 he asked me to sing the premiere of a piece he was writing – the Requiem – which is a song cycle in memory of his late wife, Sue Knussen. It’s dedicated to Sue, and was written for me to sing which was a tremendous honour and very humbling. If it wasn’t exactly a turning point in our working relationship, it was certainly a very big step for him to trust me in that way. So it was a very special experience to be part of those first few performances and every time I perform it I can tap into the original emotion. Now the piece has become quite a classic of the repertoire which is wonderful, and I’ve probably sung it more than Don Giovanni.
Total Immersion: Oliver Knussen at 60 is at the Barbican this weekend 2-4 November. Claire Booth performs in Where the Wild Things Are on 3 November at 2pm and 7pm and sings Requiem: Songs for Sue and Whitman Settings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 4 November at 8pm. A recording of Claire Booth performing Requiem: Songs for Sue and Whitman settings is out now on the NMC label
Photos: Sven Arnstein and Eamonn McCabe