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13 May 2011

Arthur Benjamin’s forgotten operas: Prima Donna

Arthur Benjamin Image: Arthur Benjamin  

The career of Australian composer Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) was a diverse and varied one. An alumnus of Brisbane Grammar School and former staff member of Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Benjamin spent the majority of his adult life in London save a Canadian sojourn for the duration of World War II. A pianist, conductor, composer, teacher and adjudicator, his music is a synthesis of styles and influences. Benjamin's work as an examiner for the Associated Boards took him across the globe - the myriad different music and cultures he encountered had a profound impact on his compositions.

While Benjamin's music is characterised by a diversity of influences, it remains rooted in and bound by traditional conventions. Benjamin was at his most prolific during the first half of the 20th century, a time which bore witness to some of the most innovative and avant-garde developments in music history. His music, however, showcases elements of earlier eras. While Benjamin experimented with a variety of compositional styles, media and techniques, he did so within the limitations of pre-existing formal structures, using an established harmonic vocabulary and traditional techniques. Benjamin's friend and colleague Herbert Howells explains that 'as a composer he lived and worked not in open defiance of the changed world of Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Stravinsky but without active acknowledgement of their commanding influence'.1 Howells described Benjamin as an 'unashamed Romantic.'

Well-documented inspirations are those found in West Indian culture and, indeed, the Jamaican Rumba (1938) is probably the work for which Benjamin is best known. Aside from cementing his reputation, this composition yielded additional benefits for Benjamin - the Jamaican government, grateful for the publicity, rewarded him with a barrel of rum annually! Other Caribbean-inspired works include From San Domingo (1945), Caribbean Dance (1946) and Jamaicalypso (1957). Rhapsody on Negro Folk Tunes (1919), Chinoiserie (1936) and North American Square Dance Suite (1951) are demonstrative of the variety of ethnic influences on which Benjamin was able to draw.

The early works of Stravinsky also served as a source of inspiration for the young Benjamin, while jazz was another significant influence. Having given the UK premiere of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Benjamin admitted this work was the inspiration behind his Piano Concertino (1926). The influence of Ravel is also apparent throughout Benjamin's career, nowhere more obvious than in the Valse-Caprices for clarinet and piano, Le Tombeau de Ravel (1958). The much earlier Suite for piano (1926) also points to Ravel in the use of harmonic vocabulary as much as stylistic elements. A set of five miniature movements - 'Prelude', 'Air', 'Tambourin', 'Toccata', 'Epilogue' - harks back to the baroque. Correspondingly, Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) is similarly conceived and structured.

A further examination confirms homage to the traditions of the past. Benjamin's Concerto for oboe and strings (1942) was inspired by the keyboard sonatas of Cimarosa while Suite for flute and strings (1946) was derived from themes found in the keyboard sonatas of Scarlatti. Divertimento on themes by Gluck (1952) again underlines the obvious respect Benjamin accords past masters. Benjamin's Piano Concerto (1949), commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, also interestingly bore the same designation as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata: 'quasi una fantasia.'

Benjamin's oeuvre encompasses works for the stage, film, instrumental, vocal and orchestral works. His solo piano works maintain a place in the repertoire and, particularly in the latter part of his career, the piano was Benjamin's chosen compositional medium. His stage works comprise one ballet and five operas, the second of which is Prima Donna, composed in 1933.

'Addicted to stage'

By all accounts Benjamin relished the theatre admitting he was 'addicted to the stage'.2 Herbert Howells relates the importance of Benjamin's dramatic output, explaining, 'early was the obsession with opera. It became the constant, irresistible motive governing his career.'3 From a compositional perspective, it seems Benjamin embraced the demands of the operatic form, claiming, 'for me, writing an opera is much easier than writing a symphony, for I am seized by the dramatic implications of the text'.4

Benjamin's first opera, The Devil Take Her (1931) is a light-hearted comic work in one act. The work, conducted and championed by Sir Thomas Beecham, was by all accounts a great success. Two years later followed Prima Donna, Benjamin's second opera and another humorous offering. Premiered in 1949 some sixteen years after its composition, Prima Donna was first performed at London's Fortune Theatre on 23 February 1949 under the baton of the composer. It was revived by the Royal College of Music for a production in 1968 where the roles proved most suitable for student singers.5

The librettist Cedric Cliffe had established a working relationship with Benjamin during the composition of The Devil Take Her. In this instance, Cliffe provided additional lyrics for the 'Blind Beggar's Song' and the 'Drinking Song' - his talent for wit and humour obviously appealing to Benjamin with whom a lifelong collaboration developed. This professional relationship no doubt strengthened existing personal ties - Cliffe was Benjamin's cousin.

After Prima Donna, Cliffe was the librettist for Benjamin's three remaining operas. His first full-scale opera, A Tale of Two Cities, composed during 1949-50, received the Festival of Britain Opera Prize and was the subject of a BBC broadcast in 1953. In the meantime, the BBC had commissioned another work, Mañana, the first opera to be commissioned for television. Benjamin's final opera, Tartuffe, had been completed in piano score at the time of the composer's death in 1960. Alan Boustead completed the orchestration, and Tartuffe was premiered by Boustead in London in 1964.

'As much of a genius as Puccini'?

None of Benjamin's operas maintain a place in the repertoire today, unfortunate perhaps given the obvious popularity of a 2008 Sydney Conservatorium production of Prima Donna. Popular at the time of composition, Benjamin's works were successful with audiences but left critics divided. Regarding A Tale of Two Cities, Eric Blom enthused it was 'musically always interesting, … above all a masterpiece of dramatic composition…Benjamin is in that line just as much of a genius as Puccini.'6 Conversely, it was also said of the same work 'it fails to achieve greatness because of its lack of individual invention…. its idiom lacks personal distinction.'7

While Blom's assessment would probably raise eyebrows today, there is little doubt Benjamin's music held a degree of popular appeal. Enjoyable to perform and easy to listen to, one writer offers the following assessment of Benjamin's conservative musical language: 'Benjamin has evolved no personal idiom but is content to use common chromatic parlance for the expression of ideas which are his own. If these ideas are not very profound nor strongly individualised, neither are they on the other hand derivative...8 Alternatively this may indeed be not only deliberate, but a defining aspect of Benjamin's work. The same writer recognises that Benjamin's 'conspicuous skill… so as to appeal to his hearers makes him one of the more approachable of English [sic] composers of his generation.'

9 Benjamin's popularity was also known in Australia, as pianist Ian Munro's liner notes for his Jamaican Rumba CD indicate: 'Benjamin was the doyen of Australian composers whose life's work lay overseas where he identified completely with the English and European musical scene.'10 Recognised performers too, championed Benjamin's work. His Romantic Fantasy for violin, viola and orchestra (1938) was recorded by Jascha Heifetz and William Primrose.

For his own part, Benjamin himself seemed unperturbed by criticisms of his compositional idiom and, when questioned if he was offended by the accusation that his works lacked personal style, he answered, 'it might if I thought it were true', and explained he had always attempted to express himself sincerely.

Uncomplicated diatonic harmonies, tuneful melodies and simple metres are the foundation of Benjamin's compositional vocabulary. As such, Benjamin's comic operas are not dissimilar to the musical theatre of the 19th century and bear obvious stylistic similarities to Gilbert and Sullivan. Unlike these enduring favourites, Benjamin's comic operas have failed to sustain popular interest. His more serious operatic efforts, A Tale of Two Cities, Mañana and Tartuffe have suffered the same fate.

Indeed, considered in the context of theatrical works of the early 20th century, Benjamin's musical style could be described as distinctly antediluvian. The late and post-Romantic harmonic vocabulary of Richard Strauss in the works of Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), composed a quarter of a century earlier, is an interesting comparison. Berg's Wozzeck was premiered in Berlin in 1925; this masterpiece was the first atonal opera and the work that sees the first operatic use of sprechstimme. Against such benchmarks, Benjamin's antiquated style lacks comparable innovation - a possible explanation for the failure of his operas to retain a place in the repertoire.

The dramatic merit of Benjamin's operas may also offer reasons as to why they are no longer performed. Bold and confronting works characterised theatrical offerings of the first half of the 20th century, from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, to Janácek's Jenufa, Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District11. When measured alongside the power and intensity of such masterpieces, the musical and dramatic integrity of which has been affirmed over time, it is hardly surprising Benjamin's dramatic works fell into a state of decline.

An opera based on the machinations
of an opera company

Seemingly incongruous in the broader context of twentieth-century stage works, Benjamin's operas, and in particular Prima Donna, owe a great deal to the history of opera and operatic tradition in much the same way the instrumental works draw their inspiration from the past. The title of the work, Prima Donna or 'first lady' in Italian, is the first hint Benjamin gives as to the humorous vein of the work. Traditionally the descriptor 'prima donna' is reserved for the leading lady in an opera and 'by extension, a vain, capricious person'.12 The history of opera is rife with divas, their demands and infamous disputes between leading ladies and this is a central theme in Benjamin's work.

The plot of Prima Donna is a fairly family-friendly one, appealing to audiences without being at all confronting:

'The opera is set in 18th-century Venice, where the impecunious Florindo is expecting a visit from his wealthy uncle the Count, who in turn is hoping to be entertained by the prima donna 'La Filomela'. No longer in a position to invite her, Florindo arranges a substitute, a situation complicated by his friend Alcino doing the same; both Olimpia and Fiammetta try to outdo each other, to the Count's consternation. He is consoled instead by Bellina the maid in operatic costume, while the others pair up in the moonlight.'13

The prima donna at the centre of Benjamin's work is La Filomela, the renowned singer by whom the Count wishes to be entertained. La Filomela was in fact Filamela Ziani, a singer residing in Venice during the sixteenth century. Famed for her beautiful voice, she was given the nickname La Filomela, the nightingale. Prima Donna is centred on the competition and hilarious duel between two sopranos in an effort to outdo each other - prima donnas indeed! Of course, neither has a voice that resembles a nightingale or any other kind of songbird, adding another dimension to the humour. Finally, it is the maid Bellina posing as La Filomela who seduces and submits to the Count. Benjamin's prima donna therefore is not one, but a ridiculous four leading ladies - the famed yet elusive La Filomela, Olimpia, Fiammetta, and Bellina disguised as La Filomela.

An opera based on the machinations of an opera company, or an opera within an opera has been a popular topic throughout operatic history. The unfortunate pickle in which Florindo and Alcino find themselves, along with their efforts to placate the prima donnas and assuage the Count, is a familiar one. Salieri's Prima la musica poi le parole (1786), based on a comedy by Casti, deals with the hilarious difficulties of writing and rehearsing an opera. The premiere of this work was part of a double bill with Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor (1786) in which an impresario trying to establish an opera company engages two prima donnas who try to out-sing each other in order to claim a higher fee.

Cimarosa's L'impresario in augustie (1786) pokes fun at opera itself by focusing on a director trying to cope with recalcitrant singers. Donizetti's Le convenienze ed inconvenienze (1827) satirises opera rehearsals and the subsequent production by a provincial Italian touring company. Casti's play, Prima la musica poi le parole was reworked by Strauss for Capriccio (1941), and his earlier Ariadne of Naxos (1912) is another comic work centred on a composer's struggle to achieve a successful performance of his opera against all odds.

In Benjamin's Prima Donna, the Count longs to hear La Filomela sing the role for which she is best known, that of Ariadne Desolate. The action of the opera within the opera of Strauss's Ariadne of Naxos begins on the deserted island of Naxos after Ariadne has been abandoned by Theseus - Ariadne Desolate quite literally! Interestingly the title role in Strauss's work is designated Primadonna/Ariadne meaning the one singer performs these two roles. The leading lady in the opera proper is therefore also the title role in the Greek drama that is set. Could Strauss' Ariadne of Naxos be the source from which Benjamin drew inspiration for not only the title of his opera but the role of the prima donna as Ariadne?

According to Greek mythology, the abandoned and desolate Ariadne embarks on an affair with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and all things pleasurable. Dionysus is also known as Bacchus in Roman terminology and, indeed, Benjamin uses this nomenclature: 'We fly when cares attach us and rack us to Bacchus.'14 Bacchus' earthly representative in Benjamin's work is the philandering Count who, in line with Greek mythology, eventually ends up with Ariadne, or at least someone dressed as her. This immoral character bears a striking resemblance to another famous philandering Count - the Count in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (1786) whose unwanted advances are spurned by Figaro's betrothed, Susanna. Mozart's opera also famously exposes the Count's indiscretions through an elaborate and embarrassing case of mistaken identity.

In the same vein, the names of the two prima donnas, Fiammetta and Olimpia, also give rise to a wry smile. The name Fiammetta is derived from the Italian word for fire, Fiammetta being a 14th-century feminist documented in Boccaccio's literary work, The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta. Inspired by this work, Rossetti's famous painting A Vision of Fiammetta of 1878 is also well known. Similarly Manet's realist work of 1863 Olympia, depicting a high-class hooker waiting for a client, caused a scandal when first exhibited. Prima Donna is in all these respects, a very clever work. The libretto is full of wit, double entendres, satire and parody. Correspondingly, Benjamin's score underlines Cliffe's text with similar humour.

Somewhat disappointingly then perhaps, Benjamin's Prima Donna has not managed to maintain a place in modern mainstream opera repertory. Possible musical and dramatic limitations have been hypothesised and examined, however it is equally plausible the work, like so many others, was somehow lost, forgotten, disregarded or merely fell out of fashion. Plato poetically suggests 'Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity' and, in these respects, Benjamin's Prima Donna is a most successful composition.

2008 Sydney Conservatorium production: a conductor's perspective

As conductor of this most recent Australian production (12-13 October 2008), I faced a number of musical challenges associated with performing Prima Donna. The score and parts presented numerous discrepancies with variations between the original version, the reduced orchestration of the parts and the piano score15. Most problematically, no score exists for the reduced version, which meant I had no score that corresponded with the parts from which we were working. It was therefore necessary to create a performance score based on the piano score, taking into account the parts as well as the original full orchestral version. This arduous process consumed the majority of the orchestral rehearsal time but resulted in a product that was far more representative of Benjamin's original musical intentions than is evidenced by the reduced orchestration.

The reduced orchestration itself posed a great number of problems given the diversity of the instrumentation and the relatively small size of the orchestra. Achieving a blend of wind sonorities is always a challenge when working with single instruments. For example, passages in the original version, idiomatically written for paired winds, were not effectively transferred to the reduced version and had to be added. In such instances, only the top line featured in the flute part with the other flute part simply left out. Rather than, say, adding the oboe to the existing flute part, it was decided to rescore the passage for two violins. In doing so, the composer's original intention of pairing like instruments was considered, this being a more effective timbral synthesis than introducing a second sonority.

In all such instances, careful consideration was given to the relationship between the character of the particular music and the instrumentation available. Where possible during the editing process, attention was also given to the original orchestration. Considering all elements, a decision was then made on how, using the instrumentation and players available, the most effective musical result would be achieved.

Steps were taken to achieve as successful a musical blend as possible, given the orchestration available. The string section was expanded in an effort to achieve a fuller, warmer and more sonorous sound. With a larger number of string players, the wind and brass have a more familiar platform with which to blend. Similarly, in he reduced orchestration, there were no changes to the percussion parts which, given the much smaller orchestra, resulted in an imbalanced sound. It was thus necessary to rework the percussion parts in a way that resulted in as homogenous an orchestral sound as possible.

Harmonies that were missing and/or incomplete in the reduced version were filled out and added, based on those in the piano score. By doing this, I hoped to provide as familiar a harmonic basis as possible for the singers who had been rehearsing with piano. The piano score was used as the authoritative source as this was the score from which the singers had been working. I wanted to be as faithful as possible to the composer's original intentions given the limitations of the reduced orchestration and the anomalies in those parts.

Pragmatism also played a large part in a number of decisions. In Benjamin's original version, there is a part for onstage guitar. In the reduced orchestration, this part has been rewritten for harp. The harp exhibits far greater sound projection than the guitar, the overriding reason this instrument was preferred. Similarly, practicality was behind the decision to incorporate the onstage band into the pit orchestra. The logistics of putting inexperienced musicians on stage would have added an extra degree of complication that offered no identifiable musical or dramatic advantage. On the contrary, these sections would have been far more difficult to get together and it is highly likely ensemble would have suffered as a result.

The ability and experience of individual orchestral players was a key factor in the rehearsal process and significantly influenced the manner in which I approached rehearsals. Prima Donna was the first orchestral experience for a large proportion of the musicians involved, the majority having never worked with a conductor before. The process of learning how to watch and follow a conductor and interpret gestures had to be clearly articulated, explained and demonstrated. Given the demands of the operatic arena, this rather steep learning curve was somewhat accelerated.

The rehearsal process of the singers also presented a number of challenges. Two separate casts, one for each of the two performances, meant everything had to be rehearsed twice over, automatically halving the available rehearsal time. Like the players of the orchestra, the majority of the singers had not experienced a conductor before and had little or no understanding of the meaning of my gestures. Patience, understanding and tact proved far more valuable than the most crystal clear of downbeats in this respect!


Arundell, D. (1950) 'Arthur Benjamin's Operas' Tempo, New Ser. No. 15, 15-18.
Boosey & Hawkes: 'Arthur Benjamin - biography' at http://www.boosey.com, accessed 13 April 2010
Chaungeur, J.-P. (1955) 'Arthur Benjamin and the French Public', Tempo, New Ser. No. 35, 2-3.
Cliffe, C. (1964) 'Benjamin's 'Tartufffe'', The Musical Times, 105:1461, 819- 820.
Cowan, J. (1952) 'Arthur Benjamin's Piano Concerto', Tempo, New Ser. No. 24, 19-21.
Goodwin, N. 'Prima Donna.' In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O004143, accessed 15 April 2011
Harris, E.T. 'Prima donna.' In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/22349, accessed 15 April 2011.
Holden, A. Ed. (2001). The New Penguin Opera Guide. London, Penguin.
Keller, H. (1950). 'Arthur Benjamin and the Problem of Popularity', Tempo, New Ser. No. 15, 4-15.
Klein, J. W. (1957). 'Some Reflections on 'A Tale of two Cities'.' Tempo, New Ser. No. 45, 14-15, 20-24.
Salter, L. (1985). 'Footnotes to Satire: Salieri's 'Prima la musica, poi le parole'', The Musical Times, 126:1703, 21, 23-24.
Wright, K. A. (1957). 'Television and Opera', Tempo, New Ser. No. 45, 14-15, 20-24


Benjamin, A. (1999). Jamaican Rumba. Music by Arthur Benjamin Volume 1, Ian Munro, piano, Tall Poppies.
Benjamin, A. (2000). Jamaican Rumba. Chamber Music by Arthur Benjamin Vol. 2, Ian Munro, piano, Tall Poppies.


1 Ian Munro, Liner notes to his Jamaican Rumba, Music by Arthur Benjamin Volume 2 (Tall Poppies, TP134, 2000).

2 ibid

3 ibid

4 ibid

5 Goodwin, N. 'Prima Donna.' In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O004143, accessed April 15, 2011.

6 Ian Munro, Liner notes to his Jamaican Rumba, Music by Arthur Benjamin Volume 2 (Tall Poppies, TP134, 2000).

7 ibid

8 ibid

9 ibid

10 ibid

11 Rite of Spring (1913) famously caused a riot at the premiere, more so for the base subject matter of the ballet than the music. Bartók's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin (1926) proved similarly contentious - the violent story of a prostitute and her murderous pimps causing the work to be withdrawn immediately after its premiere. In operatic terms, Janácek's Jenufa (1904) deals with the issue of infanticide while Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (1918) transgressed boundaries with its sadomasochistic undertones. Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930) also created a scandal, the lewd depravity of the libretto making Otto Klemperer refuse to conduct the premiere. Similarly, Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (1934) features some of the most sexually explicit music composed.

12 Harris, E.T. 'Prima donna. In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/22349, accessed April 15, 2011.

13 Goodwin, N. 'Prima Donna.' In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O004143, accessed April 15, 2011

14 Benjamin, A. (1933). Prima Donna. London, Boosey and Hawkes, 70.

15 Prima Donna was originally scored for a full symphony orchestra: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare, triangle, glockenspiel, cymbals, bass drum), piano/celesta, strings. Additionally, there are specifications for an onstage band comprising: flute, violin, viola, cello, guitar. In addition to this original full orchestration, there is an authorised version for reduced orchestration for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, timpani, percussion, piano/celesta, harp, strings. Onstage band as for full orchestration, excluding guitar.

Subjects discussed by this article:

In 2010, Carolyn Watson was assistant to Sir Charles Mackerras on two productions (Covent Garden, Glyndebourne), and one of four conductors selected to work with musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic in Interaction 2010. She spent periods of residency at Staatsoper Berlin with Daniel Barenboim, and Staatsoper Hamburg with Simone Young. Watson has conducted orchestras in the Czech Republic, Israel, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria. She has received the Charles Mackerras Conducting Prize, Opera Foundation Australia’s Bayreuth Opera Award and the Nelly Apt Conducting Scholarship, and participated in masterclasses with Peter Eötvös and Yoel Levi. In 2008 she conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Orkney Conducting Course) and was Music Director of the World Youth Day Orchestra. She lectures at Sydney Conservatorium and will soon commence as Assistant Chorusmaster of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.


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