In opera, the bleakest imaginable tragedies and disasters—murder, suicide, war, the apocalypse—are practically everyday occurrences. And yet, of all the varieties of human suffering on which this art form quasi-vampirically sustains itself, tales of the death of a child feature only infrequently in opera’s first three centuries, from roughly 1600 through 1900. It might be argued that the death of children is just about the most unbearable subject matter there is, as well as one that doesn’t offer the salacious satisfactions of love triangles and revenge killings. But it’s also the case that for most of human history, the experience of losing children was not only unbearable but also overfamiliar, a fact of family life so inescapable that no one needed to be reminded of it in the theater. (A number of Classical and Romantic operas do feature desperate, bloody-minded mothers—Medea, Norma—but I think these women constitute a different category.)

Over the course of the twentieth century, as child mortality rates plummeted in much of the world, the loss of a child receded, for many people, from a seemingly unavoidable tragedy to an event practically inconceivable in its horror. The further an idea recedes from daily life, the more fiercely we push it into the unconscious, down where nightmares are born, the more likely it is that this idea will resurface as an aural apparition—that is, as an opera. And sure enough, the twentieth century witnessed the creation of considerably more operas with plots centered on the death of children, Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa (1904) and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (1945) and Curlew River (1964) prominent among them.

Closer to the present, it’s striking that two of the most successful operas premiered in the past five years—Innocence (2021), by the composer Kaija Saariaho and the librettist Sofi Oksanen, and Picture a day like this (2023), by the composer George Benjamin and the librettist Martin Crimp—take as their starting point a mother grieving the loss of a child. In Picture a day like this, the child’s death is not explained: as in a fairy tale, the bald fact of loss is announced at the outset and never accounted for. Innocence, by contrast, takes place in the aftermath of a school shooting, that grim contemporary state of alternating agony and numbness, and its drama takes the form of a collective investigation: How could this have happened, and how might the individuals affected by the tragedy—the survivors, the mother of one of the victims, and the family of the perpetrator—find a way to coexist, or to live in the world at all?

In October the two operas were running concurrently, Picture a day like this at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and Innocence at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam. The latter production had an inherent poignancy: Saariaho, a composer beloved and admired by generations of music aficionados and fellow artists, died in June at seventy, and this was the first staging of Innocence mounted since then. But the production attained a darker relevance in the week before the first performance: on September 28 a medical student opened fire at two locations in Rotterdam, killing three people, including a fourteen-year-old girl. I found myself surprised by this tragic coincidence in a way that, depressingly, I would not have been had such a shooting occurred in America. But it surely wouldn’t have surprised the creators of Innocence, an opera set at an international school in Helsinki—a city where, as one character cheerfully declares, “one can stroll safely at night.”

Roughly two decades into George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s creative partnership, it feels neither premature nor hyperbolic to suggest that theirs is among the most successful composer–librettist collaborations in operatic history. It is that rare thing: a dual effort that yields a mysterious third voice, an oracular presence capable of wiser, weirder, and more dangerous utterances than either artist could manage on his own. There are few precedents for an artistic union as seamless and fruitful as this one: W.A. Mozart’s with Lorenzo Da Ponte comes to mind (though they collaborated on only three operas, while Benjamin and Crimp have already written four), as does Richard Strauss’s with Hugo von Hofmannsthal (though their work grew weaker and more diffuse after the triumphs of Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, whereas Benjamin and Crimp have yet to produce a dud).

The most important distinction between Benjamin–Crimp and those other illustrious partnerships is that Mozart and Strauss were both compulsively productive artists who wrote music, in Mozart’s words, “as the sows piss.” That kind of unencumbered flow-state has never come easily to Benjamin, whose working method is so painstaking that in his early maturity he tended to compose, on average, only one relatively short piece every couple of years. Every composer needs some measure of solitude to find the sounds that might suffice, but I have never encountered another whose inner demands are as fierce as Benjamin’s. When he is at work on a composition, he walls himself off from the outside world with anchoritic fervor: during these extended periods he does not even go out at night to socialize or attend concerts. If Benjamin and Marcel Proust ever got together to discuss their creative processes, Proust would likely tell him to live a little.


The dark side of Benjamin’s hypersensitivity is his susceptibility to creative paralysis: his fallow periods have often resulted—paradoxically, it might seem—from his capacity to hear a dazzling, dizzying multitude of possibilities in a single note. “You see, you’re free as a composer today,” he told The Guardian in 2012,

which means that a huge amount is possible—a colossal, terrifying amount. You write one note…[then] the choices multiply to the billions within a few notes and, obviously, that’s impossible to work within.

We composers are always answerable to our own private horde of unborn sounds—they are, in a way, our clients—but Benjamin is so sensitive to their demands that he sometimes falls prey to a kind of vertigo induced by innumerable possibilities perceived simultaneously, a Kierkegaardian “dizziness of freedom.”

Surely the best cure for a composer susceptible to this unusual malady is the imposition of some kind of structure from outside. A single saxophone note hovering in the void might seem to open up practically infinite possible paths, but an operatic text doesn’t allow for such uncertainty. A particular story, with a particular dramatic arc, makes concrete demands that any responsible composer must face head-on. Benjamin has evidently found it both a relief and an electrification to set Crimp’s spare, uncanny texts to music; he has estimated that he composes eight times as fast when he sets a Crimp text as he does when he composes instrumental music. For Benjamin, the keen blade of his collaborator’s language seems to cut a surgical incision into silence—a tiny opening, no more than a sliver. Behind that little aperture, though, lurks a new world.

Picture a day like this, which had its premiere last July at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in a production by Daniel Jeanneteau and Marie-Christine Soma that then traveled to London, is a haunting, fable-like story, simple at first glance and less simple the harder one looks. The Woman’s young child has died. When “the women”—surely the Woman’s own personal Fates—come to take her child’s body away, she refuses. The women tell her that her child will come back to life if she brings them a button from the coat of a happy person. The Woman goes out into the world in search of a single happy person: she encounters a pair of mutually infatuated lovers, a skilled artisan, a celebrated young composer, and a wealthy collector of beautiful objects, none of whom—spoiler alert—is as happy as they first appear. Finally, close to despair, the Woman encounters the enigmatic Zabelle, who seems to have everything she could desire: two beautiful children, a husband, a handsome house, a lushly Edenic garden.

But Zabelle has a disturbing story to tell. Once, on “a day like this,” her house was invaded and occupied by armed men. During the attack she dropped her baby, who may have died. Zabelle then negates everything the Woman saw when she arrived: she has no child, no husband, none of the trappings of a tranquil suburban life. Zabelle begs the Woman’s forgiveness: “I’m happy,” she says, “only because I don’t exist.” The garden in which the Woman encounters her is evidently a Bardo-like space of illusion that has been summoned by Zabelle’s fervent denial of the pressures of reality. As she fades away, Zabelle mimes the action of tossing the Woman a button. When the mysterious women return at the prescribed hour, they triumphantly proclaim the inescapability of death and loss. But the Woman does not react with the chastened humility customary for the protagonist of this kind of fable. She seems, instead, to have withdrawn into her own private world of illusions, as Zabelle did before her: she smiles defiantly at the women, holding up “the bright button” like a shield.

To listen to Picture a day like this is to feel practically continual amazement at the tenderness and subtlety of Benjamin’s musical imagination. Many of this score’s sounds seem coaxed out of nothingness by Pied Piper–esque powers of persuasion: nowhere else will you hear violas in the middle of their range sound so unnervingly forceful; nowhere other than the Miles Davis of In a Silent Way will you find trumpet writing so delicate, so like a lullaby. An important ancestor for this piece, it seems to me, is Igor Stravinsky’s Berceuses du chat, that series of beguiling miniatures for contralto and three clarinets; Picture partakes of its sweetness of texture as well as its elusive, feline sensibility.


In the relatively rare moments when Benjamin unleashes the full force of his twenty-two-musician ensemble, the orchestra speaks with such crushing density that you’d think there were three times as many players as there actually are. And yet he is incapable of making a genuinely ugly sound: though there is great violence in his music, he is ultimately governed by a Mozartean sense of beauty. There is tenderness in his violence, just as there is violence in his tenderness. He is willing to apply great pressure to the wall that separates music from noise, but he is never willing to break that wall down. The world of Benjamin’s music is itself a kind of enchanted garden, a realm from which every careless or unbeautiful sound is ruthlessly banished.

What sets Benjamin’s operas apart from those of practically all his contemporaries is his treatment of timbre—that is, the texture of the sound itself—as a dramatic instrument. This, I think, is a significant innovation in operatic scoring. There are plenty of composers with an ear for refined orchestral textures, but it’s rare for the timbre, rather than the harmonic or rhythmic language, to function as the drama’s central engine. When I heard a performance of Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence (2018) at Tanglewood in the summer of 2022, I was perplexed at first by an apparent paradox: for long stretches, the harmonies seemed to barely change; the rhythms had a flickering, minnow-like evasiveness that resisted every attempt to define them; and yet Lessons, with its viscerally potent drama, felt anything but monotonous or insubstantial.

Eventually I realized that Benjamin has found a way to overlay radical changes in timbre upon other elements (for instance, the harmony) that might on their own seem somewhat static. In my music, and in much of the music that speaks to me, the most volatile element, the element capable of generating real surprise, is the harmony. It’s not that the harmony in Benjamin’s music is unimportant—he selects his pitches with strenuous care—but it frequently serves as a springboard for the volatility and aliveness of the timbre, rather than the other way around. Because of this, if one studies the piano–vocal scores of Benjamin’s operas, one gets only a faint sense of their power; the real magic lies in the fluent dynamism of his orchestral textures, the way that his seamlessly shifting timbres constitute the living, breathing, ever-evolving fabric of the drama.

In pre-premiere interviews, Benjamin and Crimp each emphasized the extent to which Picture a day like this differs from their earlier collaborations. Crimp suggested that writing this piece allowed Benjamin to “experiment with very different tones and moods.” It’s not surprising that they felt the urge to broaden their palette, since their three previous operas—Into the Little Hill (2006), Written on Skin (2012), and Lessons in Love and Violence—are all based on exceedingly grim source material from medieval Europe; the latter two in particular share almost identical fixations on murder, betrayal, sadistic erotic entanglements, and the brutal hierarchies of feudal society. (Lessons in Love and Violence could just as well serve as the title of Written on Skin.) Picture a day like this, by contrast, is set in a dreamlike, magic-laced contemporary world, and though the event that sets the story in motion is desperately sad, some of its scenes are lightly peppered with humor, ranging from bedroom farce to gentle satire.

These attempts at comedy result in an occasional mismatch in tone between Benjamin’s music and Crimp’s text. In their earlier operas, Crimp deftly walked a difficult tightrope: though Written on Skin and Lessons are set in the Middle Ages, their libretti are refreshingly free of archly archaic vocabulary, and when Crimp wields the power of anachronism—which he does rarely and judiciously—the few unexpected shards of contemporary language work wonders of disorientation. The heart-stoppingly beautiful ending of Written on Skin, for instance, pulls the listener upward through centuries of accumulated rubble, moving from an act of violence in the distant past, witnessed by “three small angels…watching…calmly/from the margin,” to the present day, “where/the white lines of the Saturday car-park cover/the heaped-up dead.”

In Picture, by contrast, Crimp’s language is somewhat closer to the contemporary idiom of some of his plays. He even borrows certain tricks from himself: both Picture and his play Attempts on Her Life (1997) feature manic recitations of the names of tourist destinations around the world, uneasy litanies that give voice to a character’s spiritually undernourished cosmopolitanism. Elsewhere in the libretto, there are moments of comedy unlike anything Benjamin and Crimp have attempted before: the Lovers, for instance, aren’t exactly on the same page when it comes to questions of monogamy.

These comic tones suit Crimp better than they suit Benjamin. No matter the dramatic situation, his music hovers luminously a few feet off the ground; Benjamin is not Rossini, and earthy comedy is not his strong suit. It’s bizarre to hear young people discussing their “open” relationship in so rarefied a musical language, and even the names of famous painters (Warhol, Klee, Basquiat) feel somehow too specific, too much a part of our world rather than Benjamin’s.

I am reminded of the much-missed English composer Harrison Birtwistle, whose influence is palpable in Picture both through certain prickly orchestral textures (harp, celeste, string pizzicato) and through this piece’s fixation on the incommensurability of human mortality with the earth’s powers of cyclical regeneration. (The lines “cold earth—dead stems/of flowers come to life again—/why not—why not my son?” could have come straight from a Birtwistle opera.) Birtwistle’s longtime librettist David Harsent once asked him if he could set the word “fuck” to music; he thought it over and concluded that he could not. This wasn’t from squeamishness but rather because Birtwistle’s music has an incantatory quality; it seeks to summon a primal, prehistoric world. Certain words—“fuck” definitely among them—have the effect of wrenching us out of that world and dropping us, with a thud, into our own. I am glad Benjamin and Crimp have pushed themselves to experiment with other moods, other vocabularies, but the moments of contemporary comedy in Picture are an odd fit for Benjamin, whose music, like Birtwistle’s, possesses an always-modern ancientness.

There is, however, another aspect of Picture a day like this that sets it apart from the earlier Benjamin–Crimp operas in a deeper, stranger way. It is not just a fable about a woman’s attempt to cheat death; it is also an intricately self-referential retrospective, a playful and unsettling meta-analysis of Benjamin and Crimp’s earlier works. Each of their operas has featured an “elsewhere,” an uncanny alternate dimension, a paradise or hell—it’s rarely clear which—where characters are liable to end up if they ignore the demands of the social world in favor of the siren song of art-making. This alternate dimension is the “little hill” that entombs the children who follow the Pied Piper’s music in Into the Little Hill; it is the illuminated manuscript in Written on Skin; it is the private world of erotic games and musical soirees that Edward II, in Lessons, prefers to inhabit instead of governing his kingdom. And now, in Picture, Crimp takes an aerial view of their entire body of work: embedded between the lines is a sly commentary on his collaborator’s music, and on music’s power to create imagined spaces so alluring that they shut out the physical world.

All this becomes apparent in a crucial scene near the end of the opera, when the Woman, despairing of ever finding a genuinely happy person after her dismaying encounters with the Lovers, the Artisan, and the Composer, encounters a wealthy and perhaps overly courteous Collector of beautiful things. “I have rooms full of miracles,” he tells her. Any operatic character who makes such a claim, especially if he’s a solitary man in late middle age, is a manifestation of Bluebeard, the archetypal “collector,” the hoarder of human souls. Among this Collector’s treasures, along with a Warhol and a Manet, there is an “illuminated Book of Hours” adorned with illustrations of “small angels.” That is, the Collector possesses the manuscript “written on skin”—the book whose bloody creation was recounted in an earlier opera. When the Collector begs the Woman to stay, to love him, she refuses. But her departure seems less like an escape from his house than a passage into some haunted chamber within it: “The door, the door, the door,” the Woman repeats, as unshakable and insistent as Bluebeard’s Judith.

The associations proliferate further when the Collector says that behind this door, the woman she will meet is called Zabelle. “Zabelle” is an Armenian variant of Isabelle, a name shared by one of the main characters of Lessons in Love and Violence: Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II, renamed “Isabel” in the opera. The exact nature of the connection between Zabelle and Isabel remains a little obscure, but they are both extraordinarily privileged women who suffer a brutal attack on their homes: Lessons concludes with the murder of Isabel’s lover, Mortimer. As the associations accumulate, we might remember that Picture is not Benjamin and Crimp’s first opera about the disappearance of children: their first collaboration, the one-act Into the Little Hill, retold the Pied Piper story as an eerie parable of the deadly consequences, for a community’s youngest members, of the apathy or irresponsibility of its adult leaders.

The implication of this uncanny intertextuality seems to be that in this Bluebeardian castle, the alternate worlds locked away behind closed doors are themselves works of art, records of grief so unbearable that they had to be encased in amber, sublimated into an art object: a painting, a rug, an illuminated manuscript—or an opera. Benjamin and Crimp’s earlier works themselves seem to have joined this undead “collection” of paradisiacal alternate dimensions to which one can gain access only at a terrible price.

What is that price? As the Collector rhapsodizes to the Woman about his cache of treasures, he describes one painting bathed in a “green light” capable of “annihilating all that’s made/to a green thought in a green shade.” It’s a credit to the chilly beauty of Crimp’s diction that this line barely stands out, but it isn’t original: it’s a quotation from Andrew Marvell’s poem “The Garden,” which is practically a skeleton key to Picture a day like this. This is an opera circumscribed by its Edenic yearnings: when the Woman refuses to accept her child’s death, she summons an image of “the first garden,” where life-giving rivers abounded and “there was no death.” Near the opera’s end, it is in an enticingly tranquil garden that she finds Zabelle.

But all is not well in Zabelle’s garden, and to understand why, we should pay a visit to Marvell’s ambivalent Arcadia—a memorably creepy place, owing to the poet’s insistence that solitude is a prerequisite for paradise:

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walk’d without a mate….
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

Marvell’s garden is not the prehistoric cradle of love between human beings, like the biblical Eden. It is instead a place where a solipsistic aestheticism reigns, where the only possible love is the voyeuristic adoration of fruits and flowers, and “Society is all but rude,/To this delicious solitude.” To live in this garden is not to embrace the world but to retreat from it, into the mind: “Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,/Withdraws into its happiness.”

Happiness is what the Woman is seeking, and Marvell’s conviction—which Crimp’s Zabelle seems to share—is that happiness can be found only through a denial of reality. The price of Zabelle’s idyll is that it does not exist, that she is entirely alone in a garden of the mind. “I made it paradise,” Zabelle declares of her garden; this line, as set by Benjamin, is almost a scream. It should remind us of a demand made by the Protector in Written on Skin: “Show us in our rightful place,” he says to the illuminator he has hired to idealize his life in a book, “show us in Paradise.” In all three cases—Marvell’s garden, the Protector, and Zabelle—the creation of Paradise depends on a willful blindness to death, loss, other human beings. And so the Woman is faced with a choice: to accept the painful realities that her child is dead and that no one is entirely happy in this world, or to retreat into a realm of illusion, into the “green light” of art and unreality. Face to face with her Fates, she smiles and chooses the latter.

The opera’s effect depends on the music’s capacity to be the garden, to be plausibly preferable to the rest of earthly existence. Fortunately Benjamin’s music really is that beautiful: like Marvell’s garden, it is lovely to the point of creepiness. This is not social music; it is music that insists on sealing itself off from much of life, as Benjamin does when he is composing it. A Marvellian garden is, in a way, the ideal setting for a George Benjamin opera. He is Marvell’s “skillful gard’ner,” a maker of hermetically sealed universes.

Because of this, Picture ultimately emerges as something of a retrospective: in a breathtaking sleight of hand, Crimp has crafted a story that may be understood either as a freestanding narrative or as an envelope that contains the other Benjamin–Crimp works, hidden behind doors in Bluebeard’s Castle. Like Innocence—which I will consider in a second essay, on Saariaho’s operatic oeuvre—this opera poses a difficult question about the aftermath of unbearable loss: Should the survivors of catastrophe gather their strength and return to the wider world, or is the only course of action to retreat into themselves, into artifice and illusion? Innocence answers the question very differently, but Picture a day like this is an unforgettably powerful depiction of that second option, with its dangerous, narcotic allure.

This is the first of two articles.