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Oliver Knussen knows the monsters well

The British composer's opera based on Maurice Sendak's children's book 'Where the Wild Things Are' gets Los Angeles Philharmonic treatment.

October 07, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Composer-conductor Oliver Knussen
Composer-conductor Oliver Knussen (Clive Barda )

LONDON — It's a problematic afternoon, and I'm late to meet the British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen at Royal Albert Hall. Torrential downpours have flooded parts of the Underground, and everywhere wild things are gearing up for the annual Notting Hill Carnival, which typically ends with a drunken riot and a couple of stabbings. Sane people stay away from all the ruckus.

When I finally arrive, Albert Hall is, on the other hand, relatively sedate. Knussen's rehearsal with the BBC Symphony for the evening Proms program he will conduct has finished. But we can hear the outside thunder in the hall, and it is a ruckus I have come to ask him about. Weeks hence (Oct. 11 to 14) in Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic and soloists in Knussen's opera, "Where the Wild Things Are," with live interactive video capturing Maurice Sendak's original illustrations from his children's classic.

Although he doesn't look it, Knussen, 60, was once a wild thing himself. He is a large man with graying beard — bear-like is the usual description — and a bum knee that is requiring him to use a cane. He is one of the most celebrated of today's British composers, a popular and an influential teacher who has molded at least two generations of composers in Britain and, often teaching in the U.S., at Tanglewood.

As we sit in the cavernous, circular 5,544-seat hall, which fills nightly for the Proms, the world's largest classical music festival, Knussen points to a high row of seats. His father, Stuart, was principal bass of the London Symphony, and Knussen, who began composing at 6, says that around that time he would often sit in on Proms rehearsals if his dad was playing.

"When I would get bored, usually with 18th century music," he recalls, "my thing was to go behind the boxes here and run all the way around and back again. Constantly. It was like a huge playpen."

Surely someone who treated Royal Albert Hall as a personal playpen might seem fated to write the best pair of children's operas of our time (Knussen's "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" is a companion work to "Wild Things"). Except that they are not really what some might consider children's operas. The music is complex and includes plenty to intrigue a musical insider. The L.A. Phil has even issued a warning stating that this will not be a "kid's" concert and that children should be brought at parents' discretion. "All patrons, regardless of age," the orchestra asserts on its website, "must sit quietly through the performance."

On the other hand, this is "Wild Things," an exceptionally vivid realization of Sendak's account of the young boy Max, who throws a tantrum, is sent to bed without supper and who is visited by irascible, if endearing, monsters.

Knussen says that even though children are occasionally mystified that Max is sung by a soprano, to his knowledge no kids have ever complained about the type of music in "Wild Things."

"But a hell of a lot of grown-ups have," he notes dryly. "Especially music teachers. 'How can you expect children to take in this sort of thing?' they will ask.

"Well, it's simple. They take it in the way they take stuff in at the movies."

Whether Knussen was born to write "Wild Things" or not, he was obviously fated to. That story begins in summer 1975, when the young composer went to Tanglewood to sit in on classes taught by French composer Olivier Messiaen.

"At one point someone I didn't know came up to me at a concert and said, 'Are you interested in writing an opera?'" Knussen begins.

"I said, 'Do you always ask people questions like that?' and he replied, 'Actually I've been casting around. Can you meet for lunch in the cafeteria tomorrow?'

"His name was Mike Miller. He was the son of Mitch Miller [whose 'Sing Along With Mitch' was popular on TV in the '60s]. There were only two or three pieces of mine he could have heard in Boston around that time, and I have to say, for the life of me, I would have never thought, 'Oh, he'd be a good person to write an opera.'

"Anyway we met at the cafeteria, and he tipped a whole bag of books out on the table, and they were Maurice's books. I'm too old to have grown up with them, but as it happened they'd caught my eye in a bookstore a few weeks before."

Sendak wanted to write an opera and Miller told Knussen to call him up right away. "I said, 'No, I'm not calling him up. It's like calling up Bernstein and saying I want to be a conductor.'"

So a few weeks later Sendak (who died five months ago) called Knussen and "a timid little voice on the phone with a stammer asked what I thought was the best children's opera ever written?"

"I said, 'Second act of "Boris Godunov."' He said, 'Right answer.' And we hit it off from there."

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