27 Feb 2015 5:00pm - 6:30pm West Road Concert Hall


This event is free and open to all (places will be allocated on a first come, first served basis)

Sir John Tomlinson, Humanitas Visiting Professor in Vocal Music 2015, will be in conversation with composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle about the construction of the role of the Minotaur. The session will be chaired by Professor Jonathan Cross (Oxford).

About Birtwistle's “Minotaur”

Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Minotaur was commissioned by the Royal Opera House and premiered on 15 April 2008. The libretto was written by David Harsent. It was a very successful production, released on DVD only months after its premiere and revived for five extra performances in 2013.

The Minotaur is clearly the main character in this operatic retelling of the classic Greek tragedy. The role was written specifically for the voice of John Tomlinson, who had worked earlier with both Birtwistle and Harsent for the lead role in Gawain (1991). The Minotaur, half-bull and half-man, lives at the centre of the Cretan Labyrinth where he is guarded by princess Ariadne. Each year, a group of young Athenians is sent to Crete as a sacrifice to the beast. One year, the young Theseus is among them, who has vowed to kill the Minotaur.

In this version, the sympathy of the viewer lies with the Minotaur rather than with the heroic Theseus. He is presented as a victim, mocked by Ariadne, Theseus, the Chorus and the Athenian youths. He does not understand his own nature, and his human side is only evident in his dreams and on his deathbed; in other scenes all he can do is grunt and scream. The cage-like construction of his bull’s head, designed by Allison Chitty, symbolises both his physical and psychological imprisonment.

Theseus and particularly Ariadne, meanwhile, are portrayed as merciless and self-centred. Neither seem to act out of a concern for the innocent youths. Theseus sees the Minotaur as a means to further his own heroism. Ariadne is manipulative, playing games with Theseus so that he may get her off the island. Meanwhile, darker psychological layers are suggested in a monologue where she almost jealously describes her mother’s lovemaking to the Cretan Bull and the successive birth of the Minotaur.

In keeping with its subject matter, the stage and costume design of The Minotaur were ritualistic, and the production contained many violent and disturbing scenes. The opera was very well received, although many reviewers confessed to a sense of unease. ‘It’s an awful, awful evening,’ wrote Anna Picard in The Independent, adding however that ‘The Minotaur is an imperative.’

Event in the series

Michelangelo in Song
23 Feb 2015 7:30pm - 9:30pm, West Road Concert Hall

Featuring Britten's song cycle “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo”. 

The Construction of the Role of Wotan
25 Feb 2015 5:00pm - 6:30pm, West Road Concert Hall

Illustrated lecture by Sir John Tomlinson in conversation with Patrick Carnegy.

The Construction of the Role of the Minotaur
27 Feb 2015 5:00pm - 6:30pm, West Road Concert Hall

Sir John Tomlinson in conversation with composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

About the Professorship

The Humanitas Chair in Vocal Music has been made possible by the generous support of the Mercedes T. Bass Charitable Corporation. 

The combination of word and music, whether in the genre of song, opera, or sacred and secular choral repertoires, has for centuries been a vehicle for some of humanity's most profound aesthetic experiences as well as a topic of enduring scholarly fascination (the very question of primacy between the two elements has itself been the subject of several operas). This newly established series of HUMANITAS Visiting Professorships provides an unparalleled opportunity for world-ranking figures to explore, through lectures, masterclasses, colloquia and performances, the many facets of vocal art: the creation of character in opera; the relationship of singer and pianist in Lied performance; voice production in diverse vocal and operatic traditions; as well as the embodied nature of the act of singing itself. At a time when live transmission to cinemas of performances from the world's leading opera houses is creating new audiences, and choral singing is enjoying a growth in national popularity perhaps not seen since the nineteenth century, the HUMANITAS Professorships in Vocal Music will play an important role in enriching public understanding and enjoyment. The tradition of vocal music at Cambridge is envied all over the world, and its alumni are to be found singing at the highest international level across the globe. Given also the firm place of Performance Studies in the work of the Faculty of Music, there could be no better host institution for these new posts than the University of Cambridge.    

Standing Committee

Richard Causton (Music Faculty)
Stephen Cleobury (Director of Music, King's College)
Ian Fenlon (Music Faculty)
Nick Marston (Music Faculty)
Martin Ennis (Music Faculty)

Hosting College

King's College

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Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk