Skip to main content

This Opera Will Eat Your Heart Out

In few operas does all the mayhem express what underlies George Benjamin's Written on Skin. The work conveys a profound awareness of human cruelty and its inextricable connection to passion and art.



Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on October 4, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 4, 2013: Interview with Thomas Maier; Review of the new George Benjamin opera "Written on skin;" Review of the film "Gravity."


October 4, 2013

Guest: Thomas Maier

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The new Showtime series "Masters of Sex," based on sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, premiered Sunday. It's based on a book by our guest Thomas Maier, who is also a consultant for the series. Masters and Johnson became famous in the '60s for their groundbreaking and controversial research into the physiology of human sexuality.

Instead of just asking people about their sex lives, Masters and Johnson actually observed volunteers engaging in self-stimulation and sexual intercourse. Changes throughout their bodies during arousal were measured with medical equipment.

Until Maier's book, Masters and Johnson's research techniques remained shrouded in secrecy, but he was able to uncover information through interviews with their friends, family and former colleagues, as well as extensive interviews with Virginia Johnson, who died in July at the age of 88.

Thomas Maier is an investigative reporter for Newsday and is also the author of a book about the famous pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. Terry interviewed him earlier this summer. Their conversation involves sex research and will get into birds-and-bees territory you may not have explained to your children. So parents, use your discretion.

Let's start with a scene from the first episode of the Showtime adaptation of "Masters of Sex." Masters has asked Johnson to assist him with his research. She's been working as a secretary in his OB/GYN office, knows nothing about his sex research and is surprised to see him carrying a handful of girlie magazines.


MICHAEL SHEEN: (as William Masters) I hired you because I need an assistant and because I suspect you might have a gift for the work. That said, if you're uncomfortable with what I'm doing here, speak now and I can make other arrangements.

LIZZY CAPLAN: (as Virginia Johnson) I'm not sure what it is you're doing.

SHEEN: (as Masters) I'm wiring Ms. DiMello to monitor pulse, heart rate and brain waves to illuminate to my patients and to the general community what happens to the body during sexual stimulation and orgasm. The magazines are to help with the stimulation part because, unbeknownst to me, Ms. DiMello prefers women, which to be frank concerns me because it may in fact throw off my data.

CAPLAN: (as Johnson) Why would it throw off your data? Isn't an orgasm an orgasm?

SHEEN: (as Masters) That is one of the many questions I hope to answer, but as she is my only subject, it really means I have no choice, whatever her orientation. So are you interested in the job or not?


Thomas Maier, welcome to FRESH AIR. You describe Masters and Johnson as having medicalized sex. Would you explain what you mean?

THOMAS MAIER: Sure, before Masters and Johnson came along, the realm of sex, the subject of sex, was usually something that you talked to your priest, your rabbi or your minister, or you found yourself lying on a couch talking about your feelings about your mother to a Freudian-trained analyst. Bear in mind when they came along in the mid-'50s, it was the height of Freud's impact on America.

So they brought the realm of sex, they thought that the answers, the questions that - the questions that people were posing and the answers that people were looking for were best addressed to a doctor who was well-trained in the subject of sex.

GROSS: And they also used medical equipment to study sex. So just tell us a little bit about the tools that they used.

MAIER: Well, Masters wanted to understand exactly how the body worked so that they could come up with therapies to fix the various different problems that married couples would have in the bedroom. So they used a variety of different instruments. One of the instruments that they used was to trace the breathing and the heart rates and such.

There was also a device that was used to internally observe sexual response by women, and that had a nickname called Ulysses, but it was something that was all part of their clinical observation of how both male and females responded during sex.

GROSS: Ulysses was basically like a large, clear, plastic tampon that was attached to a camera so that you could see and monitor what was going on internally.

MAIER: Yeah, in fact there was a fellow who was an expert at the medical school at Washington University, Kramer Lewis was his name, and he was still alive when I was doing the research for the book. And he described how it was made of Plexiglas.

And it was quite a contraption, a little bit of Rube Goldberg there, but it was something that was quite effective, and eventually they would send the color photos to this lab at Kodak that basically dealt with medical schools and was accustomed to, you know, taking photographs of various different patients in the nude for a variety of different reasons. And they would get that back, and that's how they kind of traced this whole thing.

GROSS: So basically when you're talking about medicalizing sex, what you're saying, too, is that they studied sex like scientists, not like psychologists. They wanted to see, like, what's happening physiologically in a woman's body, in a man's body, when they're becoming sexually aroused or when they're reaching orgasm. And had anybody done that kind of clinical approach before?

MAIER: No, it was kind of the holy grail of OB/GYNs, in a sense, that, in other words, they were all aware that there had never been a study of human beings. They had studied rabbits and they had studied apes, and in fact that's kind of how Bill Masters, studying anatomy both in Rochester and later at Johns Hopkins, became aware that this was something that had never been done.

He traveled in the circle of doctors that were looking to win the Nobel Prize for identifying estrogen and progesterone. And he felt, though, that this was, if you will, the grand prize, that this was something that would win a Nobel Prize if he could fully document over a long period of time exactly how the human body responded during the central act of procreation.

GROSS: What are some of the breakthroughs Masters and Johnson were responsible for in our understanding of human sexuality?

MAIER: Their major first book dealt with the power of female sexuality. Masters and Johnson really underlined the power of female sexuality, and in their long-term study what they showed was that women were - had the capacity for multiple orgasms in a way that men would go into what they called the refractory period after having the initial sexual orgasm.

Women were capable of multiple orgasms, and the second and the third was more intense than the first, and that they didn't necessarily need to have a man to have an orgasm. And this was something that was done with about 380 women and almost an equal number of men, and they recorded something like 10,000 orgasms over a decade-long study that formulated their major book, "Human Sexual Response," that came out in 1966.

GROSS: And you also wrote that they said that women could enjoy sex long after menopause, that penis size was not related to sexual adequacy.

MAIER: Their empirical studies showed the power of female sexuality and that their studies underlined that women had a much greater capacity for sex and that this informed - it came right along with the advent of the pill, came along and kind of helped spark the feminist view about sexuality of the late '60s and the '70s. And you can see that Masters and Johnson's medical studies had a huge impact on people's understanding, the popular understanding of what was capable in the bedroom.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Maier, and he's the author of the book "Masters of Sex" about the sex research of Masters and Johnson and about the lives of Masters and Johnson. And that book is the basis of the new Showtime series "Masters of Sex."

So it's kind of amazing to think that what they did was watch people in the act and record what was happening. He started doing this with prostitutes before he started recruiting people who worked at the university where he taught. Why did he choose prostitutes for his early research?

MAIER: Well, that was really the only female subjects that he could get to study. He was going it alone initially. And, you know, Masters had an OB/GYN practice in St. Louis, where he was in many ways like the best doctor in St. Louis. He kind of had a lot of rich clients. So he was very aware that the experiences of prostitutes were different than everyday women.

GROSS: But when he was studying prostitutes, one of his methods of observation was to go to a brothel and look through a peephole or a two-way mirror that had been designed for voyeurs at the brothel.

MAIER: Right.

GROSS: This is kind of remarkable to think of him...

MAIER: It - oh, sure is.

GROSS: Doing that as a scientist, like peering into a peephole at a brothel and taking notes.

MAIER: Yeah, it really is, and it also made me wonder how in the world did he even get the - how was he not arrested for doing this? And one of the things that I found in doing research, I found the police commissioner in St. Louis, a guy named Sam Priest - he had been the OB/GYN for Mrs. Priest when she delivered her babies.

So Sam Priest, the top cop in St. Louis, he loved Dr. Masters. He thought he was the greatest, the way that anybody who would have - that, you know, that we all kind of venerate doctors who are terrific. And so whatever Masters wanted to do in that regard, he was more than willing to accommodate.

So he had Priest, Commissioner Priest, allowed the vice squad to act as almost the accomplices with Masters in going to various different brothels in the city and observing prostitutes all in the name of science. And because Bill Masters said it, and the power of both his position, the veneration that parents had for his work as an OB/GYN, but also just the power of his personality, people trusted him. So he was even able to do something this extraordinary, all in the name of science.

DAVIES: Thomas Maier, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's interview recorded earlier this year with Thomas Maier, author of the book "Masters of Sex" about sex researchers Masters and Johnson. The book is the basis of a new TV series on Showtime.

GROSS: One of the things that you say Masters learned by observing prostitutes at work was that they would sometimes fake orgasm to encourage the man to hurry up and finish. And he was just amazed. That was a huge revelation to him. And that propelled his research forward in what way?

MAIER: What happened with Masters is that he was using a number of different prostitutes, and one of the prostitutes was actually a graduate student, I believe, and he would debrief them after observing this and kind of talk about it. And he asked about orgasm, and she said, well, that she often faked orgasm. And he said what do you mean faking orgasm?

And she said are you kidding, something to the effect of buddy, you've got to be kidding. And she explained that virtually most women at some point in their life, if not almost every night, will fake orgasm, that, you know, it was a common thing. And he seemed like he was struck by lightning, that the light bulb went off on his head.

And it was this student, this graduate student, who said to him that he should get a female partner. And it was something that he really took to heart, and he realized that he was not going to go anywhere unless he had a female partner.

GROSS: And he hired a woman who became his partner in research, and that was Virginia Johnson. How did he find her?

MAIER: Well, Virginia Johnson was a 32-year-old woman, twice divorced. She was on the heels of her second divorce. She had two children, and she was going back to school, Washington University in St. Louis. She was essentially a secretary, filling out insurance forms. In fact she wasn't even in an office. She was sitting at a desk in the middle of the hallway when she started there.

She came along just as Masters was looking for a female partner. There were no - virtually no female doctors, and the few that were out there, they didn't want to go near this type of study. This was playing with dynamite. It was virtually career suicide.

He had actually broached the subject with his wife, but his wife, Libby, had had difficulty getting pregnant, and they were just having children. She didn't want to have any part of this type of study. So Virginia Johnson, this woman going back to college, looking for a degree, became eventually the ideal associate for Masters.

GROSS: And at this point Masters and Johnson started using not prostitutes but, you know, volunteers, paid volunteers?

MAIER: Sometimes, sometimes, and sometimes just sheer volunteers. Virginia Johnson had - she was the exact opposite in many ways of Bill Masters. Masters was a hard science guy. Virginia was very good with understanding human beings, what made men and women tick, the emotional aspects of it. And that was part of her skill set that would prove to be very, very important to their work.

And one of the first things that she did was able to convince nurses and graduate students and some patients and other various different people in the St. Louis community to become volunteers in their study, essentially to drop their pants, if you will, all in the name of science.

GROSS: But was it in her nature to do the work, to, you know, recruit people to participate in their sexual studies, to make sure that they were calm and relaxed and willing and then also to observe? I mean, usually if somebody is watching somebody else perform a sexual act, it's called voyeurism, but in this sense it was called research. Did she - did you ask her about that, like how she felt when she started doing this research, watching people in the act?

MAIER: Oh sure, yeah.

GROSS: What'd she say?

MAIER: Well, she said a couple of different things. One is, she said, well, Tom, I grew up on a farm. And, you know, I'm a farm girl. So I was aware of animal husbandry, if you will. And so there was that level of clinical aspect of it. And, you know, after a while it didn't become at all difficult for her.

In fact, there was an early part in their relationship in which Masters asked Virginia whether or not this would bother her, whether or not she would be somehow upset by observing this, and she said, no, why would it? You know, there's a story that was told to me by Paul Gebhard, who was the person who ran the Kinsey Institute after Alfred Kinsey died.

And Bill Masters very much coveted the approval of Paul Gebhard. So he invited Gebhard to come and see their contraption, this Ulysses, the Plexiglas device that was able to internally be inserted and observe female orgasm. Indeed, they had a show for him, and they observed it. And Gebhard, one of the things that he pointed out, he marveled that day.

Among all the things that he marveled at, and there was plenty to marvel at, was the behavior of Virginia Johnson and the interaction with Masters because at one point this object was perhaps a little bit cold. She came in - Virginia came in with a warm compress the way in which, you know, people that go to a barber shop might get a hot towel around them.

And she put it - she wrapped it around the device to make it warm and comfy just so that it could be used by this, by the willing female graduate student, I believe it was, who displayed that - exactly what was going on that day to Gebhard. So it was those type of details that were quite impressive to me. She had a real intuitive sense of how to make things work. And for that Masters always adored her.

GROSS: One of the things that Masters and Johnson wanted to do was offer sexual therapy to couples who were having difficulty in their intimate lives. And one of the ways of doing that was to have sex surrogates. And just explain a little bit how Masters and Johnson used sex surrogates in their therapeutic work.

MAIER: Well, in their therapy, they always wanted to study how the body works so that they could fix it - medicine could deal with the various different problems that couples had, individuals had, and one of the problems was impotence for men. And they found that sex surrogates could be quite effective with men who were having problems performing.

And Bill Masters had a certain utilitarian - an all-American utilitarianism to his view. If it worked, it was the job of the doctor to make it happen for the patient. And so he believed in sex surrogates. But what happened there were some legal consequences that came across there, and I think Masters and particularly Virginia but Masters became aware that he could have his medical license perhaps even taken away.

So the lawsuit was quietly taken care of by their lawyers, and they kind of vowed that they wouldn't do that, even though they said, well, you know, it did work, it worked remarkably well, but they wouldn't do it again. And I found later on that they had surreptitiously, particularly Bill Masters, had brought back a couple of different surrogates because these were people, patients, men who had profound sexual problems, and he felt it was his role as a doctor to find the cure, find the solution for them and that there was nothing wrong in doing that.

GROSS: You quote Xaviera Hollander, who wrote the bestseller "The Happy Hooker," she was a madam, and she wrote about sex surrogates: My method is basically the same principle as Masters and Johnson, only they charge thousands, and it's called therapy; I charge $50, and it's called prostitution. What do you think of what she's saying there?

MAIER: Well, I think they felt as long as it was within the realm of medicine and that people were following things here and keeping an eye on it and that it was effective for patients, that it was the appropriate course to pursue. And ultimately it was just too difficult, it was too hot to handle, frankly, politically.

GROSS: And that was always the problem for them, that they - the subject of sex was something that medicine, they felt, should get involved in, but medicine was not really willing to do so.

DAVIES: Thomas Maier, the author of "Masters of Sex," will be back in the second half of the show. His book about sex researchers Masters and Johnson is the basis of the new Showtime series "Masters of Sex," which airs Sunday nights. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. The new Showtime series "Masters of Sex" is based on a book by our guest Thomas Maier, about the groundbreaking research into human sexuality by Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. It is research that remains controversial because it was based on observing volunteers engaging in self-stimulation and sexual intercourse. The researchers also used medical equipment to monitor the volunteer's physiological responses during arousal. Thomas Maier spoke to Terry in July.

GROSS: When Virginia Johnson joined William Masters as his associate, you know, her job was putting the people at ease who were participating in the subjects, in the research, preparing them, making them understand the, you know, medical and scientific importance of the work that they were doing. But she became more and more an active participant in the research. And then at some point Masters basically says to her that he and she should be engaging in sex with each other as part of their ongoing research.

MAIER: Yeah. I was really shocked by that.

GROSS: Yeah. What was the proposition that he made to her and what was her reaction?

MAIER: When they began their studies, the power situation between them was that Bill was the big boss - Bill Masters - and Virginia was the secretary who was very desperate to keep the job. And so what happened was after a few months their laboratory studies was almost like that Frankenstein lab where, you know, where you see everybody's hair all jumping up out of the - there was a certain kinetic energy coming out of this lab. And what he theorized, what he said, suggested to Virginia - quite improperly - was that there would be a transference - he actually used a Freudian term - that there would be a transference if they didn't act out this sexual energy, and that the best way that it could be channeled was among themselves.

And it was something that was, it underlined that the beginning of their relationship, their professional and personal relationship, was quite an uneven. He was in a power position. He was the boss, and if she didn't say yes in a sense, she would - one, not only not have a job tomorrow, but that she was beginning to really love this work and that it would be over tomorrow, if she didn't agree to Bill's requirement that they have sex together. From this beginning began a very complicated relationship in which it became more and more equal, and that's probably one of the most fascinating aspects of their relationship. On this very inauspicious beginning began a much more equal relationship. And that Masters, a doctor who would probably be most, like most doctors, would be unwilling to give equal billing to a secretary, and one without a degree, that he was willing to do that is one of the most paradoxical and ironic aspects, particularly when you think about the beginning of their relationship.

GROSS: Well, also they went on to be married - although we'll talk about the marriage a little later. It didn't sound like the greatest marriage in the world. But, you know, so when he makes this proposal to Virginia Johnson, that they should be having sex with each other as part of their research, did he intend to, you know, like measure their responses and treat their sexual encounters as part of the research?

MAIER: I gathered that was part of it, you know, how things would work, but I also think it was the entree for their relationship - or at least their sexual relationship. And, you know, indeed, it became an affair, a full-fledged, very hot, hot-to-trot affair there over a number of years on and off. Virginia had her own life; Bill maintained his marriage out in the suburbs, his wife and his two children. And often the way in which their average day - if you will - would work was that he was an OB/GYN by day and then after hours they would have the sex studies that would take place, and then after that they would sometimes go off and have sex themselves. And that was kind of their relationship for a number of years at the outset.

GROSS: Eventually, Masters and Johnson married. And what's your understanding of why they got married?

MAIER: Well, they got married at the very height of their fame. They were on the cover of "Time" magazine, and this was about 1970. And by that point, they had become quite world-famous. Virginia Johnson had made more money, frankly, from, somewhat to a surprise to her, than she ever imagined, and she had met a man who had funded - a millionaire here in New York who had provided money for their study about the impact of sense and smell on sexuality. This was a guy who provided the lemon in Lemon Pledge and all these various different scents, and he felt that, you know, somehow they found the link between sense and sexuality, that this was well worth funding. And it turned out as much as Masters liked that idea, he didn't like the idea that this fellow, Hank Walter was his name, wound up having an affair with Virginia Johnson and that eventually Virginia wanted to get married to Hank Walter. When Masters found that out, he finally decided that he was going to end his marriage. The thing that was most important to him was not his family, was not even necessarily a relationship with Virginia, it was that work that they were doing - the brand name of Masters and Johnson. And so Masters ended his long marriage, told his kids that he was divorcing their mother, and got married to Virginia.

GROSS: Some of their later work was very controversial - not because of the techniques that they used but because a lot of people just thought it was out and out wrong. And one example of that is their 1979 book "Homosexuality in Perspective." What was most controversial about that book?

MAIER: Well, they had developed a therapy that was remarkably successful. They claimed an 80 percent success rate among people who would come to their clinic for two weeks and miraculously were changed, whatever problems, sexual problems they had were somehow dealt with and - if you will - cured. That 1979 book dealt with the subject of homosexuality. And a lot of the book dealt with homosexuality in the same way that they had documented in their first book with heterosexuality, just exactly how things worked and such. But Masters insisted on pushing the envelope - if you will - by suggesting that their therapy with a handful of cases had been able to help quote-unquote "convert" homosexuals into heterosexuals, if the patients wanted to do this.

And it caused a great deal of mischief because it became one of the things that a number of different, usually right-wing folks would say, that homosexuals could somehow convert to heterosexuality if they really wanted to, because Masters and Johnson - among others - had insisted that it would be possible if the patient really wanted to do that. And of course it caused a lot of heartbreak, a lot of difficulty for people in the years after that book appeared.

GROSS: And they also wrote in "Homosexuality in Perspective" that sexual orientation was a learned behavior. So implying that you learn to be straight or gay and implying after that that therefore you could unlearn being gay.

MAIER: Yeah. You know, I think you have to look at that book also in its time. Bear in mind, they were on "Meet the Press" for the entire half-hour or hour of that program back in 1979 and you had the leading medical writers at the time quizzing them about it, and there really wasn't much in the way at that time of people contesting some of their theories such as that, about learned behavior or whether or not it was genetic. And so they have to to some extent be viewed in the time period in which they operated.

They were still very much pioneers. And Masters, you know, some people have asked me whether or not he was anti-gay or such, and I, I don't think that's quite right because in the early '70s, when homosexuality - believe it or not - was taken out of the textbooks as a mental disorder, it was Bill Masters who was one of those doctors who helped push that out of the textbooks. He was one of those people that helped make the world more progressive in their understanding about homosexuality. I think it was more hubris on his part, a certain arrogance about the success rate and their willing - his fundamental nature of being a risk-taker, saying that he believed in their therapy so much that this might be possible, that they could, quote, "convert" homosexuals into heterosexuals if they really wanted to. And it's quite unfortunate, particularly as we look back on it.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you a question that I imagine a lot of people asked about Masters and Johnson or may be particularly Masters, who initiated the research - even when they were at the height of their fame - and that is, do you think that part of his reason for doing this sex research is that he was a bit of a voyeur?

MAIER: Maybe. If you delve deeply somewhere into his psyche, I wouldn't be able to say with certainty. I don't think so though. The way he started was as a medical student studying anatomy, and there was something even more appealing than any realm of sexual titillation; it was ambition. That's what fueled Bill Masters. He was a risk taker. And I take it was sheer ambition, raw ambition, that drove him, that was - tantalized him more than anything else here. I think that's what really was at the heart of his drive. He learned about it as an anatomy student and realized that perhaps he could win a Nobel Prize. So it was his raw ambition, I think, that drove him to do all of this.

GROSS: Well, Thomas Maier, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

MAIER: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: Thomas Maier speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in July. Maier's book, "Masters of Sex," was published in a new paperback edition this year. The series "Masters of Sex" airs Sunday nights on Showtime.

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews British composer George Benjamin's first full-length opera "Written on Skin. "

This is FRESH AIR.


DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Very few new operas get the kind of international attention that British composer George Benjamin's "Written on Skin" has received since its world premiere in France last year.

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz attended the American premiere at Tanglewood this past summer and says it more than lives up to its hype. Here's his review.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Sung in Foreign Language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Sung in Foreign Language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN AND WOMAN: (Sung in Foreign Language)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: The British composer George Benjamin has quietly developed a reputation for serious, meticulous work. His creative output is limited because he proceeds very slowly. I first heard his music in 2000, when no less a conductor than Pierre Boulez led a piece of his at Carnegie Hall. But after the premiere of his first full-length opera at the Aix-en-Provence Festival last year, his reputation seems to have taken off. The New Yorker's Alex Ross called it, the work of a genius unleashed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The opera, titled "Written on Skin," has a libretto by the prolific English playwright Martin Crimp. "Written on Skin" is both beautiful and bleak, with darkly translucent orchestration that includes mandolin, viola da gamba, and an eerie glass harmonica.

SCHWARTZ: Since the Festival at Aix was the initial commissioner, the one stipulation was that the opera had to have something to do with that region of France. So Crimp's libretto is based on a 13th-century Provencal tale about a wealthy and powerful landowner - Crimp calls him the Protector - who takes in a young artist to paint a book on vellum or parchment --on skin - that glorifies all the owner's possessions, including his young wife. When the Protector discovers that the artist is sleeping with his wife - another kind of writing on skin, he murders the artist and feeds his heart to the wife. In the opera, the wife sings ecstatically that nothing can ever take away the sweet/salty taste of her lover's heart. Then, before her husband can kill her, she leaps to her death from a balcony. In the concert version I heard this summer at Tanglewood's Festival of Contemporary Music, the young professionals that Benjamin himself conducted made it hair-raising.


SCHWARTZ: This opera is not the traditional collection of arias and recitatives. Like two of its great antecedents, Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande," and Berg's "Wozzeck," it's really a setting of a play and divided into short scenes with some of the best music coming between the scenes. Benjamin considers opera a very artificial form, and the libretto emphasizes this artificiality by having the characters frequently refer to themselves in the third person, so that the characters both live their experiences and sing about them.

There's also a mysterious overlapping of time. The opera takes place in both the 13th century and in our own time. Three Angels, who are both narrators and characters - one of them plays the young artist - sing about how our modern civilization, with its parking lots and international airports, has been built on top of the heaped-up dead. In a nightmare, the self-absorbed Protector is having, the Angels sing: What kind of man will not see?

This excerpt is from the CD of the premier in France.


UNIDENTIFIED MEN AND WOMEN: (singing) (unintelligible) Say the book. The book needs saving. The book keeps calm. Save the book. Go rant. (unintelligible) Not just, not just the book. Save the book. Save. Comes from the book. Save it (unintelligible) by the skin. Where the skin got on, never dries. Skin stains. (unintelligible) What? What? What? What? What? Like a hole on (unintelligible). Yes. What?

(singing) What? What? What? What, what, what, what, ho. What? Egg. (unintelligible) What kind of man will not - what kind of man will not see? What kind of man will not, will not see?

SCHWARTZ: Such a grim subject is not unheard of in opera. Bodies pile up in many of the most popular of them; Puccini's Tosca also jumps to her death. But in few operas does all the mayhem express what underlies "Written on Skin": a profound awareness of human cruelty and its inextricable connection to human passion and art. That tension fills every bar of Benjamin's brutal and ravishing score.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the FMA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed George Benjamin's opera "Written On Skin" which is available on a Nimbus CD. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Gravity" starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Mexican born director Alfonso Cuaron has made intimate independent films like "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and expensive fantasies like the third "Harry Potter" movie and the dystopian thriller "Children of Men." His newest film, which he wrote with his son Jonas, is "Gravity" in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts marooned in space after a shuttle accident. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In a season in which we're all talking about AMC's phenomenal "Breaking Bad" and Netflix's elating "Orange Is the New Black," Hollywood needs you, your kids and everyone in Europe and China to get out from behind those TV monitors and into theaters. Movie studios are falling behind on compelling narratives. But they can give you what TV can't: absolute, total bombardment.

So now we get "Gravity," in which director Alfonso Cuarón aims to put you right there in orbit with novice astronaut Sandra Bullock and veteran-on-his-last-mission George Clooney as their space shuttle gets demolished by debris from an exploded Soviet satellite. Right there means making you feel as if you're floating and spinning and bashing into things along with Bullock and Clooney - who have to find a working shuttle to get home.

Maybe on the nearby Russian space station, preferably before those lethal satellite pieces come hurtling around the Earth again in - synchronize your watches - 90 minutes. Time is running out. O2 is dwindling. Communication with Mission Control in Houston is gone, which is why Bullock and Clooney begin their messages saying, Houston in the blind. There are pieces of the shuttle and dead astronauts floating all over. It's a mess up there in that airless, gravity-less void.

Sound or its lack is essential to the illusion: fast breathing, crackles of static, high-pitched space frequencies. After the shuttle explodes, Bullock hurtles end over end into space. We see it all from her revolving point of view, Earth, stars, debris, stars, Earth, as she calls out to Houston.


SANDRA BULLOCK: (as Ryan) Explorer, do - do you copy? Houston, do you copy? Houston, this is mission specialist Ryan Stone. I am off structure and I'm drifting. Do you copy? Anyone? Anybody? Do you copy? Please copy. Please.

EDELSTEIN: Sandra Bullock is our most down-to-earth superstar, which makes her the perfect actress to connect with us from space. She talks a lot - to Clooney, to Houston in the blind, to herself. Woven amid the bombardments and cliffhangers is a spiritual odyssey. Her character is dead inside after a personal tragedy. She needs to re-find her faith and be born again - metaphorically but unmistakably, since in one shot she floats in the fetal position.

"Gravity" has more than a dash of old Hollywood: It's sentimental as all get-out. This isn't the first time that an old-fashioned religious theme gets past your defenses via state-of-the-art Hollywood technology, but it's one of the most effective. It wasn't actually shot in space - I know, big news. But even if everything happens in a computer, it's an awesome display of math and physics.

The first shot is very long and entirely fluid: a slice of Earth, a dot that turns out to be a shuttle moving toward us, faster than we anticipate, three figures attached - two working outside on the craft, one floating free. Throughout the film, I kept thinking of all the variables the filmmakers had to calculate: the way bodies drift vis-a-vis the Earth's rotation in zero gravity while stars move in the background, the momentum and impact of an astronaut's body as it collides with another body or the side of a spacecraft with a head-rocking whomp.

I don't think my reverence for the physics is entirely separate from the characters' religious journey. A New York magazine reader of mine quoted Einstein saying: Scientists have a religious feeling that takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law. I felt that watching Bullock and Clooney in orbit. I wish I'd worked harder in math.

"Gravity" is not a film to watch on your iPhone on the bus. You need to sit as close as you can to the biggest screen you can find - maybe a gargantuan IMAX screen. You need to put on those 3-D glasses and rock out. The movie is cornball. But higher Math produces the Higher Corn.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue