Mauled by John Huston

Encounters - Nicholas Wapshott meets Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, an overnight sensation at 69

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett sits at his kitchen table in New York under the dozing gaze of his piebald cat Alice, who is 15 and, oddly for a composer's companion, stone deaf. He's just back from a month in London, singing and accompanying on piano the singer Claire Martin in a set of American songbook standards at Pizza on the Park. Although he is among the handful of Britain's most eminent living composers, Sir Richard is now as interested in jazz as the music for which he is famous. He is also happier painting than composing. Which is why he finds it slightly strange that an opera he wrote 40 years ago has come back to haunt him.

The revival of The Mines of Sulphur was a sensation last summer in the sylvan setting of Glimmerglass, New York's Glyndebourne. Now Mines has just had a run with New York City Opera and, much to his wry surprise, Sir Richard, 69, is the toast of the town.

He looks back as a stranger on the piece that liberated him from the musical introversion he learned from the avant-garde composers Elisabeth Lutyens, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. "I said to the cast, I am just caretaking this piece. It is nothing to do with me any more.

"If it had flopped at Glimmerglass, it wouldn't have been the end," he explains. "I would have thought, oh well, that was a nice piece when it was young, but now it has gone." The opera is dedicated to Benjamin Britten, whose interest in the 25-year-old Bennett's music led to the commission. "Ben wanted me to write a chamber opera for Aldeburgh in six months. I am fast, but I couldn't do it that fast. So I said no. But Colin Graham, Ben's favourite opera director, gave me a play by Beverley Cross, who was married to Maggie Smith, called Scarlet Ribbons, set in the 17th century in a remote West Country house, about murderers who are disturbed by actors looking for shelter. The killers pretend to be the butchered lord and lady of the manor, and say, you can have shelter if you do a play. The play mirrors the same story and, I need hardly tell you, it all ends in murder and retribution."

Notwithstanding its atonality and macabre plot, the opera was a huge hit in 1965, despite a disastrous second production, at La Scala, Milan, at the hands of the film-maker John Huston. "He was vile to me," says Sir Richard. "I had been to his country house in Ireland to get to know him and he was all right. But when I got to Milan I was told I couldn't go to re-hearsals. So I sat in my hotel thinking: what did I do? The production was unspeakably terrible. The audience booed and screamed. If it had been the first production, I think I would have given up."

But Mines survived Huston's mauling and soon appeared in Glasgow, Marseille, Cologne, Stockholm, Toronto, Los Angeles and New York. "The success was very heady for me," Sir Richard says.

The opera served an important function. "It taught me what makes sense to an audience," he says. But he has no intention of writing another. "I am interested in the human voice and words and drama, but not in the opera house." Nor is he much interested in contemporary music. "Anything goes. You can write jazz, rap and rock. I don't find that exciting."

He prefers popular songs. "I am interested in songs people don't know, second lyrics and introductory verses. I am always looking for new songs by forgotten composers and it never ends. It is like a diamond mine." Not that he intends to write songs himself. "I wish I could write those sort of gems, but I can't."

Nor does he want to write film music, a lucrative occupation which, since the age of 19, has freed him to compose what he wishes. Among his scores are Murder on the Orient Express, the BBC production of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast and Four Weddings and a Funeral. "I don't have to do it. I am living on royalties from pictures I did when I was 25. I don't mean it is keeping me in palatial style _ it isn't _ but I am still getting a little income. I can't complain. I occasionally get offered movies, but I really don't want to do any more. You have to work so fast."

Mines remained in the repertory until 1979. "Lots of people had seen it and asked: when's it coming back? I was very proud of it, in a slightly distant way."

The current production came about by chance, when the composer Stephen Hartke failed to complete an opera commissioned for the new Glimmerglass season. The British conductor Stewart Robinson, who heard Mines in Glasgow when he was 17, proposed a revival and it has proved a great success. "It still shakes people," says Sir Richard, with satisfaction. "It is a piece with very happy memories. It has done very well for me. But I don't know what will happen to it now. This may be the last production ever."

Richard Rodney Bennett's 70th Birthday Concert is on 9 March 2006, 7.30pm, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1