Q & A: Ben Levy on Creating the Hit Animated YouTube Series ‘Classics Explained’

By David Salazar

“Sometimes the worst behavior has the best soundtrack” says the title for Episode 21 of “Classics Explained,” an animated video series by Ben Levy that you can watch right now on YouTube. In fact, before we continue with the interview, check out the video right here.

Much like Levy’s other videos in the series, this one gives viewers an enjoyable breakdown of the work at hand while also analyzing the aspects and conversations regarding the work that still endure today.

Levy was inspired to create the series with the goal of making classical music, often seen as a bastion of elitism, more accessible and approachable and hence his choice for not only animation but also YouTube as his platform of distribution. Levy, who has contributed to exhibition catalogues, written numerous books, and is a consulting expert, teamed up with the Animators at Siung Studio to bring his vision to life, resulting in a growing catalogue that has already analyzed such works as “The Ring” and “Die Zauberflöte.”

Levy recently visited with OperaWire about the project, his process, and his goals for the future.

OperaWire: What was the inspiration for Classics Explained?

Ben Levy: A desire to bring classical music down from the lofty heights and straight back to earth through a series of animated videos for YouTube, free to watch and for all to discover. It’s about demystifying and revealing the very human stories behind the fabled classics. Now that may sound terribly grand, but that’s why I also want people to laugh too. That’s why Classics Explained is essentially “edutainment” with a nod to Horrible Histories. Possibly the most challenging aspect of classical music is opera; it can instill fear into the uninitiated. So I am particularly glad that we have already included three operas: “The Magic Flute,” “Carmen” and “The Ring.” It’s not easy to distill 20 hours of Wagner into 14 minutes. It’s had over 131,000 views which is not as much as Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at half a million or Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture at 275,000. But it’s still pretty good to know that Wagner can have that sort of reach with audiences who aren’t necessarily confident with opera.

OW: What were the challenges of putting together the videos? What is your process for creating a video from conception to final publication?

BL: The biggest challenge is trying to say something new about the pieces we all think we know so well. To find an “angle” or a “message”; a takeaway that encourages the viewer to listen, not hear. I love immersing myself in the research and writing the scripts. I record them with my amazing sound technician James Shirley who mixes it all seamlessly. There’s then a joyous creative back-and-forth with our brilliant producers Antony Guscott and Jesse Stevens in New Zealand; they are the go-between for character designs and storyboards with our visionary animators at Siung Studios. What translates onto screen as a minute can take weeks to perfect. The whole process is about three or four months per video. And funding is always the tricky bit – we are still in the “passion project” stage!

OW: Are there any videos you are particularly proud of and why?

BL: I’m supposed to say I love them all in equal measure, but I guess my favorite is Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto: “From Misery to Melody.” This isn’t the great love story behind “Brief Encounter” but, rather, Rachmaninoff’s battle with crushing writer’s block and depression. There’s something so prosaic and contemporary about this otherwordly genius needing the love of his therapist to help him complete his masterpiece. The video is suitably poignant and filmic. I also love our latest video, “Carmen:” she’s such a sassy feminist warrior and her video is full of irreverence.

OW: How has your audience embraced the channel and how has that affected your direction with upcoming episodes?

BL: When the channel began, I didn’t really concern myself with audience numbers but the choice of subjects was (and still is) very much led by our viewers’ requests. The COVID lockdown led to a surge in viewership; the channel became populated with everybody from school kids learning virtually to the work from home procrastinators. It’s the comments that keep me going; it is amazing how many suggestions we get and how so many people who are familiar with classical music say they have discovered something new. I am thrilled we have reached three million views for the 21 episodes so far. As to upcoming episodes, we try and cover all bases: we’ve not yet doubled up on any particular composer and try to spread the videos across eras with even attention to opera and symphonic music.

OW: What is your Classic music / opera background? Where did that passion commence?

BL: I play piano and clarinet. I was a relatively serious pianist when at school and thought long and hard about whether I had what it took to become a concert performer. Alas, my passion for art history (my postgrad degree) led to a greater interest in explaining rather than performing; in fact, I curated theatre and performance exhibitions at the V&A, including assisting on the hit show Opera: Passion, Power and Politics. This was a great way to combine these loves. Nowadays, the day job is in the Law, so I’m lucky enough that Classics Explained gets to be my diverting passion.

OW: What are some operas you would like to explore in future episodes? How might those change in approach with what you recently created?

BL: I have always felt that there are quite different audiences for opera and symphonic classical music. The challenge with opera is to find a way not simply to re-hash the well-known stories but bring something new to the table. I’d love to do an off-piste opera of Alban Berg or Bela Bartok but, to be honest, it’s probably going to be Rossini or Verdi: they are just too good to pass up!


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