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Imagine a modern opera starring Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair or George W Bush. They wouldn’t appear in person, of course, but their lives have “operatic” qualities – vanity, hubris, power – that could be dramatised.

If you’re turned off by politicians, you could have Tiger Woods or Princess Diana instead – or any of the leading players in the last international banking collapse. Ridiculous? You wouldn’t laugh if these figures were fictionalised in film or dramatised, documentary-style, on television. But the idea of a singer impersonating them in an opera seems absurd because our idea of opera revolves around fancy frocks, fat ladies and 19th-century arias. When you see someone in costume singing an aria, you know it can’t be realistic because real people don’t go around singing – unless they happen to be in the bath.

In recent times, however, a new type of opera has emerged that dramatises contemporary people of notoriety by turning them into operatic archetypes – the flawed ruler, for instance. Known as documentary opera or docu-opera, it is an attempt to answer a pressing question: how can you make opera, an old art form, respond to the issues of today?

The latest docu-opera is Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which will have its world premiere at the Royal Opera House in London this month. Turnage, 50, is one of the UK’s most successful composers, with a personal idiom influenced as much by jazz as classical tradition. His new opera, with a libretto by Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame), has already generated huge media interest – not surprisingly, because we are promised “sex, extreme language and drug abuse” in the upmarket confines of an opera house.

But the true significance of Anna Nicole is that it sets out to address the realities of 21st-century life instead of behaving, as opera usually does, like a legacy of 18th- and 19th-century culture. Its centrepiece is Anna Nicole Smith, a blonde Texan who worked as a stripper before winning fame as a Playboy model, reality television star and actress. Aged 26, Smith married J Howard Marshall, an 89-year-old billionaire. She died of a drugs overdose in 2007, aged 39, leaving a high-profile legal battle, still unresolved, over her and her children’s claim to his estate.

“It’s very clever of Turnage to choose this playgirl, a gold-digger, because none of us knows her in the way we think we know Diana or Berlusconi,” says Nicholas Payne, director of Opera Europa and a former head of the Royal Opera. “She is a good-time girl and a victim simultaneously. Do you take a feminist view and justify her? Or do you portray her as a siren who gets her come-uppance? I’d be very surprised if the combined forces of Turnage, Thomas and director Richard Jones don’t get some depth out of this ostensibly shallow character.”

Thanks to live cinema relays and well-targeted publicity campaigns, traditional grand opera has enjoyed increasing popularity over the past two decades but it is not widely regarded as a credible medium for dramatising people and events of our time. Film and television do that much better. Think of Stephen Frears’ Oscar-winner The Queen (2006), or his TV film The Deal (2003), about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Spoken theatre is also adept at turning contemporary life into art: Enron, Lucy Prebble’s 2009 play about the bankruptcy of the US energy company, did so to stunning effect.

By comparison, opera is labour-intensive and cumbersome to produce. Since the death 35 years ago of Benjamin Britten, the last really successful opera composer, most composers have gone down the traditional route, turning existing literature into old-fashioned musical narrative. Opera has become a museum, constantly repeating the same small repertoire of 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century masterpieces. When it does try to touch aspects of life today, it reinterprets those masterpieces in updated settings – as in Welsh National Opera’s recent production of Rigoletto, which transposed Verdi’s tale of debauchery and skulduggery from medieval Mantua to the Washington of JFK.

Docu-opera reverses the process. It takes people and events of our time and, instead of providing realistic portraits, gives them a mythical quality. By doing so, it demonstrates that the protagonists, however notorious in real life, have characteristics common to all humanity, past and present.

The trailblazing docu-opera was John Adams’ Nixon in China, a three-act version of US president Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, when he met chairman Mao. Premiered at Houston, Texas, in 1987, it has been performed extensively in Europe and this week made its Metropolitan Opera debut in New York, an accolade that suggests it has finally reached the heart of the opera establishment.

Contradicting popular assumptions that opera was an outdated art form, Nixon in China combined a marketable modern face with serious artistic merit. Adams wrote two other operas inspired by people and events within living memory – The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), about the murder by Arab terrorists of a Jewish tourist aboard an Italian cruise liner in 1985, and Doctor Atomic (2005), about the American scientist who oversaw the birth of the nuclear bomb.

Adams’ success prompted other composers to try their hand. Stewart Wallace, one of a breed of Americans unfettered by opera’s conventions, made a splash with Harvey Milk (1995), about the life and death of America’s first openly gay elected official, while Michael Daugherty, another American influenced by popular culture, wrote Jackie O (1997), about episodes in the life of Jacqueline Onassis. Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face (1995), a chamber opera detailing the sex life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, has had a string of productions on both sides of the Atlantic, and in 2006 British hip-hop artists Asian Dub Foundation created Gaddafi, based on the life story of the Libyan leader, for English National Opera.

Contemporary composers choose their themes for a complex range of reasons, says Julian Anderson, who is writing a new opera, on a theme yet to be divulged, for English National Opera. “Appearances can be deceptive. The story of Anna Nicole Smith may seem shocking and novel but it touches on deep and very old features. You don’t pick a subject because it is sensational but because it really excites you and makes you think you will produce the best music you can write. People need to go past the surface plot and get to the deeper things, which are what Turnage will really be writing about.”

Those “deeper things” will almost certainly be the same issues that exercised composers of previous centuries. Throughout opera’s 400-year history, they have sought to make their work relevant to their audiences. Among the best examples are Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, about the master-servant relationship, and Così fan tutte, about sexual promiscuity. These were daring subjects for the 1780s. Political and moral censorship forced composers to codify their message, right up until the early 20th century. They couldn’t portray a tottering monarch or one with dubious morals. In 1859, Verdi was obliged to transpose A Masked Ball, about the assassination of a ruler, to far-away colonial Boston, whereas the setting he really wanted was the Swedish court, where King Gustav III had been assassinated within living memory. Five years later, Offenbach set La Belle Hélène, a satire on bourgeois morality, in classical antiquity so as not to offend the Parisian audiences mirrored in it.

The same small number of themes swirls with obsessive regularity down operatic history – themes such as the flawed ruler, the femme fatale, comic misunderstandings, love and death, deceptions and revelations. In that context, Berlusconi, Blair and Bush could be said to possess similar operatic qualities to the protagonists of Verdi’s Macbeth and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, both dating from the 1860s, inasmuch as they all fit the “flawed ruler” template. Tiger Woods’ story contains the kind of “deceptions and revelations” that would make him a modern-day successor to the oversexed Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. The story of Cynthia Payne, the 1970s hostess accused of running a sex-for-luncheon-vouchers brothel, could come under the category of “comic misunderstandings”, echoing the plots of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (1832) and Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole (1911).

Marilyn Monroe is the femme fatale of the modern age, as Bizet’s Carmen and Massenet’s Manon have been for a century of opera-goers. And Princess Diana? Her story fits several categories – love and death, like Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, but also the femme fatale and the flawed ruler.

The advantage of using a well-known archetype is that composer and librettist do not have to waste time establishing their characters’ identity. Interest lies solely in the artistic aspect – the way the material is shaped. So why has no one put the real-life figures cited above into operatic dress?

One reason may be that, unlike Anna Nicole Smith, people such as Bush and Blair are too well-known. It would be almost impossible to dramatise a living politician without resorting to caricature. As for Princess Diana, there are so many myths surrounding her that it would be difficult to create a believable stage personality. There is a Diana opera, Jonathan Dove’s When She Died (2002), but it deals with the mass hysteria after her death rather than her life. A full-blown Diana opera could easily turn into hagiography or offend people by exposing her flaws.

Nixon in China avoids these pitfalls. What has determined its success, apart from its approachable music, is its even-handedness. Adams and his co-authors, Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman, did not home in on the Watergate affair, Nixon’s worst moment, but on his finest. The opera starts with a hint of caricature, as “Tricky Dicky” and his wife step down from the presidential jet at Beijing airport, but it is full of lines that a mythical character might sing, such as Chinese premier Chou En-lai’s, “How much of what we did was good? Everything seems beyond our remedy. Come, heal this wound. At this hour nothing can be done.”

Most of Adams’ characters have an epic quality, connecting them to universal dramatic truths. If Turnage is to make an impact with Anna Nicole, he will have to do the same. He must also grapple with a problem that has faced every opera composer – how to create credible characters without using realistic forms of dialogue. Opera doesn’t suit lines such as, “May I have a cup of tea?”, because they sound ridiculous when sung. They only work in comic opera.

In Nixon in China, Adams’s solution was to depict his real-life characters in static situations, offering oratorio-style commentary on their place in history – as in Nixon’s Act One aria, “News has a kind of mystery”, in which the US president muses on how his arrival in Beijing will play on TV screens around the world.

But the biggest challenge facing Anna Nicole will be to convince us that opera is a viable 21st-century art form, rather than an old-fashioned spectacle masquerading as modern music drama. Some experts, even those who enjoy the core 18th- and 19th-century repertoire, believe opera is dead as a creative force, and that docu-opera is an attempt to cover up for that.

“The documentary, the idea of making drama out of real people, is the essential art form of the past 30 years but it’s not something you can do in a huge 19th-century theatre,” says Roger Parker, opera historian and professor of music at King’s College, London. “Like [the reality television show] Big Brother, documentary makes something ordinary out of the extraordinary – it reduces people. Opera does the opposite – it enlarges them. That’s why television is the ideal medium for documentary, and opera is so disappointing on television. Bringing contemporary subjects to the stage is a sideshow, a desperate way of trying to make opera a contemporary medium.”

Not everyone agrees. Many of today’s composers remain fascinated by opera and are willing to devote years to writing one. Few choose a contemporary subject but it’s invariably the documentary format that creates most publicity. The heat generated by Anna Nicole and Nixon in China this month on both sides of the Atlantic demonstrates that docu-opera, properly marketed, brings in new audiences, boosts ticket sales and radiates energy. Opera houses, wary of their elitist tag, crave the attention that a “real-life” subject can generate – to the point where they “have become obsessed with plots that are contemporary,” says Sally Cavender of Faber Music, which publishes Adès and Anderson. “If it’s something older, they are not interested. Time and again, the emphasis is on what the opera is about, rather than who the composer is and how good the music is.”

There may be some truth in that but no one could quibble with Turnage’s musical pedigree. His pieces are played by many of the world’s leading ensembles and appeal to a wide range of tastes, including non-classical. Nor does his interest in Anna Nicole Smith indicate he is trying to be trendy, for most of his oeuvre has a strong contemporary thread, from Twice Through the Heart, about domestic violence, to Blood on the Floor, about urban alienation and drug abuse.

Whether or not you think opera has a future, it is encouraging to see a prominent composer writing for a big opera house on a contemporary subject – one with street credibility and a degree of ambiguity. If Anna Nicole survives its initial run, the message it will send out into the world is an important one: modern opera not only works as a dramatic medium but is relevant to life today.

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic. ‘Anna Nicole’ opens on February 17 at the Royal Opera House


Stewart Lee on ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’

Based on the controversial hit daytime TV show, Jerry Springer: The Opera won critical acclaim during its West End run. Comedian Stewart Lee, who co-wrote the libretto, recalls what happened in January 2005 when the BBC announced plans to screen it on TV …

“The show was now on its last legs as a live West End proposition and the producers decided it was time to auction if off to the BBC, and then send it out to tour the provinces. The TV director, Peter Orton, caught a great performance with the sublimely subtle David Soul in the lead. I was happy the piece was going out for anyone to see for free. And then a rightwing Christian pressure group objected to the show’s religious content, causing 65,000 people to complain in advance of the broadcast, the vociferousness of which eventually led the police to advise some BBC executives to go into hiding on the night of the programme.

When we first heard about them, I had looked at Christian Voice’s website and assumed the whole thing would soon blow over. They were obviously small-time shock merchants, who even suggested that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment on New Orleans for having a gay parade. Matters soon escalated, though. On the night of the broadcast I was in Germany, where we sat, in defiance of Christian Voice’s homophobic agenda, in a gay bar until we were sure the show had gone out without anyone being killed.

Acres of angry newsprint were generated, much of it about things that weren’t even in the show – the supposed nappy-wearing Jesus, the 6,000 swear words that never were.

Having managed to mobilise the non-specifically miffed on a previously unseen scale, Stephen Green, Christian Voice’s head honcho, started to close in for the kill. His creative interpretation of the legal implications of the proposed and pending new laws on the incitement of racial and religious hatred meant that a whole slew of venues that were lined up to take the show on tour pulled out after he wrote to them and said they’d be prosecuted. Our final chance to make some money on the opera faded away.”

This is an edited extract from ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-up Comedian’ by Stewart Lee (Faber, £12.99)

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