Imagine a fizzing ball rolling on to an opera stage. The assembled company looks at it suspiciously. Is it some sort of firework? A practical joke, primed to deliver a stink-bomb surprise? Or something more serious – an oversized hand grenade about to explode?
Any one of the three could happen when the Royal Opera unveils its double bill of OperaShots at the Linbury Studio Theatre. In fact, so varied is the array of talent on board that it could conceivably deliver all three outcomes at once. There is the composer Anne Dudley, Oscar-winner for The Full Monty and a founding member of the synthpop group Art of Noise. Terry Jones of Monty Python fame is the one promising the zany humour. Stewart Copeland, founder and drummer of the Police, who has other operas and ballets to his credit, brings the authority of stage experience.
ROH2, the contemporary arm of the Royal Opera House, is committed to keeping its door wide open and developing new work, attracting participants from relative beginners to more experienced hands. But has it ever pulled in a trio with as eclectic a clutch of CVs as these three?
Whatever else happens, the two operas in this new double bill promise a strong contrast. The Doctor’s Tale, with music by Dudley and words by Jones, is a fantasy – “very jokey”, they say, “but with serious overtones” – while Copeland’s The Tell-Tale Heart, based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, is hoping “to get everybody’s flesh creeping”. As they used to say in Monty Python, “And now for something completely different”.
It helped that everybody started with a blank page. The commissions that went out from ROH2 were simply for an opera, no other details specified. “When they invited me, I thought for about 30 seconds and said, ‘Yes!’” says Dudley. “I asked what they would like and they said, ‘Anything you want’.”
When major twentieth-century composers such as Britten and Shostakovich have shown how well their skills could transfer to film, it is no surprise that Dudley, coming from the other direction, has found writing an opera so congenial.
It helps, she says, that she has already done quite a bit of comedy in film and so knows that there is no need to make the music itself funny. She also knows about the importance of co-operation. “When you work in film, you never work alone – there are always directors, editors, producers, all of them with something to say, so you are constantly being told, ‘It must be shorter here’ or ‘Expand this section a bit’.”
A willingness to collaborate comes in handy in opera, where composers are well-known for hammering librettos into shape. It was Dudley herself who suggested that Jones write the words. They had met a few months earlier when Jones had told her of his previous dabbling in opera. That was a piece called Evil Machines, performed in Lisbon – look at the clips on YouTube, which open with a quartet of singing cars, followed by a duetting mobile phone and washing machine – and it was evidently an encouraging experience.
“Good fun,” is Jones’s verdict. “What I learnt is that you can do anything on the stage. [In The Doctor’s Tale] I wanted to write something playful and yet include some deep emotional moments as well. If you can pull that off, it’s a good trick. There is no reason why opera should be po-faced. You could say I am hoping to extend the range of opera a bit.”
The story of The Doctor’s Tale is taken from a new collection of Jones’s children’s stories, called Animal Tales. It tells of a dog that achieves success as a doctor thanks to its ability to sniff out diseases, thereby exposing the prejudice of some in the medical profession. Turning it into an opera is a process in which he seems completely immersed.
“Don’t forget the Monty Python films had quite a bit of music in them. Mike [Palin] and I would hum the tunes and that’s how the words were set to music. Writing the words for these two operas was much the same – I already had music in my head. Of course, when I heard the composer’s versions, I thought: ‘That’s not my tune!’, but the more I get to know Anne’s music for The Doctor’s Tale, the more I like it.”
That is not a problem that Copeland has had to face. In The Tell-Tale Heart he has gone down the Wagner route of writing both the words and the music himself. Having already drawn on Poe for his opera The Cask of Amontillado, he says the American writer’s style is made for opera and very easy to adapt – although Copeland’s ambitions in this area are hardly modest. “I’ve had to create dialogue, as there isn’t any in the written story, and separate the narrator from the characters, but that’s about all. The libretto was the easy part and a lot of fun. I am doing another piece now, based on Paradise Lost, for which I’m having to reduce the 13,000 words of [Milton’s] Books Five and Six.”
The invitation from the Royal Opera was perfect timing as he had been looking for the opportunity to write another opera based on Poe. “He has so much atmosphere and madness in his stories – perfect for opera – and, though psychology was still in the pre-Freudian period at that time, he intuits in a fascinating way the machinations of a murderous mind.
“Opera isn’t high on the list of things that the world wants,” continues Copeland, “but there is room in it for everything you would like to do musically. I have always enjoyed writing for film – at one moment you’ll be writing for a jazz ensemble, the next for a solo instrument or full orchestra – but opera really can be about anything at all.” He jokes that he would like to write an opera about Sarah Palin and then declares more seriously that he has another in his head already, entitled Faith: A Story of Sex, Drugs and God.
It may be that OperaShots will show that Dudley, Jones and Copeland have serious ambitions to take the art form down new tracks in the 21st century. Or is it, as Copeland says, simply that, “If you are a musician, opera is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”?
‘OperaShots’ runs at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, April 8-16
Royal Opera House