Led Zeppelin fans found a new reason to dislike opera this year — if they cared enough about opera to dislike it in the first place. The iconic band’s bass player, John Paul Jones, scotched the most recent round of rumors about a possible reunion concert or tour next year. “2014 is full of opera for me at the moment,” Jones said. He isn’t planning on going to operas, or listening to them. He is writing one. It’s based on the short play “The Ghost Sonata” by the 19th-century Swedish playwright and author August Strindberg, and, in a brief TV interview captured as he left a performance of Philip Glass’s new Walt Disney opera, “The Perfect American,” in June, Jones said he was halfway through the first act.
Jones isn’t alone. A number of rock musicians have been trying their hands at opera. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters spent years writing and reworking the French Revolution epic “Ça Ira,” released as a recording in 2005 (with Bryn Terfel among the singers) and performed a couple of times since. Stewart Copeland of the Police recently attended the American premiere of his fourth opera (a one-act setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” that opened at Covent Garden in 2011), and is working on his fifth. The indie singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright has seen several productions of his opera “Prima Donna,” which was started as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s commissioning program, though never performed there.
And Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz, may be the most successful of all. His “Monkey: Journey to the West,” which opened in 2007, just ran at New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, and his “Dr. Dee” made a splash at the Manchester Festival in 2011, and was performed at the English National Opera during the London Olympics in 2012.
Classical music purists tend to dismiss this kind of thing as a gimmick: yet another way, along with stagings of musicals, live webcasts and various attempts at 30-and-under clubs, that opera houses are grasping at new audiences. And certainly the naysayers can point to history to back them up: rock musicians exploring classical genres have not exactly produced a string of masterpieces (think Paul McCartney’s treacly “Liverpool Oratorio,” or Billy Joel’s earnest but undistinguished “Fantasies and Delusions,” a CD of solo piano works). But what’s interesting about many of these recent attempts is that they aren’t one-offs. Evidently some serious musicians from outside the operatic canon, like Copeland and Albarn, are looking to opera — of all places — as a genre that allows a kind of artistic freedom and creativity not possible in other arenas and are actively deepening their relationships with it.
“I think when you do something as engrossing as opera,” says Copeland, who approached his first opera commission in 1989 as a kind of a lark, “every time you figure something out, you want to get it better next time.”
The stereotype about rock musicians’ forays into classical music is that otherwise innovative musicians, faced with the “classical” label, suddenly do an about-face and try to straitjacket themselves in traditional, old-fashioned musical models. The opening of Waters’s “Ça Ira,” Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times, is “couched in Brahmsian moves and sonorities, and the work rarely lurches forward.” And John Rockwell, also in the Times, criticized the Cleveland world premiere of Copeland’s first opera in 1989, “Holy Blood and Crescent Moon,” for “innocently amateurish music that tries its best to sound 19th-century-operatic, but succeeds only sketchily.”
“It was an honest mistake,” Copeland said in a telephone interview earlier this month. “Opera’s supposed to look like that, isn’t it? The commission is to write an opera, and it has to look and sound like that.” Copeland’s primary experience of orchestral music was through writing film scores, and in that field, being able to evoke the styles and musical idioms of different periods is a measure of success. He approached writing his first opera in the same manner. The review jolted him into thinking about developing his own operatic voice.
Working with a composition teacher for a couple of years, and reading a lot of scores by musicians he admires — among them Ravel, Stravinsky, and Copland (no relation; different spelling) — has evidently helped. “I am . . . happy to report that an old rocker can learn new tricks,” Mark Swed wrote in the Los Angeles Times of “The Tell-Tale Heart” this past May. He added, “The piece is percussion heavy. . . . The strings whine effectively. Copeland reduces Poe’s text into refrains and adds commonplace rhymes, some of which are declaimed or sung in an effectively punchy pop style. That works far better than the pseudo-arioso attempts in ‘Holy Blood.’ ”
So the term “opera” doesn’t have to mean “a work of theater that sounds like Puccini.” There’s less agreement on how exactly you define it. The term is generally used to denote a work of music theater without spoken dialogue — though there are many operas that do, in fact, include spoken dialogue (“Carmen,” anyone?), and many musicals that don’t (take “Sweeney Todd”). To some, the defining characteristic of opera is that it’s written for operatically trained voices. To others, a salient difference between an opera and a musical is that an opera composer does his own orchestrations, while a Broadway composer has traditionally given his music to orchestrators (as do many rock musicians approaching the medium for the first time). And for some composers, opera is defined by the venue that presents it. “It has more to do with how the opera is produced and where it’s produced,” the composer Philip Glass said to me several years ago, “than what is actually the content.”
So yes, you could call Waters’s “Ça Ira” a successor to the “Les Miz” vein of Broadway musicals. And you could choose to see Albarn’s “Dr. Dee” in the long noble tradition of the concept album. Albarn mingles period instruments like the theorbo and shawm, a small orchestra, operatic and non-operatic voices, and even African drums in his story of a historical Elizabethan scientist/alchemist/magician who may have been a model for Shakespeare’s Prospero; he sings many of the songs himself. On stage this was a multimedia extravaganza; on record, while it has its cliched or over-earnest patches, it doesn’t sound deliberately “operatic.” In short: there are no generalizations to be made about the output of these rockers-turned-opera-composers except that, mercifully, none of them are “rock operas,” a genre that started in 1969 with The Who’s double album “Tommy,” and has continued considerably less illustriously since. (“It’s sort of ‘Spinal Tap,’ ” Copeland says of the term “rock opera” today, referring to Rob Reiner’s 1984 pseudo-documentary about an invented heavy-metal band: a spoof, in other words, of itself.)
“Opera as a form can go forward and allow people to use these incredible facilities to find something new,” Albarn said to reporters at a press event at the English National Opera last fall. “At some point I hope I can deliver something to the ENO that ticks every single box but doesn’t compromise where I come from as well. If you can do that you’ll truly get a new audience in here because it will make sense to everybody.”
For a musician coming to the medium for the first time, the term opera indicates one more thing: status. Sure, as Copeland says, “Opera is at the bottom of the food chain in terms of what people could give a rat’s a-- about in the world.” But it also represents a kind of artistic pinnacle. “In opera,” Copeland says, “everything is in service of the music. It’s the composer who’s driving the ship.” He doesn’t put down the limitations of the pop song; “one can live as a musician in that world and die a happy man.” But “opera is the highest place you can get to, the highest mountain to climb if you’re growing as a musician, figuring out new things to do with your instrument. People like John Paul Jones or Roger Waters want to get beyond the four-piece band. Both those guys were in outfits that completely exploded the boundaries of what bands were supposed to do, and yet there’s still more.”
Opera, indeed, has a lot to gain if some of the best musicians in other fields bring their creative focuses to bear on it — not because they represent new audiences or potential commercial windfalls, but because some of them bring interesting perspectives. Copeland and Jones and their ilk are far from naive or untrained musicians. Copeland has had the musical chops to figure out that his initial, synthesizer-based orchestrations were lacking (“a John Williams score, swaying and heaving: that’s what an orchestra is supposed to sound like, not just a row of notes, which is what I’m getting”) and work out how to improve them by learning from the masters. (“Stravinsky is a great place to look for percussive textures, things that punch and why they punch.”) Jones was a church organist at the age of 14 before embarking on his career as a rocker, and he’s had recent operatic experience: he was part of the on-stage band during the first six performances at Covent Garden of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera “Anna Nicole.”
It’s not as if writing operas is in any danger of becoming a rock-star vogue. “‘Whatcha doing these days?’ ‘I’m working on an opera.’ It’s up there with ‘I’m working on a solo album,’ ” says Copeland, miming the horrified response of a fictive interlocutor: “Oh jeez, you need a new agent.” But the fact that more than one rock musician is actively engaging with opera, rather than simply dabbling in it, is a good thing for the field, and not only for the tyro excitement. (“This feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Albarn gushed to the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen in 2011, before the “Dr. Dee” premiere; “I’m in love with the process of making opera.”)
The benefit lies not in creating crossover works, or in pandering to the young — die-hard Led Zeppelin fans are hardly in their first flower of youth in any case. It’s in establishing opera, in this day and age, as another field of possibility for an interested musician, rather than a rarefied and ossifying genre. And from a voyeuristic point of view, it’s gratifying to watch high-profile artists take serious artistic risks, and even, gradually, get better at them.