In this Sunday’s Washington Post, I have an article on rockers and pop artists who have written operas, inspired by the news that John Paul Jones, the bassist of Led Zeppelin, was, or rather is, working on an opera. When I heard this, I intially started thinking along the lines of the story that, I eventually found, Allan Kozinn wrote for the New York Times when Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, released the recording of his opera, “Ça Ira.” Allan is far better qualified than I to write this story, because he has serious rock-n-roll chops, whereas I am the woman who once met The Who backstage and didn’t know who Roger Daltrey was. You don’t have to be knowledgeable about rock and roll, though, to know that a lot of these so-called classical music projects by rockers — Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Waters and the list goes on — are pretty saccharine stuff.
The story I ended up writing was quite different, though, because what I found now, which I’m not sure was as true then, is that a couple of rockers are sticking with opera and developing as composers. Damon Albarn, of Blur, is one; I can’t say I’ve loved either of his operas (I reviewed his “Monkey: Journey to the West” five years ago at the Spoleto festival, but heard his recent “Dr. Dee” only on the recording), but I can at least appreciate that they represent something genuine and an attempt to find a unique voice rather than simply embracing 19th-century models as a template for what “opera” is supposed to be. And Stewart Copeland, of the Police, is another. Talking to him provided me with a rare perspective from an obviously smart musician coming at opera completely from the outside.
Above: “The Tell Tale Heart,” a half-hour chamber opera, is the fourth opera by Stewart Copeland, formerly of The Police; he is currently working on his fifth.
We in classical music can be hopelessly and unconsciously patronizing about the self-taught, and I tried in my article to spare Copeland (and readers) the indignity of figurative pats on the head from me for, as it were, getting it right. (Look! Leon Fleisher and Stewart Copeland have similar things to say about Ravel!) But I do think that it’s worth making more of the interview available here than I was able to work into the article, simply because this is a perspective that we too seldom get in classical music: what appeals to a smart musician about Wagner? How do you go about learning to orchestrate? Not only is this picture relevant to the wider audience classical music is perpetually in hope of attracting, but it’s a reminder that, as Copeland said to me, classical music isn’t rocket science.
What follows is an abridged version of some of the highlights of my conversation with Copeland that didn’t make it into the article, with approximate paraphrases of my own questions when necessary.
ALM: Why have you kept on writing operas?
Stewart Copeland: Well I keep learning from it. I think when you do something as engrossing as opera every time you figure something out, you want to get it better next time. At this point I can’t exactly claim inexperience as an excuse. It’s a very engrossing medium. As you work to get control of it, it becomes even more excessive.
It’s a very big medium… You have the opportunity to use your craft [that you’ve] developed over decades, to put those skills to a deeper artistic purpose than can be achieved in a pop song, 3 minutes of pretty limiting constraints of what a pop song has to be. It’s amazing what can be achieved within those constraints. All those different avenues have rules and limitations. ... Musicians who keep growing and want to escape the bounds of [a single] career path, want to branch out. The highest branch is opera.
ALM: What about symphonies?
SC: ...OK, that’s at the top, I’ll grant you that. Program music is 1000% easier to write. When you’re writing a symphony... you better have a tune in your head.
Pop songs, they’re three minutes, they’re about boy-girl relationships, they have to employ electric guitars and synthesizers, [and] anything that isn’t 4-4 rhythm is rash. One can live as a musician in that world and die a happy man.
Above that is film scoring, which takes you... into every kind of music. Period music, space age, techno, happy, sad, every form of the human condition that needs music, a film composer has to go there and use his skills to figure out how to create that emotional cultural atmosphere, and to order. You need to have skills, know how to use an orchestra, program a synthesizer. It’s probably the widest skill set of any musician. But the problem is … it’s all craft, no art. It’s deeply engrossing, I love it, but it’s not art. It’s in the service of the artist, who’s the director. It’s his art.
In opera, the composer owns everything, controls everything, makes every artistic decision. Everything is in service of the music. It’s the composer who’s driving the ship.
ALM: You’ve said in past interviews that David Hockney’s production of “Tristan und Isolde” got you hooked on opera. What was it you liked about “Tristan?”
SC: It was the weight given to the music in the experience. When you see a musical or play or movie that has music, sure, it has a strong effect. But in an opera like that the music is the thing; the images and the story are riding the crest of the music.
I read scores a lot. I do that just because there’s so much to learn from them. Also you reach for a certain flavor or flourish or gesture, you know what you’ve got in your head, [and] you hopefully can remember where you heard it and reach for that score, “Oh, that’s why it has that little zing, he’s got a harp there.” In rock and roll I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that, because you make it up as you go along. Writing a score for a 90-piece orchestra, you have to have lived the life of Mozart. That facility with working with an orchestra and doing it every day, that’s where you pick up those little things. I don’t get that many chances; a modern composer doesn’t. A modern composer doesn’t have anything like the opportunity that Mozart had, Stravinsky had. I’ve got to learn faster.
The good thing about opera, each opera has its own idiom. … In opera anything goes. I probably tend towards orchestral, because that’s what opera companies like. But there’s all kinds of things you can do with “orchestral.” [The term] “orchestral” can be broadened to include anybody who reads [music]… As long as a guy can read, then you can put anything you want in the pit. The non-reading music world is so different. It’s such a great watershed between types of musicians, readers and players.
I’ve been very blessed by 20 years as a working stiff hack film composer… For all those years, mostly I didn’t have time to orchestrate myself; I hired guys and pulled up sounds on my synthesizer. I thought I was orchestrating it. I wrote with my fake oboe and fake violins, and handed it to guys who orchestrated it. I would listen; “F***, that doesn’t sound much better than my synth.” Then I listened to 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.... As soon as I had time…, I figured out how to do it. By then I had already been reading my own scores, studying the masters, seeing the vast range of dynamics they put in.
ALM: Which composers?
SC: Ravel, Stravinsky mostly, Aaron Copland. “Rite of Spring,” “Daphnis and Chloe.” Copland is fantastic for clarity. Stravinsky is a great place to look for percussive textures, things that punch and why they punch. Ravel is good for waft. You don’t even know what you’re listening to, it’s all seamlessly merged. You don’t know what is making that beautiful sound til you look at the page [and see all this] frenetic activity.
[Note: This is not at all unlike what Leon Fleisher said about Ravel in our book “My Nine Lives.” For the relevant quote, with audio example, click on this link and scroll down to the excerpt from page 168.]
SC: There’s an old joke in rock and roll: “How do you make a guitarist stop playing? Put a sheet of music in front of him.” In classical music it’s just the opposite. Which is a mystery. [I’ll ask,] Don’t you ever just play your instrument just for fun?
[It’s a shame] on both sides. There are so many talented songwriters in rock and roll. [I’ll say,] “You’re hiring these hacks to do arrangements for you; you’ve got the talent; learn the language.”
And [to some] great virtuosi in the classical music world, I say, “Look, play a note!” They look very timid and get all insecure, and imagine some huge hurdle they have to cross. It’s not at all. Just play something!