Rock musicians trying their hands at opera

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.

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 Allan 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. ” 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.

Anne Midgette writes for The Washington Post.

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