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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Some workers at Sobeys in Rocky Mountain House have recently tested positive for COVID-19. (File photo)
Sobeys in Rocky Mountain House reports COVID-19 workers

10 positive tests since last Thursday

A woman walks through Toronto’s financial district on Monday, July 30, 2018. A new poll suggests most Canadians believe there’s still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in this country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Canadians, especially women, say gender equality not achieved in Canada: Poll

63 per cent said equality between men and women has not been achieved

FILE - In this March 3, 2021, file photo, anti-coup protesters run as one of them discharges a fire extinguisher to counter the impact of tear gas fired by riot policemen in Yangon, Myanmar. The escalation of violence in Myanmar as authorities crack down on protests against the Feb. 1 coup is adding to pressure for more sanctions against the junta, as countries struggle over how to best confront military leaders inured to global condemnation. (AP Photo/File)
Escalating violence raises pressure for Myanmar sanctions

More shootings were reported over the weekend

A moth-killing drone hovers over crops in a green house in Monster, Netherlands, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. A Dutch startup is using drones to kill moths in midair as a way of protecting valuable crops in greenhouses that are damaged by caterpillars. PATS Indoor Drone Solutions emerged from the work of a group of students looking for ways to kill mosquitos in their dorm rooms. The drones themselves are very basic, but they are steered by smart technology and special cameras that scan the airspace in greenhouses. When the cameras detect a moth, a drone is set on a collision course with the bug, destroying the bug with its rotors. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)
Drones vs hungry moths: Dutch use hi-tech to protect crops

Drones instantly kill the moths by flying into them

Health-care worker Jenne Saunders prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the Palais de Congress site as Quebec begins mass vaccinations based on age across the province on March 1, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada set to receive more than 910,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines this week

Federal government looks for vaccine-makers to finalize delivery of eight million doses by March 31

Ben King scores for the Red Deer Rebels during the third period of a Western Hockey League game against the Calgary Hitmen at the Westerner Park Centrium Saturday. (Photo by Rob Wallator/Red Deer Rebels)
Rebels complete comeback to pick up first win of season

Rebels 3 Hitmen 2 (OT) The Red Deer Rebels were able to… Continue reading

Treena Mielke
Seasons changing: Hope around the corner with vaccines

The month of March is leaving its muddy footprint on the land… Continue reading

Hamilton Forge FC’s Giuliano Frano (8) heads the ball against CD Olimpia’s Jorge Benguche (9) during Scotiabank CONCACAF League 2019 second half soccer action in Hamilton, Ont., Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Forge FC owner Bob Young says the Canadian Premier League champions will be playing the Canadian Championship final against Toronto FC at a disadvantage. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter Power
Forge FC owner upset at Canada Soccer’s timing of Canadian Championship final

Winner of Canadian Championship final earns a berth in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League

Team Wild Card Two skip Kevin Koe reacts to his shot as he plays Team Newfoundland and Labrador at the Brier in Calgary, Alta., on March 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Wild Card Two’s Koe beats Gushue 9-7 to hand defending champs first loss at the Brier

Gushue was a tad heavy with his final draw and Koe picked it out for the victory

No regrets: Grammy-nominated DJ Jayda G on choosing beats over sciences career

TORONTO — House music producer Jayda G knows a thing or two… Continue reading

This image provided by Harpo Productions shows Prince Harry, left, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, speaking about expecting their second child during an interview with Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special” airs March 7 as a two-hour exclusive primetime special on the CBS Television Network. (Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via AP)
UK royals absorb shock of revealing Harry, Meghan interview

Anti-monarchy group Republic said the interview gave a clearer picture of what the royal family is like

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan takes part in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa on December 17, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservatives to call top Sajjan, Trudeau aides to testify on Vance allegations

OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives plan to summon two senior Liberal aides… Continue reading

Elvira D'Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
‘It’s been a good week’: Tam hopeful on vaccines as pandemic anniversary nears

Several provinces were preparing to loosen COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday, as Canada’s… Continue reading

Mount Pearl Senior High in Mount Pearl, N.L., remains closed on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The provincial health authority says there were 185 cases at 22 schools, including 145 infections among staff and students of one high school in Mount Pearl that was an early epicentre of the outbreak. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
In Newfoundland and Labrador, three ingredients made for explosive COVID-19 outbreak

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — With her classes, three part-time jobs and a… Continue reading

Most Read