Damon Albarn’s much anticipated new opera (or much anticipated by me) Dr. Dee has made its premiere at the Manchester International festival (you may recall that Rufus Wainwright’s opera, Prima Donna, also premiered at the Manchester International Festival – hmmm…). And yes, this is Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame.
The opera tells the story of John Dee, and explores how he contributed to modern concepts of English identity. The production places Albarn (who acts as a sort of narrator), with his acoustic guitar and a small ensemble of period instruments, above the action of the show. The director, Rufus Norris, seems to have opted for a more evocative period staging rather than a more naturalistic approach (probably a good idea!). The folk opera will make its premiere at the ENO next summer.
Originally, graphic novelist Alan Moore had been set to write the libretto (he is a John Dee fan – surprise! If that is a surprise, I suggest you look at that John Dee wikipedia article again, and then take a look at Alan Moore’s Promethea); however, Moore pulled out of the project for reasons that are pretty well outlined here. Given that the current press on Dr. Dee gives Albarn sole credit for the opera, I think it’s safe to assume that both words and music belong to Albarn.
The BBC article on the opera includes a featurette and a performance of one of the songs, which you should go and watch right now! I really like the use of period instruments – it lends a unique and interesting color to the music (though I always enjoy popular music that uses classical instruments… which is not the same as popular music arranged for classical instruments!). I’m also a big fan of Damon Albarn’s melancholy, melodic writing. That said, I’m not sure how well it translates to operatic voices. The featurette doesn’t reveal much of the opera that isn’t performed by Albarn, and the little we do get suggests that there’s more of a light operatic vocal approach (which, one could argue, is a distinctly English style of operatic performance – thank you Gilbert and Sullivan, Gay, and Purcell). It’s also hard to tell how successful he is at correlating the music to the action. I know he can write songs, but can he write dialog? Can he write conflict?
As you may already know, this is not Damon Albarn’s first foray into opera (or “music theatre” may be the more appropriate moniker 8D): in 2007 Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlitt produced Monkey: Journey to the West, which also premiered at the Manchester International Festival. Monkey was a kind of digital music/acrobatic/wire-work/cinematic/animation extravaganza, and was not successful. (See the trailer here.) I never quite warmed to the music, myself; it is very repetitive and seems to consist of vignettes rather than coherent, overarching action – more a ballet than an opera. That said, the lyrics are in Chinese and I’ve only seen pieces of the show, so maybe that wasn’t the problem at all! Monkey did, however, make it clear that Albarn is interested in pushing the boundaries of music as dramatic, narrative form (Gorillaz is another interesting example of this). And for that, Damon Albarn has my unflagging interest.
I cannot tell you how happy I am to see popular musicians writing opera (or operatically). I have yet to love anything they’ve produced, but I sincerely hope that these operas continue to find a place in major houses, and I hope that they find a competitive place in the realm of new works. The erudite musicians will have to become more approachable in their compositional styles, and the popular musicians will have to write more challenging music. THIS IS MY DREAM!
I wonder if I can get a ticket for the ENO next summer… Internet broadcast, anyone?