As founder and former drummer of the Police, Stewart Copeland is familiar with adrenaline rushes and things that go “thump,” just like the hero of his “The Tell- Tale Heart” at the Royal Opera House in London.
The new one-act opera is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tale of 1843. A murderer believes he can hear the beating heart of his victim under the floorboards. It drives him wild, and eventually he shrieks to the police “I admit the deed! It is the beating of his hideous heart!”
I caught up with Copeland, 58, during rehearsals at Covent Garden. Casually dressed in a loose shirt and jeans, the slim American musician was in a laid-back mood far removed from the nervy gloom of his subject matter. He answered questions with wry humor.
How would he describe the musical style of the 30-minute piece? “I’d start with the adjective ‘brilliant’ and go on up from there,” Copeland deadpans.
The invitation to compose a chamber work for the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre came out of the blue. “That’s usually the way it works in the high arts,” he says. “These guys are hard to hustle.”
Copeland isn’t new to opera. His large-scale piece “Holy Blood and Crescent Moon,” set during the Crusades, had its premiere at Cleveland Opera in 1989. And his one-act chamber piece “The Cask of Amontillado,” also based on a short story by Poe, was performed in Bermuda in 1994.
I haven’t heard either of them. Judging from the operatic efforts of other pop and rock stars such as Rufus Wainwright, Damon Albarn and Nitin Sawhney, the odds would seem to be stacked against success.
That doesn’t deter Copeland, and his enthusiasm is palpable. When he stresses that the piece is short, he also brings cheer to the weary heart of a critic who has yawned through many overlong premieres.
Why did he choose to set another Poe tale? “It’s a wonderful story for opera,” Copeland says. “The main protagonist soars and gloats, and has tiny little fearful moments and huge passages of great bravado. And the fact that there’s a thumping heart makes it great for me. I like thumping.”
Copeland has written the libretto himself. Was that a dangerous move? “When you get a libretto, it always has to be moved around and carved up,” he says. “Rather than beat up another poor librettist, I figured I’d take it on myself. I was fortunate in that the underlying source material was already so strong, too.”
Ed and Al
He has given names to Poe’s (unnamed) murderer and victim. Cheekily, he has called them “Edgar” and “Alan.”
“It’s a bit of a red herring,” says Copeland, po-faced. “I don’t want people to read too much into it. I carefully spelled the name with only one ‘l,’ you’ll notice. Hopefully that should throw everyone off the scent.”
One of the criticisms leveled against opera is that it’s a museum art. Does he feel the weight of the composers of the past? “The great opera composers were so good at their job, that the whole genre came to be built around the concept of the composer’s vision,” he says. “So now, the composer gets to lord it over everybody. It means the likes of me can come into these opera houses, and find a hierarchy with the composer at the top of it. It suits me just fine.”
Copeland is also a noted film-score composer (“Rumble Fish,” “Wall Street”). Are there similarities between writing for film, rock and opera? “The differences are greater. In a film score, the last thing you want to do is take people out of the movie. The music is secondary. In opera, the music is the main event.”
On his website, the former member of the Police candidly mentions the ups and downs in his relationship with Sting. How are things between them now? “We get along great,” Copeland says. “We realize how much we each brought into the life of the other.” Is Sting coming to see the opera? “Actually, I even thought about casting him in the lead role. Unfortunately he’s a tenor, not a baritone.”
So Sting could have played the victim instead? Copeland’s laugh pops out of him. “Hey! That would have been great!”
“The Tell-Tale Heart” opens tomorrow at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio in London and runs through April 16. It’s paired with “The Doctor’s Tale” by film composer Anne Dudley and librettist Terry Jones (formerly of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”). Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or http://www.stewartcopeland.net/ or +44-20-7304-4000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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