NEWS
Ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland 'invents' world premiere for Chicago Opera Theater

Stewart Copeland, former drummer for "The Police," in his rented studio space at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago, Ill. He has written an opera, "The Invention of Morel," premiering Saturday at the Chicago Opera Theater. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO -- Stewart Copeland is in town, and he's got a brand-new bag.

Brand-new, at least, for Chicago.

The multifaceted American composer and instrumentalist, best known as co-founder and drummer of the English new-wave rock band the Police, is here taking part in rehearsals for his latest opera -- that's right, opera -- "The Invention of Morel," whose world premiere at Chicago Opera Theater is presenting this weekend at the Studebaker Theater in downtown Chicago.

As the 64-year-old onetime rocker, amiably laid-back as ever, puts it, he's "having a lot of fun -- the process of putting this together is so engrossing."

Although the multiple Grammy-winning Copeland has five music theater works to his credit -- "I'm not a beginner anymore!" -- he admits he's on a learning curve when it comes to writing operas. "There's still so much to learn. If they hadn't pulled 'Morel' from my grasp, I could have spent two more years on it" -- this in addition to the 31/2 years he already has devoted to his and co-librettist Jonathan Moore's operatic adaptation of the famous 1940 sci-fi novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Copeland is just one among a short list of rock musicians -- think of the iconic band Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Blur and Gorillaz's Damon Albarn and singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, among others -- who have migrated to opera in recent years in search of new avenues of creative freedom and expression.

When asked what attracts him to the art form, Copeland observed, "Writing a song is a lot of fun, but a song is just a bite-sized musical endeavor." To him, opera represents "the highest mountain" one can climb if he or she wants to grow as a musician, as he told The Washington Post in 2013.

And writing a new opera, he told me, gives him the satisfaction of having "complete control over a very large musical mission. It's highly collaborative. The good thing is that you get feedback and input from the performers."

If opera is not to become an ossified museum relic, so believes Chicago Opera Theater general director Andreas Mitisek, it must turn to the best musicians in other genres to bring their experience and artistic perspectives to bear on creating new works of music theater that speak to today's audiences. It was Mitisek who spearheaded "Morel" as the first commissioned opera in the Chicago company's 43-year history, a dream of his since becoming COT chief in 2012.

Along with the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass' "The Perfect American," a dark study of Walt Disney scheduled for April performances at the Harris Theater, "The Invention of Morel" will mark Mitisek's last hurrah as general director before he steps down from that position in September.

Mitisek has in fact been a staunch champion of the operatic Copeland since 2013, when he gave the composer's chamber opera "The Tell-Tale Heart" its U.S. premiere at Long Beach Opera in California, where Mitisek serves as general and artistic director. "Morel" represents a joint commission of COT and Long Beach, where it will travel a year from now.

With a string of orchestral works and movie, TV and video game soundtracks to his credit, Copeland is hardly a stranger to musical realms far removed from the chart-busting jazz-pop-reggae-punk songs he, guitarist Andy Summers and lead vocalist and bass guitarist Sting made famous with the Police.

"What Stewart has done over the last 20-something years is to hone his skills in the classical field. The vocal writing in this opera is much deeper than in his previous works," said Mitisek, who worked closely with the composer to reimagine the surreal world of "Morel" on the operatic stage.

Mitisek said he shepherded the new opera through no fewer than 47 versions, a workshop reading of two scenes early last year in New York and three readings of the entire 90-minute opera, with orchestra, in December in Long Beach.

Copeland began referring to the impresario, in jest, as "my royal pain" for his persistently pushing for improvements in the libretto. The text represents a collaborative effort between the composer and director Moore, who had staged the world premiere of Copeland's "Tell-Tale Heart" in London in 2011. At one point in the creative process Copeland told Mitisek, with a wink, that he reminded him of "a certain bass guitarist" he used to work with -- a reference to Sting that clearly was meant as a compliment.

Mitisek regards his role as that of a project steward who pushed Copeland "to explore deeper," to sharpen the libretto in such a way as to drive the story more urgently and provide a firm structure for the music to live in. "It was like building a house," he said.

"With 'Morel' he has written a great score; the music is very rhythmically driven, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat. The score adds a hypnotic quality to the story."

Hailed as a masterpiece of magical realism, Argentine author Casares' book has been variously adapted for stage, television and film ("Last Year at Marienbad"). The terse narrative takes the form of a diary written by a fugitive who has escaped to a strange, remote island where alternative realities overlap. There he learns the secret behind both a time-bending device created by the mad scientist Morel and a beautiful young woman with whom he falls in love. Their planes of existence are intertwined through Morel's invention.

Copeland said he hit upon "Morel" as the basis for his latest opera at the suggestion of his 18-year-old daughter Grace, who he said was drawn to the idea of two lovers on the same beach but at different moments in time.

The never-ending time loops central to Casares' narrative immediately suggested "music of atmosphere and emotion, going around and around," to Copeland, who scored the opera for a chamber ensemble of 15 players, including electric guitar and percussion. "And the electric guitar is not playing politely!" he joked. Musicians from Chicago's Fulcrum Point New Music Project will make up the pit band for "Morel."

I asked Copeland how fans of the Police should be able to relate to his opera. Will listeners familiar with such hit songs as "Message in a Bottle" and "Every Breath You Take" hear a musical voice they recognize in the score of "Morel"?

"None of the COT cast members, as far as I know, has peroxided his or her hair blond!" the composer quipped. "But I think my musical style will be recognizable -- there are certain 'isms' in everything I write, even if I'm not conscious of them."

Copeland cites Stravinsky, Ravel, Carl Orff and Jimi Hendrix as musical influences but stops short of making aesthetic comparisons or value judgments. "I think classical and pop are parallel streams quite distant from each other, but, really, music is music," he said. "Everything that it takes to create a musical character, you will see in the stuff I write."

Mitisek stated the matter differently.

"Stewart can't escape the influences of where he came from, or the music he's played all his life," he said. "During a rehearsal, one of our staff pianists, who happens to be familiar with the albums of Stewart's former band, remarked how much passages in the opera reminded him of this or that song by the Police. I guess you can't deny your heritage."

Copeland praised Mitisek for his "brilliant" realization of "Tell-Tale Heart" in Long Beach. "I was blown away by it," the composer said. "Everything I put on the page he took and reinvented; it was like seeing the piece afresh."

His collaboration on "Morel" with Moore, who had directed the London premiere of "Tell-Tale Heart, has been just as happy, he said. "The clarity of his work sets him apart from other directors. In opera, that's a very rare thing. When a problem arises, Jonathan will say, 'Leave it to me -- I know how to fix it.'

"And he does!"

 

John Von Rhein, Chicago Tribune on Feb 16, 2017
 

Chicago Opera Theater's world premiere production of Stewart Copeland's "The Invention of Morel," conducted by Andreas Mitisek, opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and runs to Feb. 26 at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave.; $39-$95; 312-704-8414, www.cot.org.
(c)2017 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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