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Monday, February 13, 2017

The Superconductor Interview: Stewart Copeland

The former Police-man discusses his fifth opera, premiering Feb. 18.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Welcome to The Island of Morel with your guide: Stewart Copeland.
Photoshop by the author, which is cheaper than flying to the Pacific
with a famous musician but not as much fun.
Stewart Copeland rose to fame as the founder and drummer of the rock band The Police, who burst out of the British punk scene to top the charts in the 1980s. He has been a composer since The Police broke up, branching from soundtracks and TV scores to orchestral works and opera. His fifth and latest is is The Invention of Morel, a co-production between the Long Beach Opera and the Chicago Opera Theater. Morel bows at the Studebaker Theater on February 18.

The opera is sung in English, and is based on the surreal novel of the same title by the Argentinean author Adolfo Bioy Casares. In a telephone interview with Superconductor, Mr. Copeland shows off his brand new Invention. "What drew me to Morel--the first thing that caught my and made my heart inflame with passion was the slimness of the volume. The story has relatively few plot points--there' not much in the way of plot but it's all about atmosphere."

"When we found the slim volume (it was suggested to me by my daughter Grace) she described the scenario which was captivating. The elliptical nature of the plot contributes so heavily to the atmosphere. (There's) "multi-layered reality and perceptions. Telling the story for the stage turned out to be a real challenge."

Briefly the plot of Morel is the plight of a fugitive on a strange island. He observes a group of tourists and falls in love with one, only to discover that they are present thanks to Morel, the local mad scientist. The hero must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for the woman he has fallen in love with, to determine the nature of the reality of the island, the girl, and Morel himself.

Like his operatic subject matter, Stewart Copeland speaks in ellipses, slipping from point to point with the facility of a drummer changing beats. A conversation can get into the nitty gritty of chord writing (one point in this interview had both composer and author checking their scores of Parsifal or shift to Sacred Grove, the L.A. jam-room/studio that is currently being used to work out the finer points of his new opera.

"It was Long Beach Opera that staged The Tell-Tale Heart and asked for their own opera in conjunction with Chicago Opera Theater." Andreas Mittieseck was in charge of the commission. "With the resources he was able to scare up, he has been the most influential commissioner today. He got all kinds of workshops and participants in his workshops and he's getting a reputation. He's determined to wake it up.  His patrons here and in Chicago love that stuff ,and thats how you scare up the money. The elite have to like it so it can be brought and presented it to the non-elite."

He shifts tack again. "Classical music does have one cross to bear. With great paintings, you put a light on it and that sucker is good for 10,000 years. The Brahms violin concerto does not exist unless you hire sixty guys! This form of art requires huge resources just to keep it alive."

"Orchestras are museums, of great music and great art. They say (changes voice) 'You skinny composers can come and play with that incredible train set.' Of course I want to revolutionize everything, but I realize, humbly, that these forces are here--not for me but for Mahler, the other guy I'm on the bill with."

Mr. Copeland wrote this score for what he calls "A Soldier's Tale-size chamber orchestra. There's a string quartet, woods and brass, but no horns. That's the thing with music (and art in general) you face a problem and the solution turns out to be genius. It turns out that the upper register of (say) the bassoon can fill in when you're thinking of writing for another combination of instruments. The violins are easy but you have to work out which are the easy intervals, the easy trills so it is all playable."

"I should know what percussion can do. You add the woodwind parts there, and there, you find a fat, hairy string sound with (an electric guitar) with a whammy bar. In the percussion I'm much more persnickety and my percussionists are very pleased: I actually know which end of the stick is which and what each end can do."

For Mr. Copeland, writing opera is an adventure. "It is a mission that continues to beguile and intrigue and I'm ready to apply what I learned on the next one!"

Watch an animated trailer for The Invention of Morel, 
© 2017 Chicago Opera Theater.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.