Podcast: Stewart Copeland's Operatic Heart


Stewart Copeland made an indelible impact on popular culture as the drummer for The Police. He's also a well respected and successful film composer, having worked, amongst many others, with Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, and John Hughes. He is perhaps less known, however, as a composer of opera.

In May, the Long Beach Opera will present a production of Copeland's Tell Tale Heart, based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe. They're presenting it, and Michael Gordon's Van Gogh, at the Expo Art Center in Bixby Knolls, where they previously mounted a widely celebrated production of Medea.

Listen to the entire interview, which covers far more than this transcription:

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"Poe is an obvious source of material for an opera composer," Copeland said. "Most of his stories are short, is the only drawback. His stories are quite simple, which is good for opera, but really atmospheric, and can be very emotional.

"The other blessing of Edgar Allen Poe is that the language is exquisite. The librettist has merely to add the occasional comma, if, and, or but, a little bit of melisma here and there, and you can use his language as he wrote it and it sings beautifully. Actually, 'beautifully' isn't the right word. It sings powerfully."

Copeland entered into to the realm of of composing concert music though Michael Smuin, who he'd met when they both were working on Coppola's Rumble Fish. This led, somewhat coincidentally, to opera.

"Smuin commissioned a ballet for the San Francisco Ballet," Copeland explained, "and, during a press conference for that, they asked if I'd be writing another and, as a gag, I said, 'Sure! After I finish writing my opera.' That was picked up and, next thing I knew, Cleveland Opera is on the line, and they commissioned a piece, a gigantic grand opera. Four years later, that went up, and the opera bug has been infesting my soul ever since.

"Composing for film was great training for lyrical opera because it rubs your nose in the mechanics of how music works with emotion. The film composer is forced to try to achieve very specific, and very multi-layered, information with music. You have to. You do it every day. I've got to make this scene 'happy/sad' and that scene 'sad/happy.' There's a big difference. The film composer has to figure out that difference, and learn how to create these gradations, not just of emotion, but also timbre, style, and period. You've got to be able to do it with an orchestra or an electronic ensemble.

"The connection of the music to story telling is what it's all about for the film composer. The only problem is that film is a director's medium. The director is the artist and the composer on the film is a craftsman. Now, if the composer has delusions of grandeur, and a story to tell, well... That's what opera is for."

He admits that seeing his work unfold on stage is a double edged sword

"On one hand, the performers bring new energy and new drama and new talent to your work and take it to places you could have never imagined. On the other hand, that little 1/16th note phrase there that's supposed to go just like this... They never quite got that, you know, so you sit there rapt with admiration in some moments and howling in pain in others.

"The great thing about opera is that it is a composer's medium. The composer is God. The reason for that is because, with most operas, the composer is safely dead, and the director and conductor can argue 'til the cows come home but they're taking the composer's name as the ultimate authority. It is just how the politics of rehearsals go. So, when the composer actually walks into the room, living and breathing, they all have a system that puts the composer as the top executive decision maker. A wonderful thing, really."

Although Copeland hasn't done much work, yet, with LBO, he admits that he's a fan.

"I saw one of their productions, Ainadamar [by Osvaldo Golijov, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang], which was fantastic, and absolutely suits my sensibilities perfectly. Also, the whole concept they have of doing productions in strange locations takes a lot of bravery and, when you have a strong element of bravery, cool things are going to happen."


Tickets to Tell Tale Heart and Van Gogh are on sale now. Performances are taking place on Saturday, May 11, Saturday May 18, and Sunday May 19. Tickets and additional information are available at LongBeachOpera.org.

Also, Copeland planned appearance at the Art Theatre on Saturday, April 20, has been cancelled due to a gravely ill family member. Still, the rare screening of his 2006 documentary, The Police--Everyone Stares, which he shot primarily on Super 8 film while touring with the band, will be shown as planned. The ticket price has been reduced from $15 to $10.

Copeland, and Bang on the Can Festival cofounder Michael Gordon, will be in coversation with LBO artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek at LACMA's Bing Theater on Saturday, May 4th. Tickets and information are available at LACMA.org.

Learn more about Stewart's creative efforts at StewartCopeland.net.


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