Opera history has shown that some librettist-composer teams are matches made in heaven.
Such was the case with Da Ponte and Mozart or Verdi and Boito (and Piave) or even Puccini and Giacosa and Illica.
The same can be said for Jonathan Moore and Stewart Copeland. The duo has worked together throughout the years and they are back at it again for “The Invention of Morel,” which opens this month in Chicago as part of a co-commission between the Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera.
Artistic Match Made in Heaven
What perhaps makes their artistic marriage a fruitful one is the sheer variety of experience that both have accumulated over their careers.
Copeland is perhaps most recognized to mainstream music lovers for his time with rock band The Police. And while his work with the group has in many ways becoming a major moment in his career, it is impossible to overlook the tremendous breadth of compositional genius that has come from Copeland. He has composed for rock music, films, symphonic works and of course opera.
Meanwhile Moore is an award-winning actor, director and writer, showcasing his talents in the theatre, on television and in film.
“I met him at an English National Opera symposium on new work, where Mary Anthony Turnage and I gave a talk on the genesis of our opera, ‘Greek,’” Moore told OperaWire in an exclusive joint interview regarding the duo’s first meeting. “It became quite comedic and punky and Stewart enjoyed it.”
From there the two embarked on a remarkable partnership that has lasted well over three decades. Their first collaboration together was on the 1992 Channel Four Film, “Horse Opera,” which incidentally featured Copeland and Moore in various on-screen appearances. The two also worked on an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. That work received its US premiere in 2013.
“Our collaborations have been excuses to spend more time together expounding, propounding and confounding,” Copeland told OperaWire. “His wit is timed impeccably, his most subtle nuances have huge effect and the clarity of his storytelling is unparalleled. Many times at his shows I’ve been in my seat, humbled by what my friend has achieved.”
The love is mutual from Moore.
“I love working with him because he is also a sad detail freak like me! He is obsessively devoted to detail and I love that,” said the writer-director. “He works so incredibly hard. His focus is astonishing and I find it inspiring. He has developed as a composer at every step of the way on every piece we work on. He takes his compositional craft very seriously and is devoted to opera as an art form and very much believes in its power and beauty. I share his belief in this too of course!”
Inventing ‘Morel’ Through Text
“The Invention of Morel” is perhaps the duo’s most ambitious work to date, an adaptation Adolfo Bioy Casare’s famous 1940 novel of the same name. The two came across the work thanks to Copeland’s daughter Grace. She shared it with her father and he immediately set out to work.
“When she showed me the book the first feature that caught my eye was the slimness of the volume,” Copeland revealed. “ A ripping yarn with relatively few plot beats and drenched with atmosphere is catnip for composers. A streamlined plot leaves more room for singing.”
He immediately showed it to Moore who was impressed by “the ideas around immortality, consciousness, obsessive love and the moral dimension of science, the nature of reality and illusion.”
The basic premise of “The Invention of Morel” follows a fugitive from justice finding refuge on a remote island. When exotic tourists arrive on the lonely island, he falls for one of the intruders. To his chagrin she ignores him completely, setting in motion a number of rather strange events in the story.
Copeland and Moore’s first meeting regarding the adaptation of the work took place on June 27, 2013 in Holland Park, London.
“We divided up the threads of the story and began the cruel process of redacting the plot down to its main beats,” explained Copeland about the process of adapting the work. “After several meetings [like] this, when we had the throughline and a row of scenes that could tell the story, we then set about the text. This part was divided equally at first but Jonathan gravitated towards the advancement of the plot while I was on the lookout for fun lines to sing. Jonathan was guru of who says what but I fashioned how they would say it – and in how many syllables.”
Inventing ‘Morel’ Through Music
Once the text had been completed after months and months of work, Copeland took over the arduous task of setting the text to music.
“Composing opera is easy creatively but challenging technically,” the composer explained. “If the story is well chosen the music comes as a flood. Two decades of film composing taught me how to channel that flow towards specific dramatic goals but sorting out the story that this music must embody is the tricky part.”
One of the major challenges of composing in the art form relates to the singers.
“These singers are incredibly agile with very wide ranges but, because of their heroic skills, they do it without amplification. This means that the range of the singing has to fit with the orchestration. If the band is blazing that soprano needs to go up. If the baritone is conniving sotto voce then let’s tacit the trumpets. In opera the voices must be woven into an organic acoustic soundscape.”
The actual process for creating required tremendous discipline, the composer turning off his phone and closing his email app to avoid any distractions. He usually started his day writing around 7:30 and stopped for lunch around 1 p.m. He would then resume after his break and work all the way to 6 p.m.
“These halcyon hours come in two flavors. Raw composing happens in the Digital Performer app. In this environment I lay down musical pavement for the dialogue to walk on,” Copeland elaborated. “It’s a very transparent program in which finding and developing tunes, riffs, figures and grooves is very intuitive. In seconds I can have a full fake symphony coming out of my speakers. Moments later I’m applying dialogue – spoken in rhythm at first. Progress is swift. The pages of text rush by in the first pass, all the way down to the end. In the second and subsequent passes the words are melodized and the music developed. Eventually all that is left to do are the problems that were ducked along the way – most of which have resolved themselves by now anyway.”
Regarding the actual style of “The Invention of Morel” Copeland noted that the work features “Soldier’s Tale” style of chamber orchestra “with one of everything, but in this case with one electric guitar too.”
Inventing ‘Morel’ On Stage
Once Copeland had finished marrying the text and music, the opera passed back into Moore’s hands as he prepared to direct it for the Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera.
It is rare in the world of opera to see a librettist also direct his work, a position that Moore noted has its advantages and drawbacks in equal measure.
“Advantages are that one has a worm’s eye view of it and can authentically and directly answer the team’s questions,” Moore noted. “[But the] disadvantages [are that] I suppose people might say that one could lack a degree of objectivity. But when one works in close collaboration with someone, one has a different view to consider too and indeed the conductor Andreas [Mitisek] gave us some much needed objectivity too.”
Regarding his own approach to the work Moore emphasized that the opera contains a wide range of major themes such as illusion and reality, immortality, science, morality, madness, sanity, sex, death, love and obsession.
“All the things we love about opera!” he confessed before holding his tongue about revealing much more. “I cant give away too much about how we will portray that, but hopefully the means of expression comes organically out of the motifs in the piece. I would like audiences to be moved emotionally and intellectually.”
The opera makes its premiere on Feb. 18 at the Studebaker Theater in Chicago with subsequent performances on the 24th and 26th.
More Inventions Together?
The two enjoy collaborating together and have professed a desire to continue the artistic romance. But for now, there are other projects to consider.
Moore is currently working on a series of world premieres in New York and considering a number of other offers. Among those are considerations to do repertory pieces, especially American Opera.
“I love American opera. It was what made me fall in love with opera again. I was invited to speak last January 2016 at The new works forum at Opera America. So many wonderful artists and enthusiasts. There is such hunger for it here from all kinds of people, genders, ethnicities and backgrounds. It feels so vibrant and un-stuffy!”
As for Copeland, he is looking to continue exploring the marriage between text and music form.
“I’m hatching an oratorio based on Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ if anyone is interested,” he revealed.
Maybe Moore will help him adapt it.