Gone are the days when former pop and rock stars avoided the wise advise to ‘burn out or fade away’ and instead become faded shadows of their past glories or simply their own, best tribute act. The public have now become used to chart toppers appearing in films, becoming scientists or, more frequently, taking up political activism. Even those who remain in music are now prone to spreading their wings and reaching out to a wider church. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood has written award winning film scores, while Damon Albarn has expanded from Blur, Gorillaz and The Good The Bad & The Queen to take in world music and to write operas.
In 2007, Albarn working alongside Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett and Chinese director Chen Shi-zheng bought the world “Monkey, Journey to the West”, a Chinese opera. Now, four years later, and this time working with Rufus Norris, he has created “Dr Dee An English Opera”. What a creation it is too!
Written to be an inclusion in the Cultural Olympiad, to enhance London 2012, this brand new ‘folk’ opera was premiered as part of the Manchester International Festival in July 2011. It tells the story of one of England’s lesser-known sons, Dr John Dee. Dee was advisor and astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, a mathematician, a scientist, a philosopher, a spymaster and ultimately a slightly gullible human being. It was Dee who first put forward the idea of an English Empire (these were the days prior to the Act of Union after all) and seems an apt choice of subject for a project such as this.
The stage set at the Palace Theatre Manchester was delightfully intimate and made clever use of space and light. Initially the stage is set with Albarn and a band of musicians sat in a pavilion with a stage above. This band, including Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen, focuses mainly on traditional and esoteric instruments, such as the crumhorn, lute and viola de gamba, which add extra texture and depth to the impressive BBC Philharmonic performing traditionally in the orchestra pit. Lead by a clever raven the opening sequence, a centuries spanning view of the English archetype, takes place on top of the pavilion before it rises slowly upwards to look down on the life of Dr John Dee as it unfolds below.
Right from the outset impressive use is made of specially folded paper props, which reflect the use of books (Dee had the largest private library in Europe) and act as walls and screens. This allows for fast scene changes with no distraction from the music and action enabling Dee’s long and varied life story to be told in a mere 90 minutes. Clever and engaging images and animations are projected across these ‘walls’ of paper throughout the show, and are positioned at times by the cast themselves drawing you into the story and keeping the narrative flowing.
We follow the life of Dr Dee from a young man, learning everything that he is able, until his eventual demise as an outcast and broken man. On this journey we are entertained by such Elizabethan colossi as Walsingham and Elizabeth I herself. We also meet talented chess playing ravens, the planets, angels and spirits, Dee’s wife and daughter, and the charlatan who would eventually be Dee’s downfall, the gloriously portrayed Edward Kelly.
All the cast rise to the challenge of this new and exciting work wonderfully. Although there is not a large ensemble the scope of the piece is fully realised and the leads, especially Dee, Walsingham and Kelly, bring life and depth to their roles. Musically it is the more ‘folky’ element of the opera where it really soars. The few sections that are presented in a more classical and traditional operatic style seem slightly ordinary in comparison to the lilting melodies and narrative charm, which flows throughout the performance. The dawn chorus opening to the second half is a prime example of this and one of the highlights of the evening. Having Albarn on stage throughout could have detracted from the story and the other performances but this simply isn’t the case. Sat above the action has acts as narrator, and link between the 21st Century audience and 16th Century action. This allows for newcomers to opera to become more engaged with the performance and keeps the action fresh and lively.
“Dr Dee An English Opera” quite rightly earnt the standing ovations it received. It is a fresh and engaging visual treat. The show is beautifully and remarkably staged with haunting and powerful music throughout. When it reappears in London next year a viewing would be highly recommended.