UPDATE: 20 February 2021 — I wrote the blog post below in anticipation of meeting Stewart Copeland back in early 2020 (just before the pandemic). A year later, it’s interesting to look back on this article. I was expecting that encounter to be a fleeting thing, but Stewart is now a friend who has informed and transformed my own compositional journey in more ways than I can say. His encouragement has meant the world to me.
22 January 2020
Years ago (I won’t say how many), one of my grad school profs asked me this question: “If you knew you were going to spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, whose music would you take along?” He limited me to 15 composers. Easy. Hands down: Gesualdo, Gabrielli, Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Debussy, Respighi, Durufle, Puccini, Ives, Britten, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and (Aaron) Copland. Admittedly, I would also need to stow away some (John) Adams and Penderecki if this were not an imaginary scenario. Why these particular people? Because they are musical culminators and innovators who create complex and surprising textural layers. I drive my friends and family nuts in grocery stores, restaurants, and movies because I randomly point out things they couldn’t care less about (even if they’re musicians). While they grapple with an appetizer decision, I’m blathering about chromatic mediants in some Muzak-generated Beatles tune wafting over a mind-numbing sea of dinner conversation. Who cares about food? I’m feasting my ears on something far more important! Much as I try, I can never listen passively. Once a composer piques my curiosity, I’m all in. Absorption is my default mode.
After my most recent adventures in score study, I think I need to add another stowaway composer to my list: Stewart Copeland. Many people recognize him as the drummer for The Police, but most of his career has involved writing some really cool non-rock music. This guy is legit. I was a Police fan back in the day. Who wasn’t? They were awesome! I completely wore out those LPs in college. But, sometime in the late 80s I saw an episode of The Equalizer and was completely blown away by the music. It was definitely an “aha!” moment for this fledgling composer, and I still remember it as clearly as if it happened an hour ago. I’d never heard anything like that in a television soundtrack. This was not wallpaper music, nor was it some cheesy little sing-along. This grabbed me by the shoulders and made me pay attention. It was smart and efficient, yet huge, steam-rolling, and visceral. I checked the composer’s name and sure enough it was Stewart Copeland. I remember smiling and nodding to myself. It made perfect sense. I could have applied all those same adjectives to his drumming. The Equalizer was a great series, but I tuned in each week for the music. I have stayed interested in post-Police projects by all three bottle blondes over the years. Each inspires me as a perpetually curious composer. Sting has emerged as one of his generation’s greatest song-writers and has created a musical called “The Last Ship.” Andy Summers released “Triboluminescence,” his thirteenth solo album a couple of years ago at the age of 75 — how can you not respect that?!? And Stewart? Well, he’s been very busy writing scores for film, television, video games, ballet, orchestra, opera (there are 6 now), and even pulled off an oratorio!
Flashback to August 2018. I was looking for an opera to produce in collaboration with my friend Kathleen Belcher, from the MET‘s roster of stage directors. I knew I had a very rare convergence of talent coming up, so I needed something special. I wanted a new production to tap into Kathleen’s particular creative genius, but I knew our Wabash County audience wouldn’t put up with any atonal excursions. I didn’t quite know what I was looking for, but I hoped I’d recognize it when I saw it. Turns out, I struck operatic gold with Stewart’s “Invention of Morel.” The sci-fi element was compelling and musically, it was chock full of my favorite shiny objects: Dorian, Mixolydian, and Lydian modes, tritones, major seconds, plagal tonal shifts, low gurgly reeds, symphonic vocal writing, hemiola, pulse displacement… I digress. Anyway, I contacted Kathleen. She was interested. I ordered grand rights, scores, the novel by Casares, and so began my quest to bring this gem to the stage in northeastern Indiana–the primary target of my covert evangelical mission: breaking down operatic stereotypes and revealing the gospel that “Opera is for Everyone!”
Now, it’s January 2020. Rehearsals with the cast and orchestra are in full swing. Production designers are busy working their magic. Kathleen will arrive on Valentines Day. By that time the cast should be “off-book” and ready for her staging instruction. I have studied this score so much that it plays a constant loop in my brain, even while I sleep. Often, at this point in a production, I’m sick of the score and ready to set it on fire, or at least put it on the shelf for awhile. Not this score. A year and a half ago, when I first gnarled out a perusal copy at the piano, I thought it was interesting; but, now that I hear the blend of these singers, and Stewart’s shimmering orchestral layers, I feel I am unearthing treasure after treasure. It’s a passionate story, and I understand well Stewart’s take on each character by the way he has crafted their individual themes and woven them together in a tapestry of love, mystery, humor, and compulsion. This is the mark of a gifted and skilled composer. While Morel is nothing like a rock opera, it has a momentum and accessibility that doesn’t exist in traditional or even most new operas. That propulsive energy is there for a reason. Stewart’s opera is high quality, and it is designed for the masses. He snuck in some beefy complexity between drum fills and guitar whammys. Is it possible he’s a covert opera evangelist, too? I think so. In fact, after acquainting myself with much of his compositional output I think this rock star is an all-out traveling “art music” salesman. Shush… don’t tell!
In a few weeks, Stewart Copeland will arrive to see and hear our interpretation of his creation. I’ll spare you the details of that process, but suffice it to say that booking Stewart and Kathleen for the same weekend was like aligning the planets. Our show will be the collegiate premiere. It’s been performed by two professional opera companies (Chicago Opera Theater and Long Beach Opera), but this is the first time a student cast has tackled this beast. Yes, that’s right. It’s a beast. “Brutal” is an accurate descriptor assigned by tenor Nathan Granner for whom the title role was composed. He meant no insult. It’s just a fact. Like Wagner or Verdi, Copeland’s vocal writing is for the big boys (and that includes the female roles). It separates the sheep from the goats, baby. The wheat from the chaff. Ya gotta have some serious vocal horses to pull off this sucker. A typical undergrad cast would be spewing blood after the first week of rehearsals. This is some weighty material, so I’ve snuck in a few grad students for the real killer roles. Still, I’m quite proud that all but one cast member hails from my little voice studio (past or present) in the Winger building. I know the limits of these voices and also their potential. They are being stretched a lot, but this is the perfect challenge for each one of them right now. Learning Stewart’s unique musical language has been hard for them, but it’s gratifying to see their neurons firing up in rehearsals. They’re starting to connect with this material and they are loving it! The peak of this mountain is within their grasp and they are charging full steam toward it, all the while mindfully reaching over to help each other grab a hand or foothold when necessary. They are a true climbing team, linked together by a single tether. Indeed, the vocal lines are so intertwined that if one tumbles, they all might fall. I love this music because of the intersection of all the elements: the libretto, the voices, the character themes, and the orchestra. This is really good opera, folks.
When I began this journey, I thought Stewart had done some cool stuff and written a very interesting opera. A year and a half and a heck-uv-ah lot of score study later, I’m sold. He’s now one of my favorite composers. Just about everyone else on my “must have” composer list is dead, so I’m pretty excited about meeting this living and breathing maestro. Since one of my goals is to compose an opera myself one day (if I can muster the courage), I’m a little bummed that there won’t be time to sit and pick Stewart’s oversized amygdalae for hours, days, or weeks. Yes, I have that many questions for him; but, I’ll settle for the great honor of introducing his artistry to these musicians and our community. What a ride!
P.S. Check out this fun link for more info about Stewart’s amygdalae
Stewart Copeland photo credit: Shayne Gray