NEW YORK — Long revered as Elvis Costello's explosive keyboardist, Steve Nieve has produced numerous noteworthy projects in his own right.
He has recorded solo and as a session player, performed piano accompaniment to classic silent films, composed a novel song cycle that has partially surfaced in recent Costello concerts, and scored several movies, including the just-released French film Sans Plomb by philosopher/psychoanalyst Muriel Teodori, which also features Costello songs.
Nieve has further collaborated with Teodori on the opera Welcome To The Voice, which stars, among others, Nieve's jazz piano trio, Costello, and the Brodsky Quartet, the classical string quartet with whom Costello has previously recorded.
The opera, which premiered as an oratorio last June in New York as part of the KnitMedia/Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, was scored for string quartet, piano, saxophone, seven solo singers, and a chorus. It concerns a steelworker who is an opera enthusiast and becomes obsessed with a young opera singer.
Nieve's own operatic obsession comes from his longstanding interest in the "strange wedding" of words and music. "An opera is probably the most complex and achieved form of this union," he says. Now based in France, he discovered that Teodori had the same fascination. "She was already writing books, plays, film scripts, and songs, so I sent her a cassette of my music along with the words 'Let's try!'"
There are, of course, major differences between composing an ambitious, time-demanding opera and other, lighter forms of music.
"When you undertake such a project, you quickly encounter all the challenges," Nieve continues. "First, you need a lot of time, and time is money, so you have to accept that you'll be poor. And when you write something that takes a long time, your self, your influences, your consciousness, and your life are changing, but you have to try to create continuity — for the lyrics as well as the music.
"Another important challenge was inside the opera itself: We wanted to take the risk of building a bridge between classically trained and untrained voices and, in the same spirit, oppose the jazz piano trio with the classical string quartet — two emblematic musical archetypes. The whole project centered on the idea of the hybrid, which is a challenge in itself."
Nieve recognizes that he remains known primarily as Costello's long-time accompanist, but he appreciates the sophistication of that fan base.
"I'm sure the audience that has been courageous enough to keep up with the work of Elvis, my work with him, and the work I've done separate from him is, like us, interested in wider musical experiences," he says. "Rock music has a certain amount of freedom built into it, just like any other form of music."
Nieve, who is self-managed, registers his work with the U.K.'s Performing Right Society. He says he would link up with any publisher and agent similarly intrigued by "the challenge of music that doesn't exactly fit the categories."
While Nieve hopes to ultimately release Welcome To The Voice commercially, he is assisting Teodori in a documentary project about Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo. "She's hired me as sound man and eventually composer," he says. He is on his way to the Isle of Elba to start videotaping interviews.