London Telegraph, November 20, 2008

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London Telegraph

UK & Ireland newspapers

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Welcome to the Voice:
A night at the opera with Sting and Elvis


Neil McCormick

In a remarkable musical diversion, two of pop's biggest stars are treading the opera stage in Paris.

Sting sits in a cross-legged lotus position on a sofa, one arm raised, as he stretches his body. "Thanks for the boot in the back last night," he says. "That was a nice touch."

"You like the way I ground my heel in?" retorts Elvis Costello.

"When I'm lying there in fear and pain, I'm not acting," says Sting.

"It's in my contract," says Elvis. "I get to rough you up every night."

Sting and Costello have been rehearsing an opera. Veterans of the Seventies punk and new-wave movement, the two British stars have since established themselves among the most acclaimed and wide-ranging singer-songwriters in the world. But their new project promises to be something of a departure. From tomorrow, for five nights at the historic Théâtre Du Châtelet in Paris, they make their debuts as operatic singers in the premiere of the extraordinary Welcome to the Voice.

"It is important sometimes to get outside your comfort zone just to see what happens," says Sting. "Neither of us has done this out of a sense that we're great enough to do opera now. We are here to learn something, but I think that about most things. We are here to learn about how we can expand what we do as rock singers."

"The biggest difference is running around the bloody stage doing stuff while trying to remember to sing the music," says Costello.

"In a frock," adds Sting.

"In a voluminous coat," Costello corrects him, referring to the huge black garment in which his character is perpetually swathed. "But that's OK. The coat is doing a lot of the acting."

The opera was composed by Costello's long-serving keyboard player, Steve Nieve, with a libretto by Nieve's wife, French writer and psychoanalyst Muriel Teodori. Sting plays the male lead, Dionysos, a working man whose love of opera and attraction to a diva (played by rising opera star Sylvia Schwartz) threatens the cultural status quo, as enforced by Costello's fascistic police chief of Police. Both lent their voices to last year's studio recording of the work, released by Deutsche Grammophon.

It is a compelling piece that mixes popular and operatic singing, embracing full orchestral arrangements, some electronic flavour and jazz spontaneity. Originally workshopped at a New York jazz festival in 2000, it has slowly made its way to the stage and is now a lavish, extravagantly designed production, directed by Wolfgang Doerner with the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris.

"I am still a little incredulous to find myself here," says Sting. "If someone had asked me directly to star in an opera, my response would have been 'There is no way you are getting me in white tights'. I think we are required to bring some of the chaotic or spontaneous energy of rock to the piece, rather than stand there like operatic tenors and just sing. We are being asked to be ourselves in a way, volatile elements in this very precious form, interlopers in the opera."

"Actually it's as much a jump for the opera singers as it is for us," says Costello. More of an opera buff than Sting (with an unfinished opera of his own, The Secret Arias, workshopped as an oratorio by the Royal Danish Opera in 2005), Costello certainly understands the discipline. "Because it's a modern, untried piece, they are not on certain ground. They know it's a one-of-a-kind experience. They're good humoured about it — they've probably worked out that we're not going to turn up in their next production."

It is instructive to watch the different ways Costello and Sting occupy a room. Costello looks like an intellectual gangster, hunched in an armchair, stocky frame pressing tight against his jacket, pork-pie hat on his head, blue-lensed glasses hovering over a scruffy, red-tinged beard. He manages to convey an air of slovenly relaxation and tightly coiled energy at the same time. Naturally loquacious, he dominates the conversation. In commercial terms he comes nowhere near Sting, but as something of a musical polymath his senior status seems to go unchallenged.

Sting meanwhile seems graciously content to let his colleague run the conversation. In black trousers and tight sweater, with a thick, greying beard, he sits listening in a yoga position, occasionally interjecting in a soft voice. When Sting describes opera as "a fantastic art form that is more or less ignored by popular media because it is so elitist and so terrifyingly hermetically sealed," Costello argues to the contrary: "To some degree it's the other way around. Popular media has become very judgmental about opera. No one is actually barring your way from listening. Some rock and roll gigs are as expensive as the most expensive tickets in the opera house, so the idea it's elitist is absurd. Opera recordings are not more expensive than hip hop recordings. It's more about whether people are tuned into that kind of vocal production."

And he then digresses into an explanation of how operatic singing was developed to project into huge theatres, and how microphones changed everything. "There's a famous recording of {Al) Jolson and (Bing) Crosby singing together, and it's one of the most instructive things about the progress of singing in the 20th century because Jolson's still trying to hit the back wall, so he just sounds mad, while Bing is completely convincing, its like he's whispering in your ear."

"There's something about the proximity of the microphone when it's this close that is very sexual," suggests Sting. "You can hear the mouth working, and it's wet. Opera singers are too far away to really get intimate with."

"You can say that, but when Sylvia is singing and we are both called upon to react, it doesn't take a lot of acting," says Costello.

"She sings notes and I get levitated," Sting agrees.

"It's pretty affecting," says Costello. "Then again, we do have the best seats in the house."

The combination of curiosity, adventure and love of music that is driving these two stars to risk this experiment with opera is genuinely heartening. Fresh from one of the highest-grossing concert tours ever with the notoriously combative Police — it took $358 million — Sting seems to be enjoying the dynamics of an ensemble production. "They are very supportive," he says. "You come off stage and they are all hugging you."

"Just like the Police tour," says Costello, wryly.

"Exactly!" declares Sting, pulling a sour face.

Théâtre Chatelet (www.chatelet-theatre.com) from today to Nov 25. The Welcome to the Voice CD is out on DG.

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The Daily Telegraph, November 20, 2008


Neil McCormick interviews Elvis Costello and Sting about Steve Nieve's Welcome To The Voice.

Images

2008-11-20 London Telegraph photo 01.jpg
Interlopers: Sting (left) and Elvis Costello with Sylvia Schwartz.


Sting and Elvis: Rock gods in conversation


Neil McCormick

I have been a big fan of both Sting and Elvis Costello since my New Wave teenage days, so getting them together in Paris to discuss their appearance in an opera was a real treat. Given that there were a couple of Alpha Male rock icons in the same room, you might have thought there would have been some butting of egos, but in fact Elvis (a bundle of intellectual energy) easily dominated the conversation while Sting (with his detuned yoga calmness) was perfectly content just to let him. Maybe he found it a treat not to be the automatic centre of attention. The only reflection of their different status in the commercial pecking order of global rock superstardom came in a mischievous Elvis quip. He had mentioned that Sting, as leading man almost constantly on stage, doesn't actually witness much back stage activity.

"What is going on back there?" asked Sting,

"Well, we have a little tent where the principle singers sit when they're not onstage," said Costello. "Obviously the girls are all aflutter at getting to cavort with a rock God ..."

Then, after a pause for comic effect, he added: "... and Sting too, of course!"

Anyway, bespectacled, scruffy and with a face made for radio, Elvis has never been much of a Rock God, but he is one of the most fascinating characters in popular music, his combination of fan-like enthusiasm and encyclopaedic knowledge of music in all its forms lending him the air of a garrulous punk rock professor. Inevitably there wasn't room in my main feature for everything we discussed, particularly relating to the complications of establishing a new operatic work, so I thought I would offer a bit more here of the thoughts of a (self-proclaimed) rock God (with occasional interjections from Sting).

Welcome To The Voice (composed by Costello's long-serving keyboard player Steve Nieve with libretto by Nieve's wife Muriel Teodori) is an extraordinary piece for someone who is not particularly familiar with opera, because by combining popular musical forms with classical operatic forms, it makes it very accessible, while sacrificing nothing in terms of artistic seriousness. The very fact that the libretto concerns the elitism of high culture and the unifying spirit of music ensures that different musical forms fit coherently together.

Elvis: There's some very memorable melodies and really beautiful passages. Steve's combined unusual sounds, some electronics and freer jazz elements, there are weighty orchestrations while some players have great liberty. It's not unprecedented to hear electronics in an opera, Michael Tippet has used synthesisers, Stockhausen obviously, but it does feel seamless. I was really startled by it. Because I've watched Steve write this, tapping away on a laptop in airports and hotel lobbies, on planes and coaches. For the past seven or eight years you would find him working on the road somewhere most of the time. I think something people might not appreciate is that work like this requires a lot of preparation. Full time composers sit quietly in a room writing away and you might say that the quality of their work reflects that solitary contemplation of the music. But Steve's done it while doing something else.

What has been the biggest challenge coming to the opera as popular singers?

Sting: One of the problems we face is that the orchestral idea of tempo is completely different from what we are used to with a drummer playing a backbeat. It drifts, and it always seems to be behind the beat, so you are constantly pushing the beat and you find yourself half a bar out. It's interesting. All the opera singers are very much in that flow, and I've had to really pull back from my natural instinct.

Elvis: You would never be able to play with an ensemble with the degree of freedom you have in a band unless you had an absolutely telepathic communication between the conductor and the singer, and you would never achieve that in such a short space of time.

Sting: Its also hard to interpret what the arm waving is about. It can be kind of ambivalent.

Elvis: Well, that's because they cue you on the up beat, not where you enter.

Sting: I sort of prefer the Joe Loss school

Elvis: Well I can speak with some authority on this matter. I love Joe Loss, he was my dad's boss for years (Elvis senior, aka Ross McManus, sang with the Joe Loss Orchestra) and he was very kind to us, but the band knew better than to follow his baton. Cause he was a front-man, a showman, he wasn't a great conductor.

I know that you have argued opera is not necessarily elitist (see main article) but, to look at a different way, do you think it is accessible to non-expert music lovers?

Elvis: I think some productions have got hard to understand, and in some ways its become very insular. I've walked out of productions where I felt like the presentation of this incredible music has become decadent, and is made for a jaded palette of opera lovers who don't really want to admit anyone else, and are therefore making more and more attempts to sensationalise beyond the actual meaning of the libretto and the music. There was a famous Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House where they had women being whipped, and there was a big outrage cause the Queen went and there were half naked women onstage.

Sting: I'm sure there was worse going on in the boxes back in the day when it was written, much less on the stage.

This whole enterprise has been a massive effort and huge expense for a five day production.

Sting: It's publicly funded. The five days run is the standard in the opera world, this is how they debut new productions. And it is a problem. Opera singers don't really wanna do modern operas, cause they have to learn all this atonal, really difficult stuff and that's it, its hard to learn and then it's over. They'd much rather be in the repertoire of La Traviatta and Tosca because they know they are going to have to do that again.

Elvis: Whether something can be established as repertoire, that's the big challenge. If you write something that obeys the rules of Broadway, even if it has the superficial appearance of novelty or innovation, like a Mama Mia or Hairspray, the next thing there's a production in every major city in the world and Las Vegas, and then there's a movie made with John Travolta. Modern opera never seems to get that far. This does feel like it has potential but if it is going to be repertoire it has to be possible for other singers than us to sing it, so it stands not on its association with personalities. This time to next year there could be two other people in our roles, I don't know who they would get.

Because there is a bit of typecasting here, Sex God Sting and Angry Elvis

Elvis: I think John Mayer and Mos Def. They could do it

Sting: I'd pay to see that.

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