Since his days as drummer for the Police, Stewart Copeland has found a completely different path to musical immortality.
The life of a rock star was just Act I for the musician who was raised listening to jazz and orchestral music. Tapping into those other facets of his musical background has led to a series of operas and orchestral works that have put him on the radar of audiences that may never have heard “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” or “Roxanne.”
One of his latest operas is having its collegiate debut at Manchester University later this month, and it’s an occasion that brings the famed composer to our area for a chance to chat with students.
An Unusual romance
That opera, The Invention of Morel, is based on the 1940 novel La Invención de Morel by Argentinian author Adolfo Bioy Casares. It tells the story of a fugitive hiding out on a deserted island. There is, however, another character, and the love story that plays out cuts through different times, making for a particularly unusual romance.
Copeland was introduced to the novel as he toiled on another of his ambitious projects, an operatic version of a James Joyce classic.
“It was suggested to me by my teenage daughter,” Copeland said in a recent phone interview with Whatzup. “I was working on Finnegan’s Wake which was such a huge piece, and this seemed much easier. I read it and was beguiled. It was captivating and very emotional which is great for opera. It was a slim book, but it was quite a challenge because in the novel time is chopped up, and for the characters in the piece, time is all out of sequence, so we had to make it clear for the audience.”
Working on the libretto with actor-writer Jonathan Moore, the pair found a way to structure the story in a way Copeland said is more readily comprehended by audiences, a challenge he also faced with Finnegan’s Wake which, as he noted, “is the most famous book no one has read.”
Closer to the vision
Turning notable literary masterpieces into operas is a long way from filling arenas with screaming fans. But it actually brings Copeland closer to the vision his parents had for him.
“I was raised by my daddy to be a jazz musician,” he said. “But ultimately my music was leaning more toward Jimi Hendrix than Stan Kenton. My mother was always listening to Debussy and Ravel, so I was exposed to a lot of 20th century composers. Even as I was playing rock n’ roll, I had all this orchestral music in my head, and then I was a film composer for 20 years.”
Working with directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Copeland began writing for symphonies which required an entirely different approach than he’d been taking when writing songs for the Police.
“My first film I was talking to Coppola, and he said we needed strings so I had to work with a string section. When you’re working with a guitarist, it’s music of the ear. You present the song and let them figure out how it’s going to go, and they work on it for a while and it comes together. You just find people you trust to make it sound the way you want it to. Working with a string section, there’s no negotiation. You have to put it on the page with every note and every direction you want spelled out. You might spend an afternoon getting what you want with a guitarist, but with a string section, you have it in 20 minutes because it’s on the page, and they have the chops to play it as you’ve written it.”
When told that one of his pieces, “World Percussion,” was on the newly released Fort Wayne Philharmonic schedule for the 2020-21 season (set for March 13, 2021), Copeland was unaware but also pleased that his work is being shared so extensively.
“You know, it’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “There are performances going on that I don’t know anything about. When I started working with the book for Morel, it felt weighty, much more than doing a solo album. But in all of these works, I’m making a document with all of the instructions for performing it. The whole score is there, then it’s up to people in Manchester and Fort Wayne, Indiana, to play it for people. It’s like these pieces go out into the world and have their own career, and I might not even know it’s happening.”
Enjoying the talk
Although he said there are no plans for any Police reunions on the horizon, Copeland is busy enough keeping up with his own compositions. Morel is his fifth opera, but there are already two more in the works.
And when Manchester University brings The Invention of Morel to the Honeywell Center on Feb. 28-29, Copeland will be on hand, greeting the audience at the Friday night debut. He also plans to work with other members of the campus community, having already hosted the Morel cast in Pittsburgh recently.
“When you’re in a rock band, you just kind of come into town, play, and leave,” Copeland said. “But when you’re working in the fine arts, there are other expectations to greet and meet with the sponsors and the patrons of the arts. I’ll also be talking to the students which I enjoy because I’m a talker. I also have seven children so I know how to talk so they’ll listen and listen so they’ll talk. And I enjoy that a lot.”
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