For a while back in the 1970s and '80s, drummer/songwriter Stewart Copeland's band The Police was the biggest rock act in the world. And just a couple years ago, his inimitable playing style earned him recognition among Rolling Stone magazine readers as one of the top five rock drummers of all time.
But over the next two weekends, the Long Beach Opera company will be spotlighting a different area of Copeland's musical prowess with the US premiere production of his opera "Tell-Tale Heart," based on the popular Edgar Allan Poe classic.
"One does try to supersede one's typecasting," Copeland mused in a conversation with LAist last week about his adventures in opera composition. "I do a lot of drumming, but the drummer guy is pretty separate from the composer dude—two very separate, very walled-off compartments of the mind. The chops that I use as an opera composer—to be truthful, very very little of that came from playing in a rock band. Most of it came from being a professional working stiff film composer, that's where I learned my craft. That and I went to the boot camp of dramatic composing, which is episodic TV."
Originally produced at Covent Garden in London, "Tell-Tale Heart" is actually Copeland's fourth real opera "such as an opera company would stage," meaning "not a rock opera, not 'Tommy,'" but one with "plenty of fiddles and clarinets." Writing an opera, he insists, "is the most fun composing gig there is," in large part because "in opera the composer is the big boss man. Television is a writer's medium; the writer gets to be the boss man. In film the director is the boss man. In a rock band they're all musicians and everybody's the boss man. In opera the composer is the boss man, and it's all about what the composer wants."
The musical influences on "Tell-Tale Heart," the L.A. resident says, are, above all, "American, maybe burlesque, with a big heavy dose of 'Uncle Aaron'" Copland, who, he notes "by the way, is no relation (he spells his name wrong), but I've adopted him."
Growing up the son of two intelligence officers in the Middle East and London, Copeland recalls he "was always very aware of being the American in the woodpile. Even though in the US half the people think I'm English, you know? But when I'm in London, man, I'm A-murr-ican like a sumvabitch. And being there with Edgar Allan Poe, my fellow American—my fellow Virginian!—I wanted to see if they could find an American to play the lead role, but they didn’t, the best guy wasn’t. I tried to get him to do it with an American accent (and they all thought he sounded totally American), but I wasn’t fooled for a second. Here [in Long Beach], it’ll be an American and it’ll be much more real."
After initially grappling with the challenge of turning the Poe short story, written as a murderer's interior monologue, into a dramatic musical work, Copeland "came up with the idea of having two of him, where one is the narrator telling the story and the other is himself actually doing it. And then once I had the two guys, the original intention was that the second killer, the shadow killer, was going to be just a [silent actor], but then I thought, fuck it, let’s get them both singing, let's have him singing duets with himself—because he’s mad, after all!"
Copeland acknowledges indulging the "fun thought" that in writing "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe himself might have had a nefarious act "of this nature on his conscience. I mean, just the way he drools over it, he loves all this. You could imagine him chuckling lustfully to himself as he composed this work." So what about the composer of the "Tell-Tale Heart" operatic work?
"Well, I haven’t murdered anyone lately," he offers. "I fobbed off driving my kid to school on Monday because I was up late. That’s about it. Not much of an opera in that material, I’m afraid."
"The Tell-Tale Heart" is paired with Michael Gordon's "Van Gogh" in a Long Beach Opera double bill of one-act works this Saturday, May 11, at 8 p.m.; next Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 19 at 7 p.m. Tickets $29-$160.
By Lyle Zimskind in Arts & Entertainment