Many rock stars stumble when trying to shift to other musical realms after the arena-show phase of their career is over. Not Stewart Copeland. His propulsive, unorthodox percussion style, an elemental component of the reggae-influenced, post-punk sound that defined The Police, was the product of a first-rate and perpetually roving musical mind steeped in classical repertoire, jazz and non-Western traditions.
Not surprisingly, Copeland’s post-Police career has taken him down some fascinating compositional paths, from film (Wall Street, Talk Radio), TV (The Equalizer, Babylon V) and video games (Spyro the Dragon) to opera, the highest calling of the collaborative arts. His fifth complete opera, The Invention of Morel, makes its local debut March 17 at the Long Beach Opera. It’s part of a world-premiere co-production shared with Chicago Opera Theater, where the work debuted in February 2017.
Based on a little-known 1940 novella by Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel is a natural pick for Copeland yet a thorny challenge for any composer. A sci-fi mystery intertwined with an ardent romance and laced with dark humor, it shares certain traits with the work of Casares’ better-known countryman, Jorge Luis Borges: fantastical elements, qualities of magic realism and a narrator who’s confused about his situation.
But from the get-go, Copeland was intrigued — perhaps because Morel was less daunting than another opera project he’d been contemplating.
“What attracted me to (Casares’ novella)? Initially, the slimness of the volume,” Copeland says, chuckling. He had been struggling to adapt James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for the operatic stage. It wasn’t the legendary obtuseness of the masterpiece that stymied Copeland but the stubbornness of Joyce’s descendants, whose tactics, Copeland says, included foot-dragging and unreasonable financial demands. “Then my son Dylan suggested the Morel book. A quick read suggested to me that it has all the things an opera should have: mystery, passion, high drama. And from my point of view it’s unique — a period black romantic comedy that’s also sci-fi.”
Copeland’s collaborator Jonathan Moore, the opera’s librettist and director, was reluctant to discuss any details of the story. The element of surprise is paramount to the viewer’s enjoyment of the piece, he says. “Whatever I say about the plot is potentially dangerous. I’m very, very sensitive to giving the game away. When you see it, you’ll know why.”
Moore, a veteran British stage actor, director and writer who has worked with most of opera’s greatest living composers, was reduced to talking in vague generalities about the story’s central themes. “I think it’s about this forlorn hope that (the protagonist) has,” he says, carefully considering his words after a long silence. Moore offered that the central character is a man trapped on an island, and he’s a fugitive from justice. He’s alone until one day he spots a well-dressed group, one of whom is a ravishingly beautiful yet remote young woman.
Beauty’s intimidating qualities and its unattainability are key themes in the story, Moore says. “I’ve found over the years as an artist and a human being that there’s a coolness, even a certain harshness of personality that comes with great beauty.”
Not surprisingly, this theme comes directly from Casares’ life. The writer developed an obsession with Louise Brooks, the beautiful young American silent-film star whose career waned quickly, before her looks faded or talkies changed the face of Hollywood. “Louise was definitely the muse for the writer,” Moore says. “He was a movie fanatic, and he fell deeply in love, although he never met her. Men projected onto her qualities that she doesn’t really have, which is something we do when we idolize people.”
Copeland and Moore took one major liberty with Casares’ story. “We shunted it forward about 20 years from the 1940s to the ’60s,” Moore says. “We wanted it to be in a post-nuclear world … with the kind of political upheavals that you found in South America at the time.”
There’s also a flashback element that’s now set in the 1920s. “That was a really great period in terms of style and fashion and music,” Copeland says. “A lot of things came to mind for me after we decided on those decades.”
At 65, Copeland can count himself among a small group of veteran composers who have worked steadily on prestigious projects in film, TV and video games over the last few decades. “All this time as a hired-gun film and TV composer has taught me how to find the voice for my story,” he says. “The musical language just revealed itself.”
In Morel, Copeland follows the operatic custom of employing leitmotifs, or recurrent themes that relate to aspects of the story. “I use leitmotifs for plot points rather than people. The soprano doesn’t have her own tune, but you’ll hear an emotional edge that indicates what’s happening. (Audiences) pick up this nonverbal subtext (that tells them) how to feel. These are things that I learned in film composing about how to make music work very specifically with drama.”
Moore, whose career collaborations have carried him far afield, from The Clash to London’s West End, has worked with Copeland for many years. He long ago realized that the musician’s talents were special. “He’s not your average rock star by any means. He is an intellectual. He’s got an incredible mind that can synthesize things quickly and make sense of very difficult material.”
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Honing Morel into performable form reveals a love of labor on the creators’ part. “In two years we’ve gone through 47 drafts of the libretto,” Moore says, letting out a sigh. “I basically was a bit of a basket case at the end of it.”
But the result was worth the effort, Moore insists. “On one level it’s a detective story. But it’s also metaphysical, a philosophical disquisition, talking about eternal life and immortality and the perils of the nuclear age. And it’s a political story, too. It was written in the early ’40s by an Argentinian writer who was concerned with the way the world was going.
“To put all this into a novella is strange,” Moore concludes. “To put it all in an opera is very strange. But it has a very compelling story that’s completely unique – and that’s what makes it work so well onstage.”
THE INVENTION OF MOREL | Beverly O’Neill Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach | Sat., March 17 & 24, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., March 25, 2:30 p.m. | (562) 470-7464 | longbeachopera.org