‘Manchester’s a wicked festival’
The former Blur frontman is in Oasis’s hometown to perform Dr Dee, his opera about a 16th-century alchemist. Watch out for the live raven
At the end of Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee – an “English opera” about the Elizabethan mathematician and alchemist John Dee, which runs until Saturday – audiences have been treated to an unscripted, unexpected sight. The former Blur frontman has been leaping in the air with joy – and relief – at their reaction.
“It’s one of those things where I’ve put so much into it,” he says, sounding slightly tired after the third night of singing songs that form the narrative to such eye-popping visual treats as an Elizabeth I suspended 20ft in the air. “So I’ve been delighted with the audience reaction. Of course, beforehand I was racked with self-doubt. I realised it could all go badly wrong.”
He needn’t have worried. Thus far, teething problems have been limited to some scratched heads over the story – which director Rufus Norris admits needs “a bit of chipping away at so as not to confuse people, but without losing the anarchic joyfulness it has at the moment” – and difficulties with the live raven that features in the show. “We’ve had problems because he’s wild,” chuckles Norris. “He gave Damon a healthy peck.”
Dee is a work in flux. One scene – during which Albarn tumbles several feet backwards – was apparently added just 30 minutes before showtime. “It was frightening, because it’s a long way to fall,” admits Norris. “Fortunately, Damon doesn’t suffer from vertigo.”
Albarn admits that a radical musical-theatre-opera about a barely known 16th-century free-thinker “isn’t the easiest subject”. However, audiences are coming away educated about – and feeling empathy with – a character from 400 years ago, who was barely known outside academic circles before this unusual platform.
“Which kind of mirrors what happened to me,” says the 43-year old. “I found myself wanting to understand what kind of beliefs drove someone like that.” Albarn is particularly fascinated by Dee’s “horrible” final years in ruined exile in Manchester after dabbling with the occult. “Magic and the occult are part of my life. I’ve got to come out of the closet with this,” admits Albarn. As well as spending time in Chetham’s Library, where Dee used to study and, legend has it, once summoned up the devil (there’s a burn mark on a table there supposedly from Satan’s hoof), Albarn reveals that he has actually tried to contact the “old man” spiritually to find out what went wrong. “He hasn’t told me anything,” he adds, dryly.
For Norris, with his theatre background, Dee is a “proper full-on tragedy. A man who had more knowledge than anyone at the time and yet screwed up.” Equally, it’s hard not to emerge from the show with a profound feeling that so much British culture has been lost. “That was my main driving force,” says Albarn. “It’s melancholy, when you know something’s missing but can’t express it.”
A yearning for lost Englishness – a heritage trampled by The X Factor and Starbucks – has flowed through Albarn’s work since Blur’s 1993 album Modern Life is Rubbish. Two years later – when the London-based band were the great arch-rivals of Manchester’s Oasis – it was unthinkable that he would form such a connection with that band’s fair city. But Albarn debuted Gorillaz in Manchester, and his previous operatic experiment, Monkey, opened the inaugural festival in 2007.
“There’s a gentle irony to it,” he chuckles. “But Manchester’s a wicked city and a wicked festival. I’m always relaxed and happy here.” But his next project takes him away again, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I’m making an album for Warp,” he reveals – the Sheffield-based record label usually renowned for techno. “I’m taking six young English producers with me and we’ll make it in a week. Then I’m going on a six-week holiday to dispel rumours I’m a workaholic.”