Dr Dee at the Manchester International Festival
Four years ago, I went to Manchester to review the première of Damon Albarn’s pseudo-Chinese opera Monkey. Imagine my consternation when I descended from the train to find Albarn standing on the platform in front of me, arms outstretched in greeting, with a broad grin on his face.
I had never met the fellow in my life and his gesture represented an eccentric breach of the protocol which decrees that artists give critics a wide berth. Yet such was his apparent pleasure at seeing me that I felt that I ought to reciprocate.
So I smiled gamely and advanced towards him – only to realise at the last second that the object of his attention wasn’t me at all but a young lady with a small girl, presumably his daughter, who had alighted just behind me.
My discomfiture was pure farce.
Later that evening, however, I did embrace Albarn – in print. I adored Monkey, his first venture into music theatre, and said so in no uncertain terms. Albarn is a copper-bottomed songwriting talent, the real thing: in his writing for Blur and Gorillaz, as well as his collaborations with African instrumentalists, he has repeatedly proved himself one of the most inventive and sophisticated musicians on the scene, and I greatly look forward to his next operatic venture, to be given its première at the Manchester International Festival tomorrow
Dr Dee is the fruit of Albarn’s long years of interest in “questions of Englishness and the occult and things that up to now I have felt a bit closeted about expressing publicly. Doing the research has been the most amazing experience. Everything I’ve read has led to something else – Christianity to Judaism, Paganism to Nordic mythology, astronomy to Hermetic philosophy – and it just seems to go on and on without end.’ John Dee is a historical figure, an Elizabethan sage on whom it is often thought that Shakespeare based the character of Prospero. For Dee, there was no barrier between science and magic: as well as being a pioneering mathematician and geographer who advised the Queen on matters of international navigation, he was a visionary alchemist and astrologer who sought direct contact with angels.
His life was eighty years long, and included extensive travel in Europe (possibly with some spying on the side), a decade based in Manchester and a rock-and-roll sort of partnership with another mystic, Edward Kelly, which ended in tears after a bout of wife-swapping. It’s a rich and complex story, but Albarn wisely isn’t attempting an operatic biopic – “I’m just selecting some themes and episodes from Dee’s life and meditating on them.”
“One thread is the idea of the British Empire, which Dee was the first person to imagine and talk about. I wanted to use this as a way of articulating what I felt about both Dee’s Elizabethan England and mine. Also to suggest how the Reformation ripped a dimension of ritual out of religion and just left us with the tea and biscuits.”
“Dee haunts me, literally – I can sense his spirit hovering around. I’ve been to Chetham’s in Manchester, where he was sent by the Queen to sort out the religious disputes, I’ve held his manuscript letters in my hand and felt so close to a man who was born nearly five hundred years ago. It’s as though I’m singing from inside him.’
Albarn doesn’t consider Dr Dee a traditional opera: “perhaps it’s more like a masque than anything else,” he says. The action will take place on three levels, representing different spheres of existence. Down in the pit of hell, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra plays. On stage is the earth, where Dee will be impersonated by that brilliant actor Bertie Carvel. “He doesn’t sing, and he doesn’t say much,” says Albarn. “He’s too busy thinking and reading.” On a balcony, is a third level = the gods. Here Albarn himself will sit, singing a suite of ten new songs that function as a choric commentary on events below, accompanied by a consort that includes Renaissance instruments such as theorbo and sackbuts as well as a kora, the West African version of a harp.
“There’s no reason why someone else shouldn’t sing these songs, but at the moment I’m planning to appear at all the performances. I want to be directly involved: the songs are very personal, they come from the heart.” Following his assault on the lute songs of John Dowland, perhaps Sting would like to take over? “I don’t think Sting would want to sing anything I’d written,” Albarn replies diplomatically.
The project has been “knocking around” for about five years, with its roots in an aborted scheme to work with director Rufus Norris on something for the National Theatre (“I think they wanted a musical, and that didn’t interest me”). Norris is now staging Dr Dee and has helped Albarn hone its libretto; also in the creative mix are staff from English National Opera, co-producing the show with Manchester International Festival and re-mounting it next summer at the London Coliseum as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
Albarn is often to be seen in the stalls at the Coliseum, lapping it all up.
“I like pretty much everything I’ve heard, but Monteverdi is my main man. I loved The Damnation of Faust too – the way Berlioz put it together gave me hope that I wasn’t going completely in the wrong direction.” Wagner? “I haven’t quite got him yet. But I know that he’s king.” Conventional opera singing is something he struggles with more. “I don’t like all that vibrato. But there’s a counter-tenor in the cast of Dr Dee, Chris Robson, and whatever he sings sounds just sublime to me.” Days before the première, just like Mozart, Albarn is still adding and subtracting, chopping and changing. “This feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done. I’ve gone a lot further down the line than Monkey and there’s a whole lifetime ahead working at it. I’m in love with the whole process of making opera.”