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The Francis Bacon Opera

By • London

Composer/director Stephen Crowe is taking his seventh chamber opera to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year to run the gauntlet of road-weary reviewers and faintly jaded audiences. The opera is a direct transcription of an (apparently famous) interview first aired on The South Bank Show in 1986, with Melvyn Bragg and the controversial painter Francis Bacon, in which alcohol is a constant source of lubrication.

Months of negotiation were required to secure the rights to the text, but now that the Estate of Francis Bacon and Lord Melvyn Bragg have officially approved the opera, the Crowe Ensemble are free to perform the work.

Influenced by a ragtag of mavericks including filmmakers Cassavetes and Fassbinder, and composers such as Mussorgsky and Frank Zappa, Crowe's music is diverse. Experimental works for 'non-violinists', electronic pieces and improvised orchestral scores are all part of his output.

Meeting in a cramped coffee shop in Soho, Crowe’s manner was a mixture of arrogant intelligence and barely disguised impatience. He feverishly fingered his fashionable beard and checked the time on his phone every few seconds. I was hoping that the meeting wouldn’t go so well as to be converted into an opera itself, but true to the model of The Francis Bacon Opera I thought it would be apposite to present this interview in its raw form. No alcohol was consumed during the course of the interview.

Why did you want to set the original television programme to music?

“Have you seen it?”

No.

“Oh, God. Because I absolutely love that particular interview. There’s something fantastically irrepressible about Francis Bacon in it. He’s completely open and childlike. And he’s damning, and dismissive, but cuddly with it. But the interview is more than just a man saying interesting things, it’s an entity in its own right. Normally an interviewer just lets the interviewee tell a few anecdotes, but not Melvyn Bragg. He’s far too interesting, and far too interested in Bacon to let that happen. And definitely far too drunk.”

Isn’t it enough that the original programme exists in its original form? Why does it have to be an opera, necessarily?

“That’s such a pompous question, if you don’t mind me saying so. Why did Rembrandt have to paint his own craggy, old face? Why not leave that in its original form?

But he was… (interrupted)

“It was Bacon’s spiky, free-wheeling monologues that put me in mind of opera straight away. He has these passionate outpourings, which contrast perfectly with Melvyn's more measured, more restrained approach. The whole scenario just perfectly suits the ‘recitative, followed by aria’ format. It was gagging for a musical skewering, you could say.”

Using a famous BBC presenter and a well-loved painter as your subject could be seen as another example of abusing the cult of celebrity to build an audience for opera. As with Turnage’s Anna-Nicole Smith opera as well as Damon Albarn and Rufus Wainwright’s recent operatic offerings.

“No it bloody couldn’t! There is definitely a bit of that going on in opera, though. I don’t have a problem with Anna-Nicole (Smith’s life) as a subject for (an) opera- the stories should always be relevant. I think it’s sometimes easier to lean on the crutch of Ancient Greece, say, than it is to set something contemporary, because the old classics have already been approved by the ‘culture police’.

Who are the ‘culture poli..?’ (interrupted)

It’s been pre-digested by the audience and the composer is just regurgitating it. Honestly the easiest thing in the world would have been to set a Shakespeare play to music, but I’d like to think that his plays are already finished.”

Does this mean that you are opposed to Shakespearian operas by Verdi, or Bellini, or Thomas Adès?

“It depends what you value in Shakespeare. If it’s just the plot then (those operas are) great, but if you love Shakespeare for the subtle poetry of the language then (those operas are) not so great. Verdi, for example, cuts some of the most amazing lines from Lady Macbeth and from Macbeth himself, so what’s the point?

Are you going to cut any of the words of the original South Bank Show?

“No. I’m contractually obliged to keep everything in. I honestly wouldn’t want it any other way. The imperfections of speech (in the opera) are fascinating. I bet that to make sense out of what I’m saying in this interview you’ll have to do a bit of word-juggling, but I haven’t done any of that in Francis Bacon. There’s one point where Bacon is talking about how he rejects ‘fantasy’, or the idea of ‘fantasy’ on his work, and, since he’s merrily pissed, he slurs his words and starts to say ‘philosophy’ instead. That’s more than just a slip of the tongue, because he was obviously thinking about what he rejects and he obviously marries philosophy with fantasy in his subconscious. And it’s also funny to keep in the little quirks of speech. The audience respond to it.”

Are there any contractual constraints about how to represent the men physically? I imagine Lord Bragg would be rather particular about how he appears on stage.

“Thankfully not. I always think of that man who said he thought Melvyn Bragg was always wearing two wigs at the same time, (laughs) because Melvyn’s hair is an institution in itself. Miraculous. It would have been terrible to be retrained in how we present that famous mop. Originally the production was going to mirror the physical set-up of the original show- they’re at the Tate, then in Bacon’s studio and finally in a restaurant. But when I saw the design by Candida (Powell-Williams) I decided that it would be more interesting to present Bacon’s arias as if he is delivering a sermon from inside one of his own paintings.”

So, if Lord Bragg will be wearing two wigs at once, does that mean that the opera has a funny side?

“Of course. Yes. It’s a comedy. It’s hilarious.”

The Francis Bacon Opera, starring Christopher Killerby as Francis Bacon and Oliver Brignall as Melvyn Bragg, is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from the 18th to the 27th of August at C Venues, Main House.

For more information go to: www.francisbaconopera.com

Martin Stevenson

Tags: Opera


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