A neat one-two inside the penalty aria: A new opera strengthens the tie between music and football

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The Independent Culture
Who would have dreamt, four years ago, of putting opera and soccer in the same league as popular entertainment? But then the BBC stuck the voice of Luciano Pavarotti on top of its trailers for the 1990 World Cup, and the world suddenly found a perfect match.

In the wake of 'Nessun dorma', no sporting event has seemed complete without signing up an opera star or three to lend it a touch of class - from the original Three Tenors, singing away in the baths (of Caracalla), via the caterwauling Catalans at the Barcelona Olympics, to this year's action replay of the Three Tenors in LA in July.

With Arsenal adopting 'Nessun D' as its 'Victory Song', and Sheffield Wednesday warming up to the triumphal march from Aida, there's a new generation of fans who can finally tell their arias from their penalty areas. Opera has stormed the terraces but, until now, soccer had yet to score in the opera house.

That it finally has should strike a chord with one striker at least. 'I dream of lightness, harmony and pleasure,' that poet of the pitch, Eric Cantona, has said. 'The music of football is nothing but heavy metal.' Not any longer.

It's right that it should be a British composer, Benedict Mason, who's beaten the field by writing the first soccer opera. Our international success on the operatic stage seems to run in inverse proportion to our reputation on the football field. Who cares if we didn't qualify for the World Cup - when did Italy last get a new opera into the standard repertoire? 1926, that's when - Puccini's Turandot, as it happens. Whereas we can boast Britten and Tippett and . . . Well, that's two up to us already, so who's counting? As for our soccer, well, until Terry Venables' ride to the rescue, it was pretty much of an international joke. So that's just what Mason and his librettist, Howard Brenton, have had with it.

A lifelong fan - currently of Crystal Palace - Brenton had what he still calls 'the crazy idea' of a football Faust long before Pavarotti first invaded the pitches (and he can prove it too). 'I just had this idea of a brilliant young player who does a deal - I don't know, with his DNA, or something - a deal for perfect play. And for 10 years he's untouchable.' Then, on the eve of a climactic European clincher between City FC and Bayern Munchen, the diabolical debt becomes due - 'and the Devil reappears as the Great Referee and messes up his last big game.' Terry Bond, the star striker, ends up with a broken leg.

Brenton first offered the idea to Mike Apted, the film director - 'but he's a West Ham supporter,' he laughs, 'and didn't really understand what I was on about.' Unlike Mason, who approached Brenton late in 1989 and instantly warmed to what he calls the 'colourful Carmen-like connection between opera and football'.

But it's the pursuit of perfection that underscores Brenton and Mason's Playing Away (which opened in Munich last night and has its UK premiere in Leeds on 31 May) - the brief life that strikers enjoy at the top, and the limited opportunities they have to shine while there: 'How they have, at best, only three or four chances in a game to score. And when you watch Ian Wright marauding around for 90 minutes, looking for just that one split-second chance, it's an extraordinary human achievement.'

Brenton was surprised to find the same level of physical prowess in the opera world. 'I mean, this is a bit Pseuds' Corner,' he cackles, 'but the smell . . . I mean, opera rehearsal rooms don't feel like a study, they feel like a gymnasium.'

Yet what he likes most about opera is its mix of the silly and the sublime. 'I mean, it is a very, very silly thing when someone comes on to the stage and begins to sing instead of speak.' What? Sillier than 22 grown men running round a muddy field in shorts taking kicks at a sodden lump of leather?

He's come up with some sublimely silly ideas himself, including that of a singing football. Or at least, he thinks it was his idea. That of adding 'a kind of love affair between the player and the ball' he's pretty sure was the director David Pountney's. And as to the final touch, having them dance an erotic two-step together, he knows that was Mason's idea.

As his past collaborations with David Hare suggest, Brenton is a real team player. Yet, when it comes to opera, he has no doubt who the star is. For him, a librettist is merely a hard-working midfielder, carefully setting up the shots for the composer-striker to score.

He quotes W H Auden's comment about the librettist being there simply to make the composer hear music. 'You're trying to unleash music - which you can't write and which you can't read.'

'Frontier-like' is his word for the music he's unleashed in Mason's head. 'It's very witty, very eclectic,' he says. 'Is that the word - for borrowing bits?' A roller- coaster of a score, it rampages through music history like England fans through a Belgian shopping centre - pillaging bits of Mozart, Wagner, Stravinsky and Elgar on the way. 'People don't talk about the avant-garde any more, do they? But this opera, this really is one for Prince Charles]' he laughs. 'Oh boy, oh boy, Charlie would just die if he saw it.'

Never mind PC, this opera doesn't even get a PG rating. Opera North has slapped stickers on its posters, warning that it contains 'explicit imagery and raw language which some people may find offensive'. Brenton insists there's nothing in it to upset Mrs Whitehouse. Yet rumour has it some chorus members rebelled against an early draft that included moments reminiscent of the buggery scene in Brenton's 1980 National Theatre epic, Romans in Britain. And you'd have to be blind as a Cup Final referee not to notice the Act 1 shower- room scene that still lends a new meaning to the phrase 'team strip'. 'Look,' he says, 'it's footballers and football fans, so there's swearing in it. I mean, a football opera without swearing would be a real abortion.'

In rep at Grand Theatre Leeds (0532 459351) from 31 May

(Photograph omitted)