It's... Monty Python's flying opera house

Writing a libretto for a telephone, a remote control and two parking meters was a hoot – until I realised that I actually had to direct the opera, writes ex-Python Terry Jones

Anne Dudley, the Oscar-winning film and TV composer, rang up to say she'd just been commissioned by the Royal Opera House to write a short opera for ROH2, and would I be interested in writing the libretto?

I'd met Anne through Steven Isserlis, the cellist, also famous as my youngest daughter's godfather. I'd played Steven some music I'd commissioned for a song I'd written, and he didn't like it at all. He said he'd introduce me to "a real composer". I jumped at the chance, and it turned out to be Anne.

My partner, Anna Soderstrom, and I had already written a libretto for a – sort of – opera for the Sao Luis Teatro Municipal in Lisbon, Portugal. The composer Luis Tinoco had set some of my children's stories from Fairy Tales and Fantastic Stories to music the year before, and the theatre suggested another collaboration. That turned into Evil Machines – based on another collection of stories I'd written.

We wrote the libretto for a telephone, gas cooker, alarm clock, washing machine, two parking meters, a motor bike, six wild cars, a petrol pump, a remote control and a 15-ft giant Hoover. I thought as I was writing it: "I have no idea how they're going to do this, but that's their problem."

The theatre then asked me if I'd like to direct it. Of course, I couldn't resist, and so their problem became my problem, and we spent two wonderful months in Lisbon getting the thing on the stage.

The new opera with Anne Dudley was going to be a proper opera. It was commissioned for the OperaShots slot at the Linbury Theatre, the ROH's studio theatre. OperaShots is a double bill of new short operas with the focus being on established artists in their own fields experimenting with this art form. Stewart Copeland will also be bringing Edgar Allan Poe's Gothic fiction The Tell-Tale Heart to life. Commissioned and produced by ROH2, it is part of an ongoing programme of opera development work across the Royal Opera House, which ranges from full-scale commissions to development workshops, courses and observer programmes. I was told it should be about half an hour long and could be about anything. But what?

My partner, Anna, suggested I base it on one of the stories in my new collection of children's stories, Animal Tales (to be published in April).

The story is about a wonderful doctor, whose patients all love him and who has a wonderful cure rate, but the General Medical Council say he's got to stop practising because he's a dog. The patients complain that it doesn't matter that he's a dog because he's such a wonderful doctor. But the GMC say it isn't hygienic to keep a dog in the surgery.

I put the idea to Anne and she was a bit doubtful at first. So I wrote out the opening scene, so she could see the sort of thing I had in mind. I'm pleased to say that she thought it was something she could work with.

We then went to the Royal Opera House and pitched the idea to Alison Duthie, Head of ROH2, and John Lloyd Davies, Head of Opera Development. To our surprise, they didn't seem to be the least phased by the subject. In fact they were positively enthusiastic about it. Anne and I left in a cloud of euphoria. And it got better.

Writing the libretto was a joy. I can't remember how long it took but it seemed to write itself. I'd taken the idea of the story as the basis but carried it on further, without any idea of where it would go. But as I wrote, everything just seemed to suggest what should happen next, and I was never stuck. When I handed the libretto over to Anne I was careful not to whistle any of the tunes I'd had in my head as I was writing. But I did record a reading so she could check if ever she had any problem with the stress of the words. I think there was one place where she found the recording useful but I was never quite sure.

Anne rang me to say that she'd set the first half to music and did I want to go and listen? Did I ever? I sat for an hour listening to Anne singing and playing the score. I thought it sounded like real opera and not at all like the musical comedy I'd had in my head. That meant that it was classy. A fact I can confirm, since the more I listen to the music, the more I love it.

But one fact became clear after that first try-out: it was not going to be half an hour. It was going to be an hour. We thought this might be a problem, but the ROH were very accommodating, and didn't seem at all worried by the fact that we'd exceeded our target time by 100 per cent.

Directing it has also been fun – so far at least. Last year, the ROH suggested we might like to try it out with professional singers. Anne and I jumped at the chance. That's one of the wonderful things about working within a structure, like the Royal Opera House: they've done it all before.

They supplied us with a short list for the cast, which cut down the number of casting sessions we had to have. They've supplied a brilliant designer and technical staff. Which all takes a load off my shoulders. As director, I don't need to worry about any logistical stuff, or ask myself "what should we be doing now?" I can concentrate on what is going to go on stage.

April 8 is our first night. Nerves? Not yet. But watch this space.

'OperaShots' – world premieres of innovative opera by Anne Dudley and Terry Jones / Stewart Copeland 8-16 April at 7.45pm, Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House (020 7304 4000; www.roh.org.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power