Mark Ravenhill and Michael Nyman - Take your seats for jazzed-up Monteverdi

Playwright Mark Ravenhill and composer Michael Nyman have given a new spin to a classic opera, discovers Nicola Christie

On the surface they don't have much in common: Michael Nyman, composer of the "killingly popular" – his words – soundtrack to The Piano, grandee of the UK music world now trying to get his operas onto serious UK stages, and Mark Ravenhill, risqué playwright who brought Shopping and Fucking to our stages in 1996 and has continued to challenge audiences' tolerance levels ever since. But Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea has unleashed in the two artists a rather extraordinary new venture that, if cared for properly, could fuel a surge in opera-going, and opera-writing, that could be very exciting.

The first fruits of this partnership can be seen on the stage of Islington's Kings Head Theatre next week: a new production of Claudio Monteverdi's 17th-century opera The Coronation of Poppea – one of the first operas ever written – that has been translated into English by Ravenhill and contains a new aria by Nyman. It will be performed by the young and dazzling – and Olivier-award-winning – OperaUpClose ensemble.

"The question I've always asked myself about Poppea," says Nyman, is whether Monteverdi knew that his final love duet, 'Pur ti miro', which is one of the most beautiful pieces of operatic music ever written, was a killer hit. I always wonder whether Monteverdi knew how right he had got it."

Eighteen years ago, Nyman wrote a piece of music that has now sold in the region of three million copies – the soundtrack to Jane Campion's Oscar-winning The Piano. It was a theme entitled "The Heart Asks Pleasure First", specifically, that took off. The composer had no idea what he'd come up with.

"I was under huge pressure to provide Holly Hunter with six or eight piano pieces that she had to learn before they went on set – for her to play on location. Basically, I had a number of cues – 'Cue 1, Cue 2, Cue 3' – that I just had to get through; I finished one, ticked it off, went to the next one, 'The Heart Asks Pleasure First', I think, was called 'Cue 2', and I just found a Scottish popular song – 'Gloomy Winter's Noo Awa'' – and I made a version of it that I thought a well-brought up woman pianist in the 1850s might have played if she'd known a little bit about minimalism – so I was writing her character through my own music – filtered through the music of the mid- 19th century. And then suddenly the film takes off, particularly that theme. I was totally unaware of the effectiveness of my own most famous piece of music until people started responding to it. It's why I always wonder whether Monteverdi knew with 'Pur ti miro'."

Nyman's obsession with this single blissful duet – Spotify it if you don't have a copy of Poppea to hand, it is the most utterly transporting piece of music, and declaration of love, you will ever hear – led to the invitation, by Ravenhill, for Nyman to write a new "intervention" aria that would precede it. He wasn't just giving Nyman a bit of pleasure, he was troubled by the distance in knowledge between today's audience and the Venetian audience of the mid-1600s.

"The original audience would have been much more aware of the irony of 'Pur ti miro'" Ravenhill explains. "They wouldn't swoon in the way we do today, they would have been laughing. They knew their sources of this opera, Tacitus's Annals – they would have known that the relationship between the young emperor Nero and his mistress Poppea would have lasted only about a year; that Poppea would be kicked by Nero during pregnancy, losing her own and the child's life; that Poppea would send a messenger to Nero's exiled wife, Ottavia, ordering her to kill herself, and for her head to be delivered back to her as proof etc. I wanted the contemporary audience to be in the same position that the 17th-century audience, with their classical Renaissance education, were in."

Ravenhill went back to Tacitus for his new aria, the very text that Venetian librettist Busonello – then billed higher than Monteverdi – would have consulted when he wrote his libretto. Ravenhill has spent six months writing this new translation of the opera, which will be accompanied by a jazz ensemble led by musical director Alex Silverman: sax, double bass and piano replacing the "four undefined instruments" dictated in Monteverdi's score.

The new aria is written for Ottavia who, here, comes back, spirit-like, to warn Poppea of what's ahead.

"I wrote the words with the Nyman sound in mind – I wanted something that would jar with the rest, not a Monteverdi pastiche – so I was writing for Nyman's very definite pulse, his persistent beat. I wrote something with a very strict metre and pared it back and back and back so it's very spare – it's much sparer than the rest of the opera. The idea is that Poppea goes into 'Pur ti miro' with the knowledge of the future."

With the exception of the Nyman intervention – which, ironically, does have a sense of Monteverdi about it in its overlapping – musically, The Coronation of Poppea will sound instantly recognisable to audiences familiar with the original; it's the same melodies and structures, just delivered on different instruments and improvised with a little differently. "It's a bit shorter, too" adds Ravenhill, "I've cut about an hour off it; and tried to make the language more the way we speak today".

At its core, The Coronation of Poppea is a very modern opera; Ravenhill didn't have to change much. "It's much more modern than Handel, even Mozart. It's more in the spirit of the writing of Berg's Lulu," Ravenhill offers. "The recitative is always moving, there's no stand-and-deliver moments that we traditionally associate with opera. And it's a domestic drama – it's about two people who were infatuated by each other. Two people whose lives have gone down in history".

It is also, perfectly for Mark Ravenhill, all about sexual and gender ambiguity, if understated. "Yes, it is very me, isn't it! In recent productions, the parts of Nero and Poppea are both played by women – Monteverdi wrote Nero for a male castrati – but I've chosen to lose the moustache and male disguise that most directors opt for and go for a more androgynous, Annie Lennox-type Nero instead." Having already seen some of the exquisitely intimate scenes – a touch uncomfortable – between the two lovers, the relationship, in Ravenhill's hands, becomes moving rather than ridiculous, as is often the case on experiencing a woman and a woman dressed as a man rolling around the stage.

There is a chance that this drama of epic lives could get a whole new audience now that new writers and performers have got their hands on it. It is what OperaUpClose is about, bringing Butterfly, Bohème, Pinafore, Pagliacci down to a new level – one that makes sense to an audience living several hundred years after these productions were written. So that does mean an orchestra gets replaced by a sax and a piano, and Mimi does first chance on her Ronaldo having run out of money for a parking meter.

'The Coronation of Poppea', Kings Head Theatre, London N1 (020-7226 0364; www. kingsheadtheatre.org) to 19 May

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • 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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence