This Tuesday, Battersea Arts Centre's annual contemporary opera fest, "The Works", will open with the first opera to take television as its subject. No, it's not a Network, or a Broadcast News. It's not by Turnage either. Or Butler, or Sawer, or Adès. It's Jerry Springer the Opera, the latest creation from Kombat Opera's Richard Thomas (below, right), who will himself be taking the (non-singing) starring role and displaying his other talent: a fiendish ability to impersonate chat show hosts. But Jerry Springer? The Mephistopheles of Cincinatti? The man who hosts such programmes as "My mom stole my lesbian lover", "Sex Escorts tell all", "Guess what, I'm pregnant and you aren't the father", and "My date with a neo-Nazi"? As an opera? The very same. Opera, as Thomas points out, has always been the medium for vulgarity, mayhem, manipulation, sexual confusion, infidelity, pathos, tragedy and violence. Think Iago, Scarpia, Poppea. Think Jerry. Yes, it's a comedy. But is it really opera?
Thomas – blue-eyed boy-next-door composer of the foul-mouthed cult hit Tourette's Diva, head-honcho of Kombat, admirer of Arvo Pärt, the Sex Pistols, Messiaen, and Miles Davis, prime target for naked-man throwing (of which, more later), and MD for Skinner, Baddiel, Lee and Herring, and the League against Tedium – has no doubt. "The parallels are amazing!" he says, counting them off on his fingers. "It's got tragedy, it's got violence. There are all these people screaming at each other. You can't understand what they're saying. You have inbuilt duets, trios, quartets, choruses: 'Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!' This is a medium that can take total extremes. Why not push it as far as you can?"
For Thomas, opera, with all of its traditional pomposities, is an unexpected career. Though he studied piano from the age of five, and is a voracious and extremely eclectic listener, he has had no formal compositional training. So why compose? He squirms while admitting it, but says he "just adores the human voice." And this is nearly all human voices (he includes divas and punks in his list of favourites) except, of course, his own. Thomas – who is perpetually self-deprecating in a genial floppy-haired fashion – sings "like a horse". After leaving Cambridge with a "hodge-podge" degree, he went into comedy, touring the club circuit for 10 years and writing music for TV – including an arrangement of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the style of Chas and Dave, and a duet version of "Da Doo Ron Ron" for Mr Methane and Frank Skinner (sadly never broadcast). During his first professional gig, a group of bored prostitutes stripped a member of a stag-party and threw him at Thomas – who was standing in a boxing ring – inadvertently starting an anti-heckling campaign that led to the composition of 500 ariettes (including "I hugged a tree. It didn't hug me.") and 10 operatic heckles (mostly unprintable), to be sung by soprano Lore Lixenberg. These heckles formed the basis for Tourette's Diva: an exercise in applying the speed and style of stand-up to opera. Much to Thomas's surprise, Tourette's was a hit with both the comedy audience and the opera critics.
Spurred on by the success of Tourette's, Thomas held a series of BAC studio workshops called How to write an Opera about Jerry Springer. (The flyer read, "Have idea. Think it's a shit idea. Despair. Do it anyway.") Using Kombat's patented "beer for an idea" scheme, he bribed his audience for constructive feedback with a can of John Smith's, and punished them for stupid suggestions with a can of Asda bitter. Ah well, there's nothing quite like an inebriated focus group. And so the characters of Diaper Man, Duane, the Chick-with-a-Dick, and the Bitches Fighting were born: unusual subjects for an opera but perfect protagonists for a gloves-off (and sometimes clothes-off) TV confessional.
Thomas's guest characters may be "very Jerry," but they're not simply there to be laughed at. Echoing Springer's own somewhat dubious defence of a TV show that slides easily into exploitation, Thomas says he is "definitely on the side of the guests". How conscious he is of bending the bars of what often seems to be a human zoo, is hard to tell. He says there have been occasions where he's felt "almost guilty to be watching", but in Jerry Springer the Opera, the dispossessed of America's trailer parks are finally given a chance to sing. With influences ranging from Herbert Howells (the theme-tune trio), to Sondheim (a swaggering paean to infantilisation), to Stevie Wonder (the glorious melismatic transvestite aria, "I'm a man"), the latest incarnation of Jerry Springer the Opera is a whirlwind of musical styles. It's also very rude, and very funny. Mindful of the episodic nature of chat shows, the sections that worked in the workshops – that were "ur-Jerry", as Thomas puts it – have been expanded and re-worked, the flops have been cut, and comedian Stuart Lee (of Lee and Herring) has been brought in as co-librettist to temper Thomas's somewhat uncritical devotion to Springer. "In a way, writing a comic opera is almost masochistic," says Thomas. "I mean, how often is opera really funny? [Rossini's] 'Cat Duet'? Oh, please. Urrgh. Aaaargh," he groans, "The laughter in opera is totally conditioned. I don't understand it." Neither Thomas nor Lee see anything wrong with a three-minute attention span. But then the speed of TV is something that fascinates Thomas; "If you were really honest, what percentage of operas do you go to that you aren't bored by for the majority of the time? If you're watching [TV], it's completely normal to be subjected to four or five different styles in a few minutes. So you can use that pacing, use short cuts, if you like, in order to build up a classic piece where you have space to expand," he says.
As the old boundaries between "high" and "low" art become ever more vague, it's the perfect time for Thomas's latest onslaught on the most elite of art forms. Since microphones and spoken dialogue started to appear in opera, and Sondheim upped the musical sophistication of music theatre, even the toughest critics have been hard pushed to agree on what makes one work an opera and another a musical. Television has been making its presence felt in the opera houses: whether through use of video (Peter Sellars's Salzburg staging of Saint François d'Assise, Richard Jones's From Morning to Midnight, Deborah Warner's St John Passion), or design (the I Love Lucy-fication of every comic opera from Cosi fan Tutte to Cenerentola). And though Jones and Sellars have given some contemptuous quotes on the medium's all-powerful influence, few directors are immune to the need to keep things moving for a generation raised on TV. But with the exception of John Adams's politico-historical operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer (currently in production for Channel 4), television has barely registered in the narrative of modern opera, let alone a comic opera. However you class it, Jerry Springer the Opera is unique.
What the doyens of the opera world will ultimately make of Thomas's creation is anyone's guess, though I doubt that anyone who regularly laughs out loud at the "Cat Duet" would have the stomach for this operatic anarchy. So will he be going too far for the purists this time? Thomas says he has no aspirations to the Royal Opera House, yet he continues to write these technically demanding, viciously funny and rather glamourous arias with coloratura that straddles bel canto and jazz funk and conveys pathos as well as comedy – which explains why singers like Lixenberg are prepared to work for him for fringe rates. "I just try to give people their money's worth," he says. "I try to pack in a lot of music and I quite like the idea of exposition without development. That's how a composer described Tourette's Diva – 'So much exposition – so little development.' I thought it was a compliment! The bastard!" he laughs. "If people come to see Jerry Springer then hopefully they won't be bored. Coming from a comedy background, boredom is death. I think that's a great discipline to come from. Boredom is bottles, and prostitutes throwing naked men at you." It would never happen at Covent Garden. Or would it? Watch this space.
'Jerry Springer the Opera': Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (020 7223 2223), Tuesday to 2 SeptemberReuse content