The classical hit parade

Pop's renaissance man, Elvis Costello, has composed his first opera. But he's not the first to look beyond the limitations of the three-minute thrill. Matthew Beard and Maxine Frith tune in
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The Independent Culture

In a career that has spanned more than 20 years he has dabbled in everything from punk, jazz, country, gospel and classical. Now the creator of such hits as "Alison", "Shipbuilding" and "Oliver's Army" has cemented his reputation for versatility with an opera based on the Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen and his impossible romance with a Swedish soprano.

"The Secret Arias", which opened at the weekend in Copenhagen, is a traditional opera based on a three-way drama in which Costello plays the roles of both Andersen and the American impresario PT Barnum, who attempted to woo Andersen's muse to America in the 1950s. Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish nightingale, is played by the Swedish soprano Gisela Stille. Costello, 50, wrote the opera after he was approached by Henrik Engelbrecht, head of dramaturgy at the Royal Danish Opera, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth.

He got involved in classical music when he collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet and Anne Sofie von Otter, the mezzo-soprano.

He said: "It is a series of monologues. People don't dress up ... there are no Viking women in helmets."

Costello, revealing few details about his work, said it was a traditional opera, but with some exceptions. "We will not have a symphonic orchestra," he said. Instead, four musicians will accompany Costello and Stille at the opera's main stage, which can seat as many as 1,700 people.

JOHN CALE

After Cale met Lou Reed in New York, the pair formed the Velvet Underground. Playing bass, viola and keyboards, Cale was responsible for much of their droning rock sound, most notable on the classics "Venus in Furs" and "All Tomorrow's Parties". It was only when he went solo that classical became part of his repertoire, with the orchestral The Academy in Peril. Cale returned from self-imposed exile from the music industry in 1989 with Words for the Dying, released on Brian Eno's Opel label, which featured the poems of Dylan Thomas read over orchestral music.

The Academy in Peril, Cale's classical album, was recorded in 1972 and was considered his first serious attempt at modern classical. Some tracks are backed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

Much has been made of Cale's schooling in classical and avant-garde music, yet much of what he has recorded has been decidedly song-oriented, dovetailing close to mainstream at times.

JONNY GREENWOOD

Lead guitarist with Radiohead, Greenwood has played to millions of fans around the world but admitted to being particularly fazed when he took a career turn towards classical music this year.

He was appointed the BBC Concert Orchestra's composer-in-residence after a lifetime's appreciation of classical music. He played the viola before the guitar and his first band was the Thames Vale Youth Orchestra, when he was into the "epic and grand" Bach and the Pixies.

Earlier this year the BBC grappled with his first proper score - a 20-minute sequence inspired partly by the long, discordant notes in the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki's "Threnody" for the Victims of Hiroshima. "As long as I looked down and just listened it was OK," he recalls. "But if I concentrated on watching all those people spending time on my stuff, that really blew me away. That was when I knew I had to shut my eyes."

And not everything came out right. "There was one section where [the orchestra] just burst out laughing because it sounded so wrong, one irritating repetitive chord rather than a burst of hissing white noise. And I had to grin and bear it, and move on to the next part. Which worked, thank goodness.''

In March a South Bank performance by the London Sinfonietta, a new music ensemble, featured specially written pieces and song arrangements by Greenwood. One reviewer said there was an "astounding" variety of sounds and styles but concluded that it was a "surprisingly subdued evening".

PAUL McCARTNEY

Despite freely admitting he cannot write music, the ex-Beatle decided he could compose a 75-minute oratorio for the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the singer Kiri Te Kanawa.

McCartney said the 1991 piece was inspired by childhood memories of Liverpool and Penny Lane. It transpired he had hummed the tunes for Liverpool Oratorio to the composer Carl Davis, who wrote the music.

Many felt McCartney made the move to prove he was a serious musician; instead, the piece attracted more derision than his "Frog Chorus". The Sunday Times called it "a massive folie de grandeur", saying it was harmonically naive.But the pull of McCartney's name meant it achieved commercial success, touring 20 countries.

McCartney returned to classical in 1997 with Standing Stone, a "symphonic poem" on a keyboard. Variety said the best way to deal with it was to "deny its existence".

ROGER WATERS

The architect of Pink Floyd's world-conquering album The Wall a quarter of a century ago wrote an entire opera, exploring the classical idiom with an ambitious work about the French Revolution. Ça Ira reached number two in the classical music charts this month - 10 years after work on it began. Waters created some of the most mind-expanding music of the Sixties and Seventies but quit Pink Floyd in 1985, amid some acrimony, to work solo. He started on the opera in 1989 after an old friend, Étienne Roda-Gil, wrote the libretto. Waters returned to the piece years later and set about orchestrating his sketches. A test recording impressed the Sony Classics label. The work, lasting 110 minutes, was recorded with soloists including Bryn Terfel, the bass-baritone, and conducted by Rick Wentworth. The Daily Telegraph said Ira "is actually one of the most melodic and memorable modern operas to emerge for years". The opera premieres in Rome on 17 November.

BILLY JOEL

Billy Joel is a trained musician and his first hit single was "Piano Man", so it seemed apt when he released an album of his classical compositions in 2001.

The singer's move from downtown rock to uptown pianoforte came at a lean time in his career. He had not had a hit for seven years and decided to turn to Mozart and Rachmaninov for inspiration, resulting in an album of solo piano pieces.

According to Joel, the crossover to classical was not as great as some would believe. In an interview, he said: "I could point to 'Uptown Girl' [his 1983 hit]. If you play in the left hand a classical bass and you play 'Uptown Girl', it's sort of like a Clementi or a Mozart piece."

The critics weren't convinced. Reviews ranged from faint praise - The Observer said it was "perfectly harmless" - to the appalled. The Times called it "pap", and for good measure the newspaper added that "Joel has crossed over only to a wasteland". The Daily Telegraph accused the singer of "driving a mighty nail into the coffin of classical recording", while the Daily Express said that Mozart would be spinning in his grave.

Despite this critical savaging, Joel had the last laugh when the album shot to the top of the classical music charts.

Now 56, the musician cites Beethoven as being among his influences, and a Broadway musical of his life is planned.

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