Tucks and tremolos: penis extensions meet operetta

Cosmetic surgery goes under the satirical microscope in Armando Iannucci's opera 'Skin Deep'. Lynne Walker reports on a funny show with a serious message
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The Independent Culture

It is advertised as "a satirical opera-tion" and I'm willing to bet that it's the first time that penis extensions have featured in the opera corpus. But Skin Deep, a new operetta about cosmetic surgery, revealing the ugly truth about beauty, is cutting a new line in opera chic.

The writer and broadcaster Armando Iannucci has taken up his pen – the same sharp instrument with which he carved Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge, the heavyweight political sitcom The Thick of It and his forthcoming political comedy feature film, In the Loop – and created his first opera libretto. "Putting right what nature got wrong" is the slogan of Iannucci's creation, the scalpel supremo Doctor Needlemeier, whose quest for the elixir of eternal youth means that no one's body parts are totally safe. The rich – obsessed with staying young and beautiful – flock to his Alpine clinic to have their cheekbones chiselled, tummies tucked and buttocks botoxed.

Iannucci was approached by the inventive young British composer David Sawer to develop his idea of plastic surgery as "something political, satirical and topical" that could form the backbone of an operetta. Describing himself as "a fan of classical music" – he contributes a column to Gramophone – Iannucci immediately saw the comic potential in a plot that blends surrealist whimsy with the neuroses of those convinced that beauty is only skin deep. "Provide me with a scenario," Sawer asked Iannucci, "and then create chaos for me."

Skin Deep has been over three-and-half years in the making. "The setting and characters just began to evolve," says Iannucci. They took comedies by Shakespeare and Mozart as a starting point, finding inspiration in "all those disguises and swapped and mistaken identities" – the realism about pretence and the play-acting about reality. The first couple of years saw composer and librettist lining up fairly stock operetta characters and situations – "star-crossed young lovers, the jilted wife, the affair, the visiting fool, the doctor with his elixir of youth etc." – before taking the action into a dystopian future. In the setting of a Swiss clinic Doctor Needlemeier hides a dark secret – apart from his affair with his receptionist. His magic cure-all against ageing, composed of the offcuts of his patients boiled up and reduced to "a compact DNA", is missing a vital ingredient: essence of Hollywood star. But when the world's most famous actor leaves the clinic only half the man he was, Needlemeier – exposed by a journalist from Global Glamour TV – is forced to flee to California.

Fleshing out Skin Deep allowed Iannucci to indulge his often near-the-knuckle imagination. "We've tried to make the whole thing funny, rather than just individual lines, with two or three subplots alongside the main narrative strand. There's lots of visual storytelling though," he adds, "it's no more complicated than A Midsummer Night's Dream."

"Various characters know that they will only be able to marry who they want to if they look better. In the course of these physical transformations there is lots of room for satire as characters fall in and out of love with themselves as well as with each other." Skin Deep allowed Iannucci and Sawer to explore what they describe as "those very operatic subjects of beauty, fear of losing one's looks, vanity, obsession with perfection, madness, darkness and death." So with its Dance of the Seven Bandages, Anaesthetic Interlude and Ballet of Transplant Organs, is Skin Deep really Nip and Tuck – The Operetta?

It is certainly more than just an operation conducted by puppets. Iannucci has had experience of plastic surgery – though not, he adds, on his own person. "I went to Beverly Hills to look over the American pilot of The Thick of It and I was both horrified and fascinated by what people had done, or had had done, to their faces," he says.

"The hotel I stayed in backed on to a plastic surgery clinic so that patients could book in to the hotel, be whisked through the underground tunnel for the operation then taken back to their penthouse room to recuperate. The whole notion of appearance, of marking out our identity, not just by what we wear but by our looks and attributes, is perfect satire-cum-farce material. "

The language of Skin Deep may not be as elaborate as that of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter-song but Iannucci has written in rhyming verse. "I found it easier, and not being a poet or a dramatist I was happy for David to tell me where I had too many syllables, or lines of the wrong length. The challenge of writing for singers as opposed to actors is in the time they require to produce the words and the audience takes to absorb them. In the end it's the music that is important so you really can't be too intricate. With a film it's all in the editing, but with operetta the composer has got to take charge of the cuts."

A passionate Wagnerite as a teenager – "my means of escape" from the Italian opera running in the background of his family home – Iannucci reels off Puccini, Rossini, Verdi, Britten and John Adams as his current opera heroes. His musical experience is fairly limited though and his recent encounter with a musical instrument would make a good sketch. "When David approached me," he explains, "I'd just got my Grade 1 piano – a hilarious and nerve-wracking experience. I started playing on my 40th birthday, learning to read music from scratch.

"I took the exam in someone's house and sitting with all these seven- and eight-year-olds, whose mothers eyed me most suspiciously, I could hear the most brilliant playing. The music stopped and this tiny kid came out of the room and it was my turn next. The examiner asked incredulously, 'Are you the candidate?' Then I discovered that the examiner was actually being examined that day so there were two adjudicators listening to me.

"Worst of all, I had to play on a grand piano that sounded out of tune. But I can't be sure because I'd learnt on a digital keyboard and the real thing was so unfamiliar anyway that I might as well have picked up a trumpet and sat Grade 1 on that!"

Sawer has described himself as "a theatre person who writes music" and his works have a habit of involving surrealist imagery. For his first full-length opera From Morning to Midnight, presented in 2001 by the English National Opera, Sawer turned to an expressionist play about an embezzling bank cashier by Georg Kaiser. Sawer adapted his own libretto in consultation with director Richard Jones, who also directs the premiere of Skin Deep. An approach for a stage work from the Komische Oper, Berlin, focused Sawer's mind on the tradition of operetta. What appealed to him was its energy and vaudeville-style lines and the sort of political, satirical and topical content which Offenbach and Johann Strauss incorporated into their light operas. Today, he recognises, television has replaced operetta in the lampooning of celebrities, the very rich and those in public life. "Besides, in operetta you don't have to pursue a narrative, you can change mood immediately, alter speed and add a level of artificiality common to variety and revue sketches," explains Sawer.

Since an operetta can't be conducted at break-neck speed or semi-improvised in Iannucci's usual breathtaking style, has his brand of corruscating satire had to be slightly anaesthesised in Skin Deep? The writer doesn't think so. "There's an element of The Thick Of It in how the media treats the whole nature of celebrity and fame and how looks matter, but it's in the scope of wordplay in Skin Deep that I've had the most fun. Now I really want to direct an opera," he says, "It's the most brilliant all-consuming artform. I love the idea of all those elements fighting for attention and the fact that it can all go so terribly wrong."

"The reason it has worked between us," according to Iannucci, "is that David and I soon discovered we had the same sense of humour. He has an instinct for where the funny bits come and reacts accordingly."

For Richard Jones and Opera North's music director Richard Farnes, timing will be crucial, requiring the operational control and precision of Doctor Needlemeier himself. "Looking good, feeling great," is the theme of the act two party, and the cast – mindful of the fact that Needlemeier "strengthened the lungs of a singer, who wanted to reach a high C" – shouldn't look too closely at Skin Deep's website, www.goskindeep.com. The site – along with the graphic descriptions in Iannucci's brilliant libretto of procedures – is not for the squeamish or those scared of going under the knife, and should carry a health warning. You might just start to feel queasy ...

'Skin Deep' is a co-commission between Opera North, Komische Oper, Bregenzer Festspiele and Royal Danish Opera. Leeds Grand Theatre 16, 24, 30 January; 4,11 February; Sadler's Wells, London 17, 19 February; The Lowry, Salford Quays 26 February; Theatre Royal Newcastle 4 March (www.operanorth.co.uk)