dZf, BBC Studios, London

The night Mozart met Mickey Spillane
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The Independent Culture

Imagine that Schikaneder hadn't been around to write the libretto to The Magic Flute, suggested the thriller writer Rob Ryan, and that Mozart had had to rely on Mickey Spillane to do the job instead. That is how Ryan conceived his task when Guy Barker asked him to rework the plot of Die Zauberflöte and set it in 1950s New York as dZf. Other than that, Ryan's canvas was blank. "The story makes no sense," Barker had warned him, and Ryan agreed. If, halfway through a performance, opera buffs recognise the similarities - just as West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet - Barker will be content.

So instead of Prince Tamino, we have a hot young trumpeter, Bobby Tamino; Pammy instead of Pamina. Her mother, the Queen of the Night, becomes Harlem's leading brothel madam, Queen Righteous; Monostatos is reborn as a gangster (Sid "the monster" Monesterio) and Papageno as Bird Carter.

Only there are no singers in dZf, Barker's score to Ryan's updated plot, which was commissioned by the BBC for the London Jazz Festival. Eventually the story should be told by dancers - Barker was inspired by Gene Kelly's 1956 film, Invitation to the Dance, and he hopes at some point in the future that dZf may become a movie on similar lines. For the work's first outing, however, Michael Brandon added narration to the music performed by big band and recorded live at the BBC's Maida Vale studios.

It's a hugely ambitious, highly programmatic project; for a jazz score, there's very little improvisation, as Barker wrote tightly with dance movement in mind. Brandon's oiled gravel voice is perfect for the narration (there's a family connection here, too, as Barker's father was a stuntman on the Dempsey and Makepeace television series), but a detailed knowledge of the plot is essential without the visuals. If, before choreography has been added, dZf is performed again as a concert piece, I would suggest the audience be issued with a full synopsis.

Barker draws the listener in to the story by giving the different characters their own motifs, from Bird Carter's chipper whistle of a tune to the grotesque antics of a basso profundo trio of contrabass clarinet, bass trombone and tubax (which sounds a full octave lower than the baritone saxophone) representing the "Midgets of Mixology". These three "little people" conjure up a potion which allows Bobby Tamino one night of glory in which he plays a solo of impossible brilliance at the Temple jazz club, thus winning Pammy's heart.

This is the central scene in dZf, written around a snappy, happy-go-lucky theme that shows off Barker's expert demarcation and interplay between the big band sections. Hearing this, one can imagine Gene Kelly's athletic form twisting gracefully around the club, just as, in the overture at the beginning, Ralph Salmins' drums bring to mind the great dirty glory of central New York - steam vents erupting on the streets while sharp-suited men on the make swill bourbon on the rocks at bars on the corner.

The music is totally American and of the period, while still being original and new. Barker has the knack of writing with complete stylistic sympathy, but adding his own mildly hallucinatory twist. Bobby doesn't get the girl, after all. Queen Righteous reclaims her daughter after a shootout at a warehouse, and Bobby can never recreate his performance that night at the Temple.

"I'd like to give you a happy ending," explains Ryan's narration. "But this is New York. This is jazz, baby." Just before Pammy is parted from Bobby for good, however, they have one last dance; then Bobby is left alone with his memories. "They say some nights," continues Ryan's script, "if you're hangin' around where the Savoy or the Five Spot or Temple Street used to be, if you listen real hard, you can hear his horn ringing down the alley, beautiful and sweet, still trying to find that magic one more time."

The magic is certainly present in Barker's magnificent new composition, and this is just the beginning for dZf. With the addition of choreography, it could be one of the most stunning new dance and music collaborations to be seen for many years.

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