Megaphone arias, electric guitars and swearing puppets: A Dog's Heart, which opens at the London Coliseum tomorrow night, is opera, but not as we know it. Which is not all that surprising when you discover that the man behind it is Simon McBurney, co-founder and artistic director of Complicite, the company that ripped up the rule book and changed the face of British theatre for good.
The production marks the director's operatic debut, the highlight of an exciting ENO season which has already paired up Rufus Norris and Don Giovanni, and will welcome film directors Mike Figgis (directing Lucrezia Borgia) and Terry Gilliam (The Damnation of Faust) in the coming months.
"For about 10 or 15 years now, people have been pursuing me to do an opera – from The Met to the ENO," says McBurney. "And I have consistently refused because I didn't feel particularly close to the form." He was persuaded to overcome his reservations about "elitism" by Pierre Audi, a long-time friend of Complicite who gave the company an early boost with a run at the Almeida in 1989. Audi now runs De Nederlandse Opera (DNO) in Amsterdam, where A Dog's Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov's 1925 classic, had its world premiere in June.
Three years ago he dispatched the Russian composer Alexander Raskatov to McBurney's flat (an old piano factory in North London) to play him the piano score of his embryonic opera. "I couldn't make head nor tail of it," says McBurney. "All I could hear was someone bashing around." So Raskatov brought in his wife, Elena Vassilieva, to sing some of the lead. "She began growling like a dog in the most terrifying way," recalls McBurney. And that was that, the director was sold.
On paper at least, there are few matches more perfect than McBurney and Bulgakov. The Russian classic about a brilliant medical professor who transplants human testicles (and a pituitary gland) into a stray dog and creates a monstrous man who turns on his creator is deliriously imaginative, witty and bitingly satirical – all descriptions that could just as easily be applied to a Complicite production. A kind of Soviet Frankenstein, it has moments of gruesome fantasy (the operation scene is graphic, as only a former army surgeon could write), high farce and extreme pathos, making it ripe for operatic treatment. It also has a deliciously mercurial anti-hero, who transforms from pitiful, starving mutt (opera's first canine lead – with plenty of howling and growling) to hard-drinking, foul-mouthed lusty lout.
For an old rebel like McBurney, the fact that the work was banned for more than 60 years surely adds to its appeal. From the moment Bulgakov read his story out to a select group in a Moscow apartment in 1925, it was doomed. Thanks to an informer in the audience, the manuscript was seized, deemed a "scathing lampoon of modern times that should on no account be published" by the authorities and left to rot. It was finally published in 1987, some 47 years after the writer's death.
The reason for the ban was its critique of the newly established Communist society, only eight years old at the time of writing. The Professor, a man with a taste for the finer things in life, is disdainful of the changes happening on the street outside his plush seven-room apartment. "I'm not fond of the proletariat," he declares, through a mouthful of iced caviar. The dog-man, Sharikov, in his flat cap, donkey jacket and neck-tie is an unsympathetic model of the new Soviet man – crude, lewd and, most of all, disruptive.
It is not simple satire, though. Bulgakov, a bourgeois former doctor in the White Army who briefly found favour with Stalin as a playwright but didn't live to see his best works – such as The Master and Margarita – published, was too clever for that. He shifts the point of view from dog to man to doctor and back again, toying with the reader's sympathies. Vladimir Bortko's wonderful 1988 sepia film (watch it on YouTube) achieved this disorienting effect by switching between a hound's-eye view of the pavement and a loftier human perspective. At the ENO, the dog's voice will be split in two – a lower "unpleasant" voice sung by Vassilieva through a megaphone, with moans and yelps, and a sweeter, higher voice sung by the counter tenor Andrew Watts. Peter Hoare, a tenor, will sing the part of the man-dog, Sharikov.
The beauty of Bulgakov's slim flight of fancy is that it lends itself to myriad interpretations. It has been read as a dystopian criticism of eugenics (the Professor's day job is shadowy sexual engineering, inserting monkey's ovaries into menopausal women and the like), a modern-day Frankenstein or Dr Faustus myth about scientists meddling with the natural order of things, and a religious allegory. Critics have compared the holes drilled into Sharik's skull during the operation to a crown of thorns, while the Professor's surname, Preobrazhensky ("transfomation") has religious overtones in Russian, as does his address, on Prechistenka ("most holy") Street.
Noughties audiences might find a warning about plastic surgery, or of experimenting with grafting one political party on to another. "Can it be reduced to a single sentence?" asks McBurney. "No. It's quite mysterious. You're not quite sure where you are but you get an extraordinary sense of the chaos and energy of the time. You can return to it again and again."
McBurney has a long-standing love for all things Russian, dating back to visiting his brother, Gerard, a composer and musicologist, at the Moscow conservatoire in the 1980s. Since then, Complicite have created pieces based on Daniil Kharms' diaries (Out of a House Walked a Man), Shostakovich's last string quartet symphony (The Noise of Time) and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.
Once again, the director – who has previously transformed chairs into men, made books fly like birds and breathed life into puppets – will add his magical touch. Sharik will be brought to life by four artists from Blind Summit (the company who created the puppets for Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly at ENO and His Dark Materials at the National). The director wanted the dog to be made from rubbish but bits kept falling off. Then he saw a picture of one of Giacometti's etiolated dog sculptures and the spindly Sharik puppet was born.
As for the music, Raskatov's score is, says McBurney, "absolutely bonkers", veering from pastiches of sentimental Soviet anthems to Rossini-esque opera buffa. It is the first opera by the composer best known for completing Alfred Schnittke's unfinished 9th Symphony, at the request of his widow in 2007. At odds with usual opera practice, McBurney insisted on workshopping the score, cutting it back and changing the structure to tighten it dramatically, before sending Raskatov back to Russia where the composer orchestrated it by hand for four months. "He showed me the callus on his writing finger," says McBurney. "It was like a molehill."
Working in opera has been a steep learning curve for the director, not least because of the punishing production schedule. "It's brutal. Because it's so expensive you have very little time to put things on," says McBurney. "It's like a military exercise. My way of working is quite slow and painstaking." The director still managed to tear down the entire set just months before the Amsterdam premiere. It was rebuilt with a rock-concert-style frame; stage-hands can be seen at work around the edge ("So you get the Soviet proletariat and the modern-day workers," says McBurney). The producers drew the line, though, at his plan for a spectacular ending. "I did want to have 200 live dogs running into the stalls and through the audience, yes," says McBurney. "You always fantasise about things."
'A Dog's Heart', London Coliseum, WC2 (0871 911 0200; www.eno.org) Saturday to 4 December in repReuse content