Back in early 2012 I was asked to play bass in a modern reworking of the Monteverdi opera masterpiece L’incoronazione de Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea) to be held in early summer that year in Paris’s beautiful and prestigious Théâtre du Châtelet on the banks of the Seine. It was a star studded affair featuring Carl Barât in the lead role as Nero, Marc Almond as Seneca and French lothario, Benjamin Biolay. The whole rock opera is currently available to view online at the moment in 2D here and in 3D here.
The principals from left (back) Valérie Gabail, Carl Barât, (front) Pete Howard, Marc Almond and Benjamin Biolay
This production was the brainchild of the director general of the Châtelet, Jean Luc Choplin and follows the long tradition of taking the original top lines and bass lines of the opera and orchestrating it using current methods. Back in 1643 when this opera was written, that is all that essentially existed of it and various productions would sound quite different due to differing approaches of the orchestrator. The opera had largely been forgotten until it was revived in the 19th century and since then has become a staple for Opera productions worldwide. What made this particular production of Poppea unusual was the bringing together of the classical world and the rock’n’roll world of which I inhabit!
The director of the Chatelet, Jean Luc Choplin
The well known American composer Michael Torke was commissioned to carry out the musical adaptation which although a skilled arranger, his original interpretation lacked rock music’s contemporary edge. To counter this, at the suggestion of the English librettist, Ian Burton, a much more credible source in ex Clash/Queen Adreena drummer Pete Howard was brought in to act as musical director. Pete duly brought on board Max La Villa, former bandmate from their time in early 90’s alternative rock band Eat to co orchestrate. Together they set about deconstructing Michael Torke’s adaptation and using a very contemporary approach mixing all sorts of musical genres and instrumental sounds to give it a timelessness. There is a good video here which has Max explain the approach. This did prove to be a fairly controversial idea as the much hyped “Rock” element of the production was partially subsumed within this esoteric and peerless arrangement which featured a never heard before blend of unusual sound sources. The advertising for the opera featured a flaming Les Paul (as shown at the top of the page) but this kind of balls out rock was very much in the minority in Pete and Max’s treatment.
The Hammond Novachord – a major part of the sound of Pop’pea
Samples of the rare and groundbreaking 1940’s Hammond synthesizer, The Novachord rubbed shoulders with the 80’s sampler The Fairlight mixed with liberal splashes of analog classics the Mellotron and Korg’s Monopoly along with a whole host of other well chosen sounds. These synth parts were played by two exceptional musicians, Angie Pollock (who I would have a musical future with playing together in the Karl Hyde band in 2013) and former Cardiacs keyboardist and solo star William D Drake (Bill).
(From left) Marcus “Matic Mouth” Smith, Carl Barât, Angie Pollock, Max La Villa, Me, Bill Drake, Chris McComish, Pete Howard plus some of Carl’s fans!
The band was rounded out with the astonishingly talented drummer and percussionist Chris McComish and myself on bass. Max was the sole guitarist and Pete was the primary drummer with Chris bringing a more electronic percussive element along. Pete Howard is a phenomenally powerful drummer and his über rock dynamics brought a genuine edge to the show. Max’s elegant and spare approach to guitar playing interwove beautifully amongst the complex and dense keyboard lines. Although initially brought in just to play bass, I ended up working intensively with Max preparing the music technology to be used within the show. Below is a video tour I made for Sonic State giving a tour of the theatre, a rig rundown of the equipment and interviews with the band:
To try and stay faithful to this new orchestration, I needed to play a midi bass as many of the bass lines were in fact synth parts. I used the Roland GR55 (as shown in the above video) and attempted to program parts to be as close as possible to Max’s carefully chosen timbres. This was mostly successful but on a few numbers the bass parts were performed in unison along with Angie on the keyboard. Using this approach did make what was already extremely complex baroque bass lines even more difficult as I had to seek ways to minimise the inherent latencies to trigger the sounds cleanly. I discovered using a capo increased the tautness of the strings and prevented false triggering. Since then, I have used capo on bass significantly for many purposes and found it helpful on a couple of numbers on the Karl Hyde tour. I must strive for a signature bass capo at some point!
Rehearsals for the band began at the end of March in Stoke Newington, North London before moving to The Châtelet itself in April. We laboured under extremely stressful time pressure once at the Châtelet as we were expected to perform in front of the Theatres top brass much earlier than expected. Here lay an obstacle, The Châtelet were not used to rock musicians and certainly not what the technical requirements were. Ideally we should have had a technician with us at all times due to the ferociously complex sound mix plus getting the scores to be playable and all the instruments to behave as they should took much tweakery and adjustments. Our original brief was that there was to be no sheet music on stage which especially for the keyboard players would have been impossible so thankfully that restriction was lifted. There were so many unexpected developments that all seemed to heap on the pressure; reports that the French Prime Minister was coming to the opening night, Kanye West and Jay Z would be attending, that it was going to filmed for national French TV, that it was going to filmed in 3D! And so on. Tensions were running high as we worked for 21 days straight without a day off often working from 10 in the morning to midnight.
The trailer for the show
By the middle of April the rehearsals moved from the Châtelet to a fairly dilapidated studio on the outskirts of Paris in the district of Montreuil. This was a huge contrast to working in the confines of the beautiful Chatelet but the workload didn’t let up though it just mean that we had to travel daily to this location. The studio it transpired has an incredible history as being setup by Georges Méliés, the famous early film director who created A Trip To The Moon, there. This is the famous 1902 short film where a space rocket gets fired into the eye of the moon. Ben Kingsley starred as Méliés in the recent Martin Scorsese film Hugo.
That famous scene!
The first run throughs with the principals was interesting though. Marc Almond astonished everyone with his precise and convincing performances each time playing it as if it was the real thing. His professionalism was outstanding and his stage presence, mesmerising. Marc was playing the philosophic tutor Seneca and he brought a real depth and sincerity to this rather melodramatic role. Carl too was impressive. Being a punk rocker, it was a huge challenge for him to take such a large role on and manage to pull it off. He had to sing some extremely challenging vocals but managed to achieve it with some aplomb. His Nero was maniacal, unstable and vicious which was just what the role required. For me, and many others, one of the big star turns was that of Swedish singer Fredrika Stahl. She was playing the role of Nero’s rejected wife Ottavia and although she only had a few songs to sing, she sang with such chilling precision and with an utterly convincing intensity that was genuinely moving. It was interesting to see these performances at this stage of the rehearsals as it gave us a much clearer idea of how it was going to turn out.
Around this time, we met this wonderful character called Julien Lambert who was the most prolific character to appear in Pop’pea starring in virtually every scene as a mime and acrobat providing much comedic relief. Julien had just starred in Les Fraises Des Bois , a critically acclaimed film which at the time had not long been released. Julien once told me how he used to have a party trick whereby he would surprise guests by unexpectedly leap out of a nearby window to the gasps of the horrified onlookers only to have utilised his considerable acrobatic skills to have discreetly grabbed the balcony and would be safe hanging just outside of view. After he told me this he surprised me by doing exactly that and leapt off my fifth floor hotel room balcony, I panicked and rushed out to see him dangling with this enormous grin!
The unmistakeable Jean Guillou
Towards the end of the rehearsal period (and back at the Châtelet), things relaxed slightly for us musicians as the focus became more about the staging and technical matters. We found ourselves having moments of spare time where we could start enjoying being in the dead centre of Paris. Acting on a tip from a friend, most of the band went to see an organist by the name of Jean Guillou perform at the nearby Saint Eustache cathedral. Jean has been the resident organist at this magnificent building since the early 60’s and had studied under the genius Olivier Messiaen. Jean performs most Sundays there around 5pm and it is truly a magnificent experience that I highly recommend. Having had the organ rebuilt to his specifications some years back, we realised that he not only played the instrument but in his use of sub bass and echoes, he played the whole building! Myself and Bill Drake became obsessed with him and attempted to see him perform as often as our busy schedule would allow. His compositions rank as some of the most spiritual and psychedelic music I have ever heard. During one break Bill and Angie were invited to play on this extraordinary piano in the Chatelet. Below is a film I made of Bill playing his wonderful composition The Moth Surrenders To The Flame
The remarkable William D Drake
Two English rappers had been brought in to play the roles of Nero’s guards, Achilles “AC” Charrington and Marcus “Matic Mouth” Smith. Both extremely talented, they provided an almost comedic element to the show and were both lots of fun to hang out with over the two months or so of production. Marcus would dazzle during impromtu jam sessions back at the hotel whereas AC blitzed my mind with his amazing grasp of history and philosophy! Myself and AC went together to witness the amazing scenes at the Bastille the day that the narcissist and bigot Sarkozy was deposed at the French general election. the scenes that greeted us were astonishing as we could hardly move amongst the thousands and thousands of revellers who had gathered to celebrate.
Crazy scene of the madness and joy following Sarkozy’s defeat
Marcus and AC discuss their involvement
As show time approached we started to understand the odd staging that Pierrick Sorin and Giorgio Barberio had planned. Essentially what this involved was the actors would perform in front of a green screen whilst various cast members would manipulate minature models or props around the stage edge. All of this would be projected on to a huge screen overhead whereby the audience would see the amalgamation of all these images as a cohesive whole.
Fredrika as Ottavia being projected against a stormy sea scape
This was an ambitious idea that the directors had used in other projects prior to Pop’pea. Its idea being that the audience are as interested in the process as they are the finished item. In the most, the ideas worked really well but in my opinion were let down by the lip synching delay caused by all the computer processing. During dress rehearsals we all thought this was a glitch that would be solved in the main shows but sadly not.
The costumes for the production were made by the world famous Nicola Formichetti, most famous for designing Lady Gaga’s far out costumes. Nicola being have Italian and have Japanese had the rather enviable life of growing up in both Rome and Tokyo. He is now the artistic director for the Italian (and my favourite) fashion label Diesel. His involvement with the show ensured that the fashionistas were fascinated with the production and it featured in the pages of Elle, Paris Match, Timeout and many, many more. In fact when the show was over we were presented with dossiers over an inch thick of the various international press the show had garnered. Sadly us musicians were not clothed by Nicola had had to just look smart instead of ridiculous. Probably a good move!
Valérie Gabail as Pop’pea wearing one of Nicola’s fantastic outfits.
Here I am modelling the shiny suits the male band members wore.
A news article about Pop’pea
The publicity around the show was huge. Everywhere we went in paris we saw huge billboards advertising the show, it was splashed across all the major publications and the principals were interviewed on many of France’s leading cultural programmes. There was a large amount of healthy scepticism too as this was a very daring production. Rock opera to most conjures images of musical theatre a lá We Will Rock You and true like but here was a genuine baroque opera conforming in many ways to a traditional opera but yet casting one of France’s leading female opera stars (Valérie Gabail) against a notorious punk in Carl whilst messing with post modern ideas of presentation with the most surreal approach to orchestration and there is a recipe for disaster or triumph!
A poster for Pop’pea outside Paris’s famous Hotel de Ville
Well what happened? I think in many ways it was a triumph. We received generally very positive reviews with some naysayers but I think most were in agreement that this was an audacious and enjoyable show. Opening night was thrilling too say the least as Paris’s great and good turned out in huge numbers including some very prestigious actors, musicians and politicians. For me the opening night was the best performance too as is often the case as the months of hard work all come together. If I was to sum up what I thought of the show it was remarkably brave, noisy, exciting, sometimes silly, sometimes sad, innovative and ultimately slightly flawed. The video below was taken at the party on the Châtelet roof top after the opening night performance. I am interviewed early on and can hardly contain my excitement!
As I mentioned at the top of this piece, the whole show is currently available online to view in 2D here and in 3D here. I’d love to hear comments about what you think. If you are just interested in a taste of the show I’d recommend watching the powerful opening but then skipping on to Marc Almond’s appearances or Fredrika’s as I think they are the show highlights. Be warned though if there are youngsters around though, Marcus’s and AC’s turn as the rapping soldiers is loaded with expletives and some of the scenes are quite saucy!
The band about to take their bows (from left) Bill, Max, Pete, Chris, me, Angie
Being involved in this production was something I’ll never forget: The generosity of the Châtelet, the friendly and charming crew, the bizarre collection of actors and musicians, the beautiful Châtelet Theatre, the incredibly difficult baroque bass lines, being personally thanked by the mayor of Paris, the challenges and resolutions amongst the musicians, the list goes on. I’d like to thank Jean Luc Choplin, Sylviane Borie, both Stefans, the crew at the Châtelet, Pete Howard, Max La Villa, Angie Pollock, Chis McComish and especially a huge thank you to Bill Drake for bringing me in to this life changing production!
4 responses to “Pop’pea – a peculiar rock opera and an even more peculiar experience!”
Excellent write up. They’ve made a great video of the show. I agree that Marc and Fredrika stand out. However I don’t think Carl’s voice is right for the part. The musicians of course were the highlight!
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