Stewart Copeland returns to Chicago this weekend, but not in the role one might expect. The musician, notable for his tenure as the drummer and founding member of rock greats The Police, has a night planned at the opera to celebrate the world premiere of “The Invention of Morel.”
‘THE INVENTION OF MOREL’
When: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 18 and 24; 3 p.m. Feb. 26
Where: The Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan
Copeland was co-commissioned by the Chicago Opera Theater and the Long Beach Opera to compose original music for this new work, which is based on a 1940s novel by influential Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares that Copeland’s teenage daughter Grace introduced him to. It follows the story of an escaped fugitive and a mad scientist stuck on a remote island who comes upon a group of tourists that have arrived from another dimension through his own futuristic invention. The fugitive falls for one of the beautiful women and a struggle ensues of how much he will sacrifice to be with her.
“It’s a steampunk period science fiction black romantic comedy … with a lot of desperation,” Copeland says in his charming deadpan tone, calling from his home studio in southern California where he was holed up for three years piecing together the musical suite, which will be performed by Stephen Burns’ Fulcrum Point New Music Project.
Since The Police disbanded in 1986, Copeland has kept busy with works like these. While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has released a number of solo albums (including 2004’s Grammy-nominated “Orchestralli”), he largely has made a career as a composer. His portfolio includes films such as Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and John Waters’ “Pecker,” and television programs including “Babylon 5” and the grim “Dead Like Me.”
In recent years Copeland’s mastery has expanded into crafting large orchestral compositions for ballet and opera, a medium he calls his favorite because, he says, “You get to drive the ship much more than other forms of music storytelling.” Commissions have come from as far as the Royal Opera House in London (where he worked alongside “Morel” stage director/librettist Jonathan Moore on “The Tell-Tale Heart”) to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, whom he lavishly praises after working with the company in 2014 on a live musical screening of the original, silent version of “Ben Hur.”
“The Chicago Symphony is so mighty; there’s only a few places in the world where you can show up, have one rehearsal for a 90-minute program and play a closely synchronized show later that night.”
Copeland admits he’s “been working his way up the bill” with these works, on a mission to bring symphony orchestras forward in modern ways and, in the process, entice more diverse audiences.
“I’m not there to continue the musical tradition of great orchestral masters; I’m the rock ‘n’ roll guy. I’m here to use the orchestra to do exciting, lively, modern, interactive stuff,” he says. Following his lead, Chicago Opera Theater has also announced a partnership with Reel Captivation to give attendees a virtual reality experience of “Morel’s” island before each show. That extra dimension is important, says Copeland. “I find that even the stodgiest of orchestral fans that are there to see Mendelssohn really do enjoy seeing orchestra put to new use. So I say let’s burn down the house.”
That dichotomy goes back to his formative years, he says, when the works of his mother’s favorite composer, Stravinsky, would be mixing in his brain with modern rock icons like Jimi Hendrix. “That’s always sort of been there in the back of my head.” Copeland would later study jazz traditions, taking percussive inspiration from his travels around the world as the son of a CIA officer—mixing these styles in the progressive material of The Police. The originality made the trio one of the most popular crossover acts of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s buoyed by hits like “Roxanne” and “Message In a Bottle,” until they split.
Though the band forged a brief reunion in 2007 — and was one of the first musical acts to play Wrigley Field that summer — Copeland says, “don’t hold your breath” for another go-around. All of the members have been preoccupied with other projects, including some form of orchestra. Andy Summers debuted a concerto at Carnegie Hall in 2005 and “Sting-o” (as Copeland lovingly refers to the frontman) premiered his autobiographical musical “The Last Ship” at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre in 2014.
“I really wish I would have been able to see it on stage,” says Copeland, who missed it by a matter of days while doing an early “Morel” workshop in town. “But I heard the music, which was fantastic. He’s still got it.”
So too, does Copeland. In 2016, Rolling Stone named him 10th on a list of the Top 100 Drummers of All Time, and he plans to release a new rock album later this year — his first in nearly a decade. Though his interests have widened, rock is a genre that’s still incredibly important to Copeland.
“I learned from rock ‘n’ roll how to move a living audience in front of the stage,” he says. “Whatever that stage may be.”
Selena Fragassi is a freelance music writer.