It was Stewart Copeland’s daughter, Grace, that urged the co-founder and former drummer of the British/American rock group, The Police, to read Argentinian author, Adolfo Bioy Casares’ 'La Invencion de Morel' and score an opera based on the novel, but it was the Chicago Opera Theater (in conjunction with the Long Beach Opera Company) that commissioned the ambitious project, which enjoyed a three-date run at Chicago’s Studebaker Theater on February 17, 24 and 26th.

Equally integral to the project were London-based actor, writer and director Jonathan Moore, who served as Stage Director/Librettist, and who worked closely with Copeland over a three-year period, as well as Conductor Andreas Mitisek. Copeland and Moore worked together previously on Copeland’s shorter work, 'The Tell Tale Heart'.

The orchestra is comprised of the Fulcrum Point New Music Project, led by Stephen Burns. The 90-minute world premiere featured vivid audio-visuals, costumes that echoed the era of 'The Great Gatsby' and a fantastical sci-fi theme.

The story centres around The Fugitive (Andrew Wilkowske) who escapes to a distant tropical island. Cleverly, this role is portrayed by two individuals: The Fugitive shares the stage with The Narrator (Lee Gregory). Both characters, dressed in similar ex-con garb, express dark and ecstatic emotions simultaneously, however one represents the present; the other the past.

Once there, The Fugitive discovers a group of well-heeled tourists, who party nightly and partake in heated discussions about faith versus science. Dora (Kimberly E. Jones), Duchess (Barbara Landis), Alec/Ombrellieri (Scott Brunscheen) and Stoever (David Govertsen) have completely different stage personalities, but they do a wonderful job interacting with one another, vocally and physically.

The Fugitive is, of course, baffled. He is exhausted, hungry and, understandably paranoid. As he eavesdrops, he wonders if he is having hallucinations: when he greets or gestures to the patrons, he is virtually ignored. Although he is lonely for human companionship, he is also worried that he will be turned in to the authorities, if he is actually seen. He/they is/are at the breaking point a number of times. The two men sing in unison and in harmony, often without looking at each other, never missing a cue.

Soon he finds that the ensemble is bound together by their admiration/suspicion for the gifted scientist, Morel (Nathan Granner), who can’t wait to show the clan his brand new invention. By this time, The Fugitive has fallen deeply in love with the glamorous Faustine (Valerie Vinzant) — the character was inspired by the author’s own infatuation with actress Louise Brooks, and it’s not hard to guess what the character’s name implies…

Moore’s lilting lyricism requires deep concentration, which is a double-edge sword of sorts. The words were so delicately strung together that I wanted a chance to savour them, but the story moved ahead at too fast of a clip. That said, the libretto was stunning and, fortunately, very true to Casares’ 1940’s novel.

In terms of stage production and musicality, 'The Invention of Morel' included eerie touches of political and spiritual symbolism as well as edge-of-seat ostinatos. This being Copeland’s fifth opera, he certainly demonstrated a strong sense of structure and personal style. Plot points were accentuated by muscular brass and spare, but one-off percussive textures. There were some gorgeous, melodic lines that could have been extended into full-blown arias, but, in general, Moore and Copeland did a brilliant job of seamlessly combining their artistic visions.

During a pre-talk session, Moore joked that it would have been much easier to work with a dead composer, instead of a live one (that actually showed up to counter or express opinions). “They defer to the composer, but he’s not in the room,” Moore observed, about the more typical experience of staging a historical work.

Copeland later shrugged, “If you write it, you can be in it.” And, although, he wasn’t physically in the performance, his signature wall-of-sound was made for the retelling of this surrealistic plot. Of course, Copeland’s unique background also inspired random reactions. A few stragglers that came in seconds before the show began, were excited about seeing Copeland’s “rock opera,” and another patron sneered, “I hate Sting,” but “I’m excited about seeing Stewart.”

Mitisek’s strength as a leader and visionary was apparent during the talk-back sessions. “My goal was to push the limits,” he explained, when fielding queries about the intense rehearsal schedule and rewrites. He and Moore also concurred that Copeland’s “passion for percussion enhanced key scenes.”

And that leads to the final component—being part of a world premiere is a breathtaking experience for the audience, the cast and the creators. Through their pre and post-production discussions, the Chicago Opera Theater worked tirelessly to include the audience at every turn, and to offer the audience a nontraditional, contemporary spectacle. Copeland summed it up succinctly: “Collaborative art is an emotional minefield.” But when it jibes, it’s obviously worth every obstacle.

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