Stewart Copeland Talks About His Opera Adaptation of 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

Stewart Copeland Talks About His Opera Adaptation of 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

By: Greggory Moore Before any journalist decides to write a story about Stewart Copeland, just know that the chances of you surprising him with a double entendre about the Police are very slim. In the myriad articles written about the drummer over the last three decades, he's heard 'em all, no matter what new product he's selling.

"I had a nice piece come out in the L.A. Times today," Copeland says as we begin an interview he's doing in support of The Tell-Tale Heart, his Edgar Allan Poe-based opera currently making its U.S. premiere at the Long Beach Opera this week. "You know: 'Copeland finds synchronicity in opera.' Then the print version was different than the online version, something like: 'Copeland finds message in an opera.' They just can't resist!"

We here at the Weekly tried to ignore it ourselves. But with every breath we took, the beating of that hideous Police heart! We sat down with the longtime composer to talk about his new adaptation of Poe's immortal short story, his unlikely career path into the world of operas, and yes, plenty of questions about the Police.

OC Weekly (Greggory Moore):Have you ever tried to do a rough estimate of how many interviews you've done in your life?

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Stewart Copeland: Um, no, I haven't, actually. If I really wanted to, I could probably. I keep records of everything.

What would be a rough guess off the top of your head?

You promise to print it? Five hundred million.

Do people tend to ask about The Police even when you're doing an interview for something like this that has nothing to do with The Police?

People do. I usually forget what the hell it is I'm selling once I get talking, so I'll answer pretty much any question. [It doesn't bother me,] provided that when such a story comes out it at least mentions whatever the hell it is that I was trying to sell.

The Police was something you did for a nine years three decades ago, yet for the vast majority of people, your public persona is dominated by it.

Well, actually, yes and no. It depends on where you look. [...] Sure, there's a lot of Police conscious [...] in the tiny sliver of the world that knows I exist at all, but in the opera world and in film composing that's pretty much downplayed. It's kind of interesting: "But I don't want a rock drummer, I want a film composer!" So for 20 years I was pretty much downplaying that previous life in my reputation as a film composer--which is pretty much how I earn my living, so that makes that important. [...] The films that I've scored are right up there of paramount importance, and the Police part of the story is only an interesting footnote. [...] As far as punters reading newspapers, I don't get the name-check [for film-scoring], but my work is out there. And the way that I got that work is my reputation as a film composer, rather than as a drummer in a rock band. (Pause) That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

How long have you been a fan of Poe?

Well, pretty much since I was terrified as a kid by a black-and-white film of "The Tell-Tale Heart," where they had it under the piano, and you could see the floorboards shaking: Thu-thump, thu-thump. "Ah, shit!" And that stuck. And then you go through high school and college and do your literature--and Poe, of course, is a towering figure of American literature. Who isn't a fan of Poe?

Would you characterize yourself as someone who's particularly interested in psychology? [Pause] Yes, [but] more mass psychology than individual psychology. [...] In my last years in college I majored in mass communication and public policy, which is all about how the Zeitgeist is formed through the media, through word of mouth, through tradition, and so on. So, mass psychology I've always been really interested in, yes. But you're probably thinking about individual psychology, such as would be relevant to "The Tell-Tale Heart." Um, I'm no great authority. I did Psych 101. But you don't have to be a scientist to get the psychology, the pre-Freudian psychology of "The Tell-Tale Heart," where it grapples with the psychological issue of madness. Is madness necessarily derangement? And the protagonist in this story keeps saying, "How could I be mad when I'm so clever about how I did this murder and covered up all the traces? How could I possibly be mad? (Breaking into song) I'm not--MAAAAAAD!"

His reason for telling the tale is to establish his non-madness--which was an interesting question for Poe, pre-Freud: What is insanity, and what is crime? He's clear to point out that there was no motive for this crime; it's just evil, it's just fuckedness. [...] One of the things that does emerge and that I kind of had fun with [in the opera] is the obvious joy that Poe takes in telling this story. And it's tempting--particularly for me as a dramatist--to make that autobiographical. The lust, the drooling for the deed exposed the author himself as a potential perpetrator of such a "glorious" crime. [...] He really inhabits that crazy mind.


Is opera something you've had a lifelong interest in, or...

No, not at all. I wasn't interested even remotely, until I got a commission [by Cleveland Opera] to write one. Then I started checking [opera] out, and the first ones I saw, I hated. Then I saw [David] Hockney's production of [Richard Wagner's] Tristan und Isolde at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I went through several years as a deep Wagnerian. [...] I was a dreadful bore at dinner parties, as most Wagnerians tend to be.

What are the stylistic elements you like and dislike in certain kinds of opera? Well, I draw the line at incomprehension. If I don't know what's going on, that makes the opera much less powerful. So with the big ones that are in foreign languages, it's critical to do your homework and know the story before you watch the piece. [...] In English[-language] opera, there's just no excuse for [incomprehension]. Maybe it can be a puzzle, like some David Lynch thing or something like that, but if it's just a puzzle and you're confused, you're just not going to get the power of the integration of music and drama. Vocal Olympics are another thing that don't work for me. I have a little bit of melisma [in 'The Tell-Tale Heart'], mostly in the service of language, not for the sake of Olympics. That's one of the things that turns most people off to opera: That shrieking. So I have very little shrieking.

Is composing for opera a natural extension of the work you do for film?


Is it also a natural extension, in a more removed way, of the other music you've done, such as The Police?

The rock stuff? No. The banging on the drums is unrelated. Different guy, different part of the brain, different physiological experience. In fact, occasionally there's conflict. I'll write a nice little oboe tune, and that fucking drummer guy comes and trashes it. I'm writing the piece, and I'm saying [to him], "Come on, see if you can sit this one out. Just see if you can do it. SEE IF YOU CAN SIT THIS ONE OUT, OKAY?"

For people who go to see "The Tell-Tale Heart" this weekend and are hoping to see something operatic but also rhythmic in that context, are they going to be disappointed?

I wrote too much percussion for the piece, I can assure you on that score. 'Fraid so. [...] But in both productions [i.e., Long Beach Opera's and the 2011 world premiere in London] I've backed off a lot of the percussion [in the score]. But there is a strong rhythmic drive to this piece.

Which is fitting, of course, considering the ending.

Yes: the beating heart.

How involved were you in Long Beach Opera's staging of the piece?

Not. [...] Because the idea is that [...] I put it all on the page--ink--and it can be picked up by the Worchester Dramatic Society, or hopefully the Met, and they will do with it what they will. Opera's a great medium, because the composer rules; however, once you've written the piece and it's out there, the local directors take your work. And while they are dedicated to being true to the original concept, they are also people who are wildly imaginative themselves and want to put their own stamp on it. So they take what I've put on the page and do something completely different with it. And that's the way it's supposed to be. [...] In the case of LBO, I'm actually familiar with this director, Andreas Mitisek, and I have full confidence. I know it's going to be great. The other thing I know is that he's completely going to turn it on its head. And I can't wait to see it.

Will you see it opening night or the following weekend?

I'll probably go to all the shows. I'm a sucker for my own music.

Long Beach Opera's production of Stewart Copeland's The Tell-Tale Heart--part of a double-bill with Michael Gordon's Van Gogh--will be performed this Saturday at 2PM & 8PM and Sunday at 7PM at the EXPO Arts Center (4321 Atlantic Ave., LB 90807). Tix/info:

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