This episode begins with a short interview with Dutch soprano, Eva Maria Westbroek (https://www.evamariawestbroek.com/). She and Keturah talk about Eva’s creation of the title role in Mark Anthony Turnage (https://www.boosey.com/pages/cr/composer/composer_main?composerid=16405&ttype=BIOGRAPHY) and Richard Thomas’ (https://www.richardthomascreative.com/) opera, Anna Nicole, which premiered at Covent Garden in 2011.
the second part of the episode is an interview with British librettist, composer, and lyricist, Richard Thomas. Keturah and Richard also speak about Anna Nicole (https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/19/arts/music/19nicole.html) throughout the interview, but delve into his other works as well. His most recent operatic endeavor is a new translation of The Merry Widow at ENO (https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/mar/03/the-merry-widow-review-english-national-opera-coliseum-london).
Keturah and Richard move on to his - arguably - most well-known work, Jerry Springer - The Opera (https://www.guidetomusicaltheatre.com/shows_j/jerryspringer.htm), which was originally shown at the Battersea Opera Festival, run by Tom Morris in South London: http://www.bacarchive.org.uk/. They then go into a deep conversation about Anna Nicole, and backtrack to discuss Richard’s first move into the opera genre: Tourette’s Diva.
Here are a few more links about various topics of conversation:
Tourette’s Diva: http://www.bacarchive.org.uk/items/show/5113
Tourette’s Syndrome: https://tourette.org/about-tourette/overview/what-is-tourette/
Kombat Opera Presents: http://www.bbc.co.uk/comedy/kombatopera/
Transcript - Richard Thomas
00:00 - Mozart played on a piano
Welcome to Words First: Talking Text in Opera
00:07 - Mozart played on a piano
Today I’m continuing my discussion of comedy in opera with an interview with British composer, librettist, and lyricist, Richard Thomas. Probably most well-known for composing and writing the lyrics for Jerry Springer: The Opera, Richard began his career as a comedian and television composer, writing for comedian Frank Skinner, and for Tracy Ullman’s sketch show. He also writes musicals such as Made in Dagenham, AA: The Alcoholics Anonymous Musical, and My Left Right Foot, the Musical, and has flirted with the operatic form for some time with the aforementioned Jerry Springer: The Opera, his critically acclaimed song cycle, Tourette’s Diva, as well as writing the libretto for Mark Anthony Turnage’s 2011 opera, Anna Nicole, and most recently writing a new translation of The Merry Widow for English National Opera. I’m fascinated by Richard’s mining of our voyeuristic desires as a way into the absurdities of modern life, and was keen to talk to him about the why and how of his work. Before we get to his interview, however, I want to start by sharing a brief conversation I had with Eva Maria Westbroek, who played the title character in the world premiere of Anna Nicole at The Royal Opera House. Her account of falling in love with Anna Nicole, and the sadness hiding under all of the opera’s absurdity is quite beautiful
Eva Maria 01:52
Well, my name is Eva Maria Westbroek, and I’m a soprano, and I...so I sing. That’s what I do in this beautiful world of opera.
Yes you do. Great, so I’ve asked you to bring a selection, you’ve brought some selections, plural, so let’s talk about those. Tell me what you have.
Eva Maria 02:10
Well, I had the honor and wonderful pleasure of creating an opera, and it was the opera called Anna Nicole, by Mark Anthony Turnage
Eva Maria 02:20
And it was...I think it’s such an absolute masterpiece in all ways. It has extreme fun and joy and hilarious humor and outrageous words, and then it has the most dramatic ending of course, which was her life, you know. She had a very dramatic life in the end, so it’s losing her 19-year-old son on an overdose of drugs while he came to see her after she had just given birth to her second child. And she, the next year, was...died on exactly the same overdose. And this opera really, I think it deserves for a lot of people to hear it, for a lot of people to do it. I think it’s a fantastic opera. And there’s one line that always sticks to me. She has a beautiful last aria. And, um...wait...I’m flipping through it now. And the words...the words of that last aria, all of it are beautiful. But the one that sticks out, and that I think can speak for all of us, and you can apply it to so many dramatic roles. I think they’re just wonderful, where she says, “made some bad choices, made some worse choices. Then ran out of choices.” And I find this a beautiful...beautifully simply put about her life, and I think you could say the same for Manon Lescaut...so many people, so many opera tragic figures, you could actually just put these three lines and say, “made some bad choices, made some worse choices, ran out of choices.” I think it’s a beautiful thing. So this was my first little thing, and it’s wonderful music. It’s so moving, such a tear jerker.
Yeah. I love the simplicity of that line. It’s one of the things that’s been coming up a lot with people I’ve been speaking with, is that the lines that hit us the most are not the complicated over-poetically gilded lines, they’re the simple ones that leave room for the music and emotion to come through.
Eva Maria 04:46
And that one just..you’re right. So many operatic heroes and heroines, and anti-heroes and anti-heroines, that could be their calling card right there. That’s brilliant.
Eva Maria 05:00
Or just people basically.
People. So many people in our business.
Eva Maria 05:07
Life! I mean, this is really...I think it’s very...exactly. The simplicity of it, and the honesty and the truth of it just hit home with me. And the whole opera has wonderful words I think, and it’s really a very special piece, and I really hope people dig...you know, try to listen to it and try to hear it because it’s really worth it. It really is a masterpiece and it deserves a lot more attention than it actually got. Because of course people were first interested because it was funny, and we had pole dancers, and I had humongous boobs, which was of course the highlight of my life. I never had more friends. But apart from that...and a sore back of course...but apart from that, you know, the whole story and the whole...it’s such an important piece. How our society really basically treats people that are in the public eye. You know, this is really a spectacular way for us to look in the mirror, seeing how this affects people, how this affects lives, and what this actually means to be in the public eye like Anna Nicole.
Do you think...I mean, truly you and anna Nicole have very different lives. But do you feel any sort of personal connection with the role? Is there something,...does saying those words feel reflective at all for you?
Eva Maria 06:42
Oh yeah, definitely. And you know, first when we did it, it was a very special process because we had a long rehearsal time. And in the beginning, of course, we all watched the...you know...because she was the first person who did...so many people don’t know her anymore. It’s funny. But she was the first person who had a reality soap about her.
Eva Maria 07:01
And it was quite depressing because she was always a bit drunk. It was very, you know...she came from very...you know, yeah, how do you call it? Humble backgrounds. And her family, they were always screaming and fighting, and she was stoned and drunk a lot. But it was sort of a...but in the end I fell in love with her. Because some person, an actress who was on the crew, said to us, “If we don’t all fall in love with Anna Nicole, this opera is going to be doomed. It won’t be a good piece. And we have to decide to love her.” And I thought she really was right with that, and then I did fall in love with her. And we tried to make it a tribute to her. And the fun thing was that she had such...in the beginning of her career and her life, where it was all like starting out, she had such, you know, she was really so attractive in all ways, and funny, and beautiful, and just outrageous. You just wanted to be close to her and whatever. She was super cool, and then it all went bad. But you just...I don’t know, I really loved her for just going all the way and doing everything everybody wanted to do and she just did it, you know?
Yeah. I think part of the issue with it, although it’s not an issue. People were like, “Oh, it’s so sensationalized. It’s about such a sensationalized woman, you know, it’s very crass, and it’s so sensational.” And the fact of the matter is she’s such an operatic heroine.
Eva Maria 08:41
I mean you look back at all these operas that have come before, and you think, well she fits right in with this group of people.
Eva Maria 08:52
Right. She fits right in with it. Definitely. Definitely. So really...so, and the words are very special like these phrases, and there are more, you know, where...in the beginning. Ah, it’s just a spectacular piece. So I hope people get inspired to do it and to listen to it and to perform it. I think it’s a wonderful role to sing and act. It’s really really something. And there are great other roles in it, so go for it America. America needs it.
America needs Anna Nicole. I think that’s very true, and you’re a great evangelist for it, so I’m glad...thank you for bringing this up.
Eva Maria 09:40
And now here’s Richard Thomas, speaking to me from his studio on December 18th, 2020. Richard, welcome to Words First. Thank you for being here. I’ve been looking forward to speaking to you.
Well thank you very much. I’m very flattered that you invited me.
So, you’re a comedy writer and a composer, musician. You’ve written a number of both operatic and musical theater works, but you don’t step into it...opera, specifically...you don’t step into opera very often. So can you just tell me what attracts you to the operatic genre?
Well I suppose, you know, I mean I think I’m like most writer/composers with a zero kind of career plan, and you know...though the only thing that links everything I do would be a comedic element of some sort. Because I think comedy is a great noble art form, and pretty tricky to get right, especially in opera, not just...but we’ll get more into that later. I used to write music for TV, past history, in my early ‘30’s, and after about five or six years of that, I got really sick of the nightmarish, short term, deadlines, the all nighters, all that sort of stuff, and I thought, “Ah, I can’t stand this anymore.” So I wrote this...I thought, “I’m going to write a non-TV project that could never end up...”. It was going to be the most commercially inaccessible...it was a little one-act opera called Tourette’s Diva.
Yes! I have that on my list. I did want to ask you about that.
Awww. Anyway, the thing about that is that weirdly it turned into this little cult hit. A tiny little cult hit. And so in a way that was...and everything I learned from doing Tourette’s Diva, this opera, was...and I’d worked with opera singers before in a kind of...we did a...I used to be part of this kind of cult cabaret outfit called “Kloob’s Alla Tustra!” (Sp) and we had an opera device who’d come on and just fight with the audience because British comedy which is...was very combative in the live form...so you know, you’d expect. Most comedy performers, certainly then, not quite so much now, but then, you’d be...people in the audience would just hurl abuse at you and you’d have to show that you could deal with that, put them down, and then you’d carry on with the act. So anyway...
Well, that sort of lends itself right into Jerry Springer: The Opera, doesn’t it?
Oh totally. Absolutely. And so we had this thing called the “opera device,” so we just don’t engage in the abuse, and so I had these twenty heckle put-down lines they were called, which varied, and which sort of...which gradually got more...got meaner and meaner and nastier and more spiteful, you know, horrible stuff. I mean really horrible stuff. I can tell you a few if you’d like.
Well, the way, you know...it would start with things like, “Do you ever wonder why your imaginary friend committed suicide?’’ You know, something sort of like a Baroque thing. And then it got meaner and meaner and meaner until you were saying things like, “You know, you remind me of chemotherapy.”
Keturah 12:50 [Laughter]
And occasionally we would do stuff, and they’d like the first ten, and they might really turn on the eleventh, and we’d lose, and we’d be boo’d off. So that was the...that was how I was making my living. A-Ha-Ha! Back in the naughty...that was in the nineties I think.
On the total...it’s not even the opposite side of that, but just sort of where you’ve come from there. You know I just read an article about your...I was going to say new translation, but I think it was last year that you did of The Merry Widow for ENO under Daniel Kramer, and...actually, I’m going to quote you, sorry. In the article, you say, “Most opera houses are deeply risk averse, at least in the US, which I think is a shame and a problem for the art form,” and then later you say, “You have to take risks sometimes to do good stuff, but the tendency is to go for a bland or incredibly esoteric piece. Translation: dull, and that’s a problem.” And I find you...talking about just British comedy, and working in British comedy, the US is certainly known for its conservative and provincial attitudes, and I was going to say about opera, but I kind of just think in general, and yet it creates the characters that you decided to put up on stage such as Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole. I’m actually not really sure there’s a question here, but I find it really interesting that we can be so crass and risky in our daily cultural intake, often to our own detriment, but our opera houses, which have been these sort of hallowed grounds of risky storytelling in Europe for so many generations, we seem so scared to disrupt. I’m just wondering, just, from your background of what we were just talking about, and then coming into this world and doing something like writing a version of the Merry Widow, like, what are your thoughts on that as an outsider looking into sort of the US take on opera, or just opera in general that way.
Well, I think I was probably...that was a bit of sour grapes on my part...
Fair enough, but you know, I don’t think you’re wrong actually.
I’ll tell you why that happened. But I think it was because...I’ll just say off the bat that Brooklyn Academy of Music did Anna Nicole, and it was an amazing production of it, and...it was the Royal Opera House production but it was cast in America, and it was...you know, it was wonderful, so they...
And can I just tell you, just as a brief pause, I lived down the street from Brooklyn Academy of Music when that was happening, and I just happened to be out of town when that was being put on, so that was...I can’t express to you how unhappy it makes me that I missed that because of a gig. Anyway, go ahead...
But I mean, anyway, they put it on then...but we got these rave reviews from the New York Times, and we thought, “Yeah! This is it. Ka-Ching!” Now off we go, this is going to do the rounds in the American opera world, but it didn’t at all, you know, I don’t think there was any take at all. Which I think was sad for Mark Anthony. He’s a wonderful composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, and I think you know, we were kind of expecting that. We were, you know, we thought, “Oh great, this will be a card changing experience, and we’ll get a bit of cash on the back end on the versions of it.” But that didn’t happen. But that is so...I think that was me being, “well, they’re just so risk averse.” But I think that the model in America of course is a subscription base, sort of...
It is. Yeah.
Yeah fiscal system, where as here, they get quite a big subsidy from the government, so there’s room to maneuver. I was speaking with somebody at the Met once and they said, “Well, there’s no way we could do something like Anna Nicole because, you know, our subscribers would be up in arms about it.” And I remember thinking “Oh, I wonder why I didn’t know that before”. But...
But I do find it interesting that I think that the...the audiences here for some reason...I think that’s absolutely correct. We aren’t subsidized here, and so the audiences don’t... I look more at the audience than I do at the company. Whereas I can understand the companies themselves being somewhat risk averse, I think audiences in Europe seem to be a little bit more risk taking. Maybe it’s just me sitting here in Tennessee, with my own thoughts about what I see over there and wondering what that is. But I think, you know, sour grapes aside, I don’t think it was a completely wrong view of what we come up against here as creators.
You know something, I work, so I sort of flip flop between comedy, musical theater, and opera. And opera generally, I’m not...that was a big gig, obviously the thing. The...but that was in...we did Anna Nicole back in 2012 I think. So the only other thing I’ve done in opera since then was The Merry Widow, so it’s not like I’m sort of like...
In it. Would you step back into it? Do you find the genre interesting to play in?
I would run back in a heartbeat. So I mean, when I was asked to do The Merry Widow, I said, “Yeah, of course.” And actually that’s...the Merry Widow...it wasn’t that we were, you know, this wasn’t the kind of savage crowbar satire that sometimes is attendant in my work, but it was lovely to do. I just kind of thought, “Yeah why not. Hell, this feels like a good idea.” And I’d learned German at school, and I was a...I knew there was going to be plenty of room to sort of readapt the lyrics, but also it was this interesting thing of having to pretty much match every syllable up to every note because they’re pretty, you know, they were pretty officious, you know, there was no leeway on that.
It’s a wholly other skill too, right? I mean it just is so different than...
But it was...yeah. But I mean the score is so amazing, and I didn’t...and you know, like most things I’ve done in my life, I’ve kind of learned on the job, you know, and that was one of them. That was the...but it was...you know, I enjoyed it, and it’s an incredible piece.
I want to actually talk about your work a little bit. So, Jerry Springer...so many articles I read just touted Jerry Springer: The Opera, which you wrote with Stewart Lee, to be the piece you’re most well known for. What was it about Jerry Springer that made you feel the need to bring this icon to stage?
Well, I think it was...first of all, you’ve got to remember, this was pre YouTube, and Broadband...
So we don’t really...so, when it came out, when the show, the Jerry Springer TV show was sort of synchronized (sic), we saw it on ITV or ITV-1, or whatever it was, it was such a shock. It was still quite a cultural phenomenon. NO one had ever seen anything like that. When you consider, you know, American TV output. It was, you know, amazing, and it was...and I’d gotten hooked on the shows. And so I remember coming back after a gig one night. I absolutely remember the day. I can see it clearly. And there’s this particular episode, everyone was screaming at each other, and they always used to beep out, you know, the swear words, at it was just a kind of, “Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep!”
I remember [Laughing]
And it really annoyed me because I thought, “well look, I’m committing this act of sort of salacious voyeurism watching this show. I’m committing this sin of, you know, I’m dipping into this, you know misery of others, and I’m not getting the full thing.” So if I’m...You know, and then I suddenly thought, what, you know, what does it remind you of? You know, eight people screaming at each other, each at the same time, you can’t understand a word they’re saying. It’s opera! You go, Oh! And I suddenly thought, actually...because I’d done Tourette’s Diva. It garnered huge laughs, you know, like cataclysmic swearing, and rants that I kind of thought, “Whoa, this is interesting. You seem to be getting more laughs than you deserve. The medium seems to lend itself to something in a way that’s quite interesting.” And the nature of the sound diminishes the violence of the text, so to speak, which is quite useful in comedy, which means you could be more angry, but still be funny. And so, I thought, well I’m going to do...well, the Jerry Springer Opera seems an obvious idea, and I just...well, the theater said, well... They were totally amenable. They said, “Are you sure this is...everyone is satirizing.” I said, “Ah, I’m not satirizing. I’m just going to do it.”
Right. I mean, what are you satirizing? It’s already its own parody.
Literally. And I kind of...I had this sort of liberation of the thing, of that being, “I’m just going to do it anyway. I don’t care. I don’t care if you put it...I don’t care if anyone does it. I’m doing it anyway.” It was back in the days when...and that gives you a lot of, you know, freedom. But what was great about the theater was, then so we did a one-person version of it where I did a lecture on how to write an opera about Jerry Springer, having not written it. And we did that to the paying public, because I...and so had about 90 people paying to come see that, you know, 3 or 4 pounds. And then we did a version with me playing piano, I was playing Jerry, and I had a few songs, and we did that in front of 60 or 70 people, but then a critic was in there and I went, “Oooh, what’s this?” And then the next one we did, there was 100 people, there was another critic in there, and suddenly there was this buzz, “Oh wow, what’s this going on?” And then we got some money to do a one-act version with twelve singers in this opera festival in South London, which is this...run by a guy called Tom Morris. He did War Horse, and he’s a huge director now, and all that. And that was a big hit. And it was, you know, in the middle of August, when no one’s really around in London. They’re all up at the Edinburgh Festival. But the talk of the Edinburgh Festival was this little show in London, and so, and you know, that’s when it all kind of took off.
Hearing the history of it is so great, because I remember when it came to the U.S. There were a few little shows of it in the US I think, and it had huge buzz.
Yeah. But it’s just too...I think it’s too...in the end, actually, you know, it’s not really a family show. Having said that, when it was at the National Theater in London, you got...sometimes you’d see three generations of families seeing it, and people loved it. So there was a sort of, you know, it’s been that sort of weirdly, culturally phenomenal show, if I can toot my own horn, but also kind of commercially tricky on a big scale.
But that seems to be sort of where you sit, right? Phenomenal show that’s a little commercially tricky? I think that’s...
In a way, I think you’re right, but I think it’s because it’s so...it can be so funny, that area. Yeah, no, you absolutely hit the nail on the head though. The area, you know, the grey area, it’s a blessing and a curse you know in some ways. But it’s definitely a comic blessing, and kind of irresistible, you know, I just think that... So the whole thing about the operatic voice diminishes the violence of it so you can get away with more, in a way. So when some...when you’ve got a chorus singing, “Kill all gays...”. I’m a gay human, I’m not...[unintelligable]. It somehow you get away with it that maybe you wouldn’t if it was just musical theater, or whatever, so you know. So it’s interesting.
I find that totally interesting just thinking about sort of, just the more traditional canon of works, is that there’s so many horrible things that are sung in giant choruses and by...some of the things that characters in Rigoletto or Tosca say to each other are awful, and yet somehow we find them absolutely palatable in the opera house. I mean part of it is that it’s a foreign language, so there is that, you know. But I find that really interesting.
I mean, you know, of course with the Anna Nicole, we really went there...the text and that was all surtitled and stuff, and you know. But also, I guess I spent so many years as a comedian and doing a double act. I mean I was a musical comedian sort of thing for about ten years at the very beginning of my career, and worked with a lot of really good...wrote numbers for some very big comedians here, and I was a music director on the TV shows for quite a few of them as well. So I learned a lot from that, I mean a hell of a lot from that. And so I think I had TV timing, which I brought to the stage a bit as well.
Well, and it makes sense then, that your characters, the people that you chose to exalt in an operatic fashion are TV personalities, for sure.
Mmmm. Yeah, and I think the thing I..I was so...the thing about, say, Jerry himself, what’s great about Jerry Springer is that... The irony of that show is that it’s not...certainly on the mid-season shows, on the mid-term as it were. They weren’t that...he stumbled onto it. This was not a plan of his, and the show became weirdly...this thing just happened, and it became massive. And so it was irresistible for them. But within that, he wasn’t judgmental. There’s a whole thing at the end where he goes, “Take care of yourself, and each other,” and stuff like that. But he did that thing, literally saying, “why would you do that?” You know, “Why would you say this to this person? Why would you do that?” There was this kind of...and I remember at one point thinking, well, “How does Jerry sing? Is it a tenorial sound, or is it a basso?” And then I suddenly realized, “Man, he’s already singing!” It’s that lovely kind of New York Jewish lilt. [imitating Jerry Springer] “Why would you do this? Why would you say that? Let me get this clear, are you saying? Are you...you seem to be saying...” And, that, combined with the fact that he didn’t actually know what was happening, so he’s reacting to it in real time, going...
Going, trying to work out, “So you’re saying, you did that to them, du dud ud dudud ud.” So him working it out and questioning them left little room for him to go, “Are you crazy? That’s an insane thing to do! Bla Bla Bla Bla Bla Bla!” You know, which a lot of the chat shows since...
yeah, you know, they were much more kind of judgmental, which is boring, and I’m not interested in that, I mean, that’s so... So yeah, so the non-judgmental Jerry Springer in a way. It was very fascinating, and I liked all that. It felt very interesting.
yeah, yeah. I remember watching the show...I mean I lived in Chicago when it first started, so it was sort of a local cultural phenomenon that happened. It’s really a very interesting moment in time because, you’re right, it can’t be reproduced. The stuff that’s come out later, it just doesn’t do it.
I mean in a way, like, Twitter is like impressions of Jerry Springer, I mean, Oh God! So it’s like, you know, this kind of cesspool of hate and anger and outrage is just like GRRRRRRR, you know. So, it was nice to get there first.
Yeah, for sure.
But in a way, Jerry Springer felt like this unique...this was the pioneer of that kind of stuff in the same way, you know, Anna Nicole is the first great reality show in a way.
Right. So let’s talk about Anna Nicole for a second, and you wrote this with Mark Anthony Turnage, of course. I was listening to this thing that you said where you...you said that she was so remarkably famous and yet people were hard-pressed to say what she actually did to become famous, and I find that... What was it about that fame for fame’s sake that you found so fascinating, or what was it about her that made you want to tell this story?
Well I think that, you know, number one the story is quite, you know, it’s...I find it hilarious, but it’s tragic as well. Actually, there’s two reasons why. Number one, it’s an incredibly contemporary tale on one level, but on another level, if she had been...if it had been set in the Court of Versailles and it was Duchess Anna and the Lawyer Baron Stern, and Prince...the old guy, you know, Prince whoever...Louis the whatever... You know, you have the love triangle, you have the intrigue, the families trying to get money out of it, the fights, the endless legal battles. It’s kind of quite a traditional tale in a way, you know, when you think about it.
It is, yeah. Sadly.
What was interesting about her was that, for somebody who’d been so chronicled on TV, so called 24-7, when you got down to it, it was actually quite hard to find out about the details of her life. When you dig into it, there was a couple of books written, not much. Again this was pre internet, pre Twitter, or just at the beginnings of the internet sort of thing. So there wasn’t that much to find, you know, there were no YouTube clips of her, there were no..you know what I mean? So you’re still at a guess as a character like that where you can just redefine yourself, recreate yourself, and you know, for better or for worse. And in her case, for better and for worse, you know.
Right. It started for better, and then sort of descended into for worse.
But in a way, you think about this now, I would imagine now since...in the last ten years of whatever, people are so self-archiving of selfies...you can find pretty much anything about anybody, right?
But um...I mean, I remember my grandfather, he was a Frenchman, he came over after, you know, after the First World War. And so he was just like, you know, he just pretended he was an aristocrat. No one checked it out.
Right. Yeah. Of course.
I don’t think Grandad was an aristocrat. I think he’s been fooling his whole life! He basically claimed he was a disinherited aristocrat who married a tiller girl, that was true. But there was nothing aristocrat about him, you bet your ass. But everyone was doing that between the wars, of course, because you had this chance just...and you’d land up on foreign shores, you’re quite exotic, you sound great. And you’d just redefine yourself, recreate yourself in this new image. Of course the problem with that is then you have to perpetuate the lie, and that has, you know, ramifications.
Well I also think it feels like it would be harder now to do that on so many levels because, yeah, because we’re everywhere.
yeah, well absolutely. Yeah exactly. And in a way Anna Nicole isn’t, or wasn’t then. And so you still have this mystique. So you have this famous person, and remember in a country that fame-ism is as powerful as money. I mean if you look in New York, for example, you can have all the money in the world, but if you want to still get social standing...if you’re a Broadway producer with a couple of hits under your belt and a bit of money, that is social standing on a very very high level, you know. And to be honest, you look at...you go to L.A., and fame is currency.
Fame is currency, yes.
yeah. So I loved this thing that you had...this person was just so famous, and it sort of created a synaptic overload for a lot of people because they thought, “Well, she can’t actually do anything but she’s so famous but...and she’s famous and deserving of respect, but she can’t actually do anything deserving of contempt.” Uh-Oh-Ooh So should I be respecting, contempt, respect, contempt, you know, because there’s plenty of people absolutely chasing every iota of fame they can. Using everything, every connection, all the money in the world, the education, the training and all that. She had none of that. And so, it’s just, you know...it’s an American dream-mare isn’t it.
American dream-mare, I love that. Yeah. It is an american Dream-mare, that’s...both Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole have these very real, very sort of in-your-face characters. What is your relationship with or reverence for their truth?
Oh that’s a real...that’s a great question. I suppose...well, I don’t, you know, they’re not documentaries, right? Anna Nicole, Jerry Springer The Opera are not documentaries. Like in the end I go, you know, well...who knows...I bet she was, like, you know maybe...by some accounts she was, you know, angelic, by other accounts she’s a complete nightmare, you know whatever. But, in this one, it’s like The Anna at heart, well The Anna Nicole, she’s a single mom trying to look after her kid, coming from a...you know, it’s a classic tale in a dirt poor place, who wants her dream. Well, actually she doesn’t even want a dream, she just wants to get out. Get out of here and get a chance, because if you stayed there are no chances. That’s a great...that’s a classic tale, and that’s kind of what I was telling. You know, I went to strip bars and lap dancing clubs and all that to interview people and say, “Well, what brings you here?”
Trying to get into the mind of why would you, and it was really useful, all that stuff. You don’t want to demonize or caricature people. So that you just try and give them as much of a compassionate point of view. That’s what’s interesting.
Do you like playing with that back and forth, sort of between this incredible comedy of the situation and the persona, and then the sort of deep seriousness of the...
Absolutely. I mean the story is so heightened. It’s so kind of funny, but then there’s...you know you’ve got the silicone implants and you know, breast enhancement on one level is sort of funny, but on another level it goes, well, that’s what gave her chronic pain, which would have been one of the factors which led to an addiction to very strong and fabulous opioids that...
...one, cost money, but then because of her position and her money and on and on, there’s a thing that was common there, probably still is, called “Doctor Shopping”. So you can get prescriptions anywhere, so it’s like, just get me them, I know they can be had, you know. Like with Michael Jackson it’d be like, you know, I want a doctor who can get me this.
I was just going to say, Michael Jackson did the same thing, and it was his demise.
And if a doctor won’t give it him, he’ll get sacked, and he’ll get someone else. So, there’s the party side to it, there’s also the chronic pain from having breast implants, which she saw, as a woman with not so much particular education or talent or whatever, apart from this magnetism she had. And her life, her life was that was what we’re monetizing. I mean, this is pre selfies and pre influencers and everything. I mean she was so ahead of the game, if you like. I mean she’d be like an influencer.
She was the beginning.
she’d be an influencer, wouldn’t she? Or she would have been too messy to be an influencer. So in a way, she’s there in time just before, you know, you’re going to be probably more professional now and more slick.
Yeah, you know, I was talking to Eva Maria about, Eva Maria Westbroek who, of course, was the original Anna Nicole in the opera. Just talking about...I think she sums it up really well when she talks about how...just how devastating her life was, and how she fell in love with this character because of all the trials and tribulations she went through, and how she would read the score and go through this with her, and then at the same time she would look at her schedule for the day and it would say, you know, “Pole Dancing Lessons.” And she just felt like this was like the absolute juxtaposition of the character and the opera itself.
I know. It was great, and it’s a difficult role. I mean, she’s on stage pretty much through the whole thing, and you know, you’ve got... But I think it’s...I mean...you get a lot...there’s a lot of loss to be had in it, I think as a role, I think it’s a fantastic...and of course you get the tragedy. I mean the tragedy is just so horrible. I didn’t really know the story when I first started it. I just thought, “Oh great,” I thought...but then it’s horrible. You know, when I read about, oh the son died of a drug overdose IN HER BED, in hospital, just a few days after shed given birth to the daughter, a part of me is just going, “oh this is so sad.” But the horrible librettist, sliver of ice in my arm, is going, “Oh yes! Here we go. This is gold.”
[Laughing] Found it.
Oh, we’re fine here. It’s going to be okay. Act III, Mark can just go, you can go deep and dark.
I want to go back and talk about Tourette’s Diva actually.
Because this is your...this feels like...and as you mentioned earlier, this was sort of the precursor to you sort of stepping into the opera world for...and can you just talk to me... First of all, confession, I have Tourette’s Syndrome, so that’s what...I do. I don’t have coprolalia. I don’t say curse words for no reason, but yeah, but I do have it. So any time I see anything that’s got Tourette written on it, I’m always like, “What is that? What is that?” So can you just talk about the piece and where it came from and what was behind it? And this was Edinburgh...you did this at Edinburgh Fringe in 2000.
Battersea Arts Center.
Okay. Uh-huh. Alright.
When Tom Morris ran it. He was just a powerhouse of the Fringe. I mean we just like...they were great. It’s in London basically, and his financial model is very simple. He says, “there’s a space, and you can do whatever you like in it.” And we go, i don’t know 60/40 on the tickets, but you can have the space. You’ve got to publicize it and do all the stuff, but that’s yours. And so there’s no up front money. You don’t have to pay any money up front, you just did it. And it was great because there were plenty of rooms everywhere, and it just became...you know...well, it just became this fantastic, creative melting pot of loons and, you know...
It was awesome. And he decided, well, I’m having the Battersea Opera Festival. It was just so grand as well, that it was like...and people go, “Really?” He started one up and that was it, and so, you know, so you had this...a lot of comedians would go. There’d be, you know, comedians and opera singers, and stuff like that, so there was sort of an inevitable coupling in a way.
But the story is basically...i mean it’s just this...I’ve always been interested about the, you know, the social filter. So when you say you have Tourette’s my understanding, again, is woeful, and it was even more woeful then....was that it was the lack of control, you know, where the social filter mechanism between what you think and what you vocalize...
Oh, it’s perverse. I mean, your brain actually, what it does, just to...you know... Is essentially your brain says, “Oh, you’re not supposed to do that in public,” and so therefore you do it. It truly is what it is. Oh, this makes you uncomfortable? Oh, we’re just going to do that for an hour and a half. That is essentially, you got it right.
I mean often...I think that, you know, there is, I guess there’s extreme examples where on a one to ten scale of Tourette’s, you’ve also got people who are maybe three or four, who think of a mean thing to say, and then they’ll say it. And that’s like...there’s always somebody in what...you’ll find a family member somewhere in the extended family who knows how to basically say the unsayable and just knock you down...find your weak point and knock you down. Tourette’s was sort of about that really, it’s about a...it’s kind of like a mother/daughter figure. It started out as one person and I made it a mother/daughter. And it’s, you know, it’s kind of like Grey Gardens plus, you know. Oddly, you’re not saying the horrors of it, of these two..I mean they’re just vile, horrible, but there’s also a strange kind of love. But it’s....you know...it’s somewhere between, I would say, again it was my first...I mean I hesitate to call it an opera, but say it was my first...it was a one act thing. It was more of a...I guess it’s between a song cycle and a one-act opera.
Sure. They do this. They mix.
Yeah. And it was just, you know...it was almost like a triumph of vileness and spite, and in spite of that there’s still a sort of love between the two. But they just, you know, it’s just an out pouring. But there’s beautiful surreal moments about...there’s one little song she’s talking about a former lover called “Turd-chomping Tim.” So it’s about a person who eats s**t. But its really gentle and beautiful. And I always say to these singers, “Do not. Do not caricature this. You’re singing this as a gift of serenity.” And it worked. And that’s the thing, I’m going, “Oh, this is interesting. I’ve stumbled onto something, and I’m going to use it again.”
And so with Jerry Springer: The Opera, I always have to do my speech whenever I see a production of it, I’d say to people, I’d beg them. I’d say, “Do not do any...don’t treat these characters. Do not judge these characters you’re singing. You must sing...”. So it’s a guy who’s singing about s**tting in a diaper, right? I said it’s an internal monologue, he had an internal monologue basically saying, ‘I’m only truly happy when I s**t my pants.” That’s his internal monologue. Say that’s...it’s about transcendence and beauty, don’t play it for laughs, you know.
Yeah. Well that’s the big rule for comedy anyway, right? That’s the whole rule.
Yeah. The trouble is, sometimes, you can..these arias, they get their laughs, and you want the extra laughs. You get greedy I think, as a performer sometimes you go, “Oh well, I...”. Whereas I go, I mean I used to have this little thing I’d say to people as well, especially before opening nights and stuff when everyone’s forgotten that and the piece isn’t even remotely funny, you know? That’s the problem with operas and stuff, and bad decisions are often made at the end before opening night because everyone’s forgotten that this was funny once. But I always say, “Listen, if they laugh, it’s comedy, if they don’t, it’s art.” And my point being, you should, you know, play the comedy, but also acknowledge the art. That way we transcend. You know, we’re in the transcendence business!
So, going forward with that, what’s your take on comedy as a serious form of storytelling? I ask this because I think it is, and I think it sometimes gets relegated to the sidelines when we’re talking serious art.
Well, I guess not...I think not in England, I don’t think. I think we have a tradition...umm...number one, the comedy industry here is huge, or well it was before pandemic, but I mean it will come back.
Everything was bigger before pandemic.
That notwithstanding, it was huge...it was like the new rock and...it was what...and so we have a bunch of comedians, you know, you could be a middle rung comedian and earn a really good living. But also, there’s room for serious avant-garde lunatic...lunacy, with you know...there are a few bi-polar comedians here doing amazing stuff. That’s kind of like, you can’t believe what they’re doing, but there’s room within the comedy world. There’s a great place here called The Savoy Theater, and their programming is awesome, you know, they’ll have sometimes nine shows on a night in the three venues, and people can...you know, you can make money there. But the range is huge, and that’s great. Comedy’s a great...what I love about it is that it requires of the extremes of reaction, which is silence and laughter. The set-up is about, “I want a, you know, pin drop silent engaged concentration, and then a release of laughter.” [Clapping hand]. Which of course is... so to control that over a two hour period so that, you know, is tricky, and it requires an apprenticeship, and I did it. I did a ten-year apprenticeship, doing a double act up and down the country, most of the time did okay, but a not insubstantial amount of time being boo’d off by you know...inanimate objects. We were doing a gig in a boxing ring and we were being boo’d terribly, and eventually these prostitutes stripped this man naked and threw him at us. It’s the most extreme heckle I’ve ever caught.
That’s pretty serious [Laughing]
It was early in my career, and I didn’t have a put down for it. We were in shock, we were quite young, and we were in the middle of a boxing ring with a piano doing these little funny songs. “Look at us, our funny song. Hahahahaha!” And it was just carnage.
And this nude man comes flying at you.
It was carnage. Those are the lessons, and you go, “Okay, well, what did I learn from that?” And I think at the time I don’t think, “well, I don’t know what I”m learning from that part. That was incredibly quite a terrifying type of experience.” And deeply upsetting. And then you know you have some other places and all that. And on the other side...on the other hand, when it goes well it’s great, and you learn the mechanics of that. So often we’d...and Mark was great about this stuff. Mark would say, “Look, we need to learn the gag here.” Especially in Act I, he said, “We have to learn the laughs. I think we know where this is going, and reserve the really dark hard stuff”. We’ve got room for that, but there’s a levity we’ve got to keep here, and I can help you with the timing. Literally the “Crotchet Crotchet du du dum,” like that. [Unintelligible]. “Seems to me you’re moving, the orchestra’s playing just before the point...the orchestra’s playing on the punch line, and it stops before”. I said, “That doesn’t make comic sense. That’s where we want the laugh, and everything has to, sort of, fit in with that, and if it’s too high...if the vocal writing...” He was very good, he was very good, because obviously, you know, a lot of composers wouldn’t take that, but I said, “the vocal writing’s too high. It needs to be conversational.” Ba-du-du-du-du, dub dub - HA! You know what I mean, if we want this to land.
Yeah, there’s something about the collaboration of somebody who maybe isn’t used to the comedy writing that you were able to sort of aid.
And I kind of thought everybody knew how to do that, but that was a dumb assumption, obviously. And also, because I’d written for the opera device in the club...of course, we didn’t have surtitles just about that. It was in such a kind of combative arena of hate and violence. They had to understand it the first time, so I learned to write...you know, where does the consonant start. A simple thing would be like this: If you were doing a melisma like, “aaaaaaaaa” [singing a melisma]. Whatever, you know, you then make sure that by the end of it you repeat the whole word.
So, for example, not funny but if you go, if the thing you’re singing is “I hate you,” and you go, “I haaaaaaaaaaaaaate you” [Singing the hate on a melisma]. Now, by the time you got to the “...te you.”
You’d forgotten it.
You’d forgotten it. So you’re going to go, ‘Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii - I hate you!” [singing the I on a melisma]. Like that. So you get the virtuoso plus the punch line, or whatever...you know.
So they can sing on the vowel and still hit the consonants.
You have the melisma in all its glory, but then you knock out the line out the end. Bam Bam Bam. I know that seems obvious, but to me it wasn’t then, and I learned that it had...how can we...this is a problem because they don’t understand it and we keep getting boo’d off, you know what I mean? The stakes were relatively high, you know. Of course, when you’re engaged in a show like that, you had to stay on a certain length, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t get paid. So I was doing these tours, and you know, if you’re booked for, say, a fourteen minute set, you’d have to be able to survive fifteen or twenty before...you know what I mean? So if you’re losing them at ten or fifteen, then you’re going to have trouble getting paid because...
So would you consider yourself a sort of learn the hard way, like a throw me in the fire and I’ll figure it out sort of person when it comes to how you are as an artist?
I think I did learn the...I suppose that’s a really good question, I suppose, you know...I kind of, I think the comedy world, as I said before I love it. I think it’s one of the great...It’s quite...you know, there’s a lot to learn, and experience is the only way you learn it initially, so it was...I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a pretty, you know...there are loads of other stories. It was a pretty intense ten years. But luckily, war tales came back, you know, not to haunt me...well, they haunt me but I go, “Awww, I know exactly how Anna might be feeling right now in her strip club when she’s just like...when no one’s looking up because her breasts aren’t big enough, because she hadn’t quite found...”. That’s like, you know, and so you get, you know...and then, but also, so I’m going back to the show. You know, there’s this moment of kindness when they teach her, this is what you need to do, and...So, I don’t know, there’s this sort of camaraderie there as well.
Yeah, I mean I feel that in...opera has this reputation for being a little bit...well, it has a reputation for being a lot elitist, but I often find that inside, people are much more willing to sort of impart information and be a little kinder to those who are stepping into it for the first time. It’s scary, I think, at first.
I think that, I mean on the comedy side the trouble with opera is you don’t get any...there’s no previews.
I know. Believe me, I direct opera, I know.
So you can imagine something like Anna Nicole. So what I did with that, and the Royal Opera House to their credit and to my eternal gratitude is that, you know, we managed to negotiate like four workshops over time, so it was like a course of two years. You know, workshop number one was half of act I, then workshop number 2 was the whole of act I, then the same for act II. And then luckily they were very kind and gave us a fifth one and we did the whole thing. So, and I remember saying to Mark, “These aren’t workshops. These are previews.” And we filmed them and all that sort of stuff, and looked back at them. And it was funny...and it’s amazing what you learn. So there used to be a big court scene that we wrote and...and I remember watching it afterwards, and thinking at the time thinking that it went really well. But then I remember calling Mark Anthony saying, “ah, did you watch the videos yet?” I said, “I fell asleep in the court scene.” I said, “I don’t think that’s a good sign.” He goes, ‘You know, you’re right.” [Unintelligible] It’s just not that interesting, it’s like who cares? And so, so we learned from that. And again that shows how...he was great about that as well. Because I think a lot of composers are like, here’s, you know, okay I have the libretto, and that’s it, goodbye.
Nice working with you.
That’s not how you write. That’s not your lane. I think also, if I was honest, I think in the...in the opera world there are big careers and people are booked so far ahead. It’s quite rare I think that you...that...to have someone like Eva Maria, for example, who was the most generous-hearted person to just go, embrace the material and not you know...she didn’t demand any...there were not any like “Oh I can’t sing that vowel on that note” there was none of that. “I won’t sing that word.” I mean, it’s all in there. She was absolutely awesome, and she created that role, and it was wonderful for us, she was, you know...and I was very lucky because in a way that was my first big...and I thought, “Oh, I wish it was like this...”.WRONG! You know..
But I guess, on the other hand, she’s a big big star, and maybe she doesn’t have to worry, whereas I think other opera singers think, “well, I need...my first priority isn’t necessarily production or the material, it’s how I sound, and I’m not going to compromise that,” you know, and I think that’s problematic.
Yeah, it is. I think you do...there are...It really depends on where you are in your career whether or not you...how much you can embrace without feeling...yeah, it’s something that, as a director, I certainly come up against quite a bit and have to deal with.
Oh, I bet. Yeah, that’s interesting. And I suppose in a way, with comedy, it’s all about risk. You’re failing on a daily basis, you know what I mean?
It’s also about ugliness, and I don’t mean that in an awful way, I just mean that to do comedy right you have to not care what you look and sound like once in a while, and that’s very hard for opera singers. That’s not what they were raised in.
Oh, that’s really true. Yeah.
I want to actually go way back for you, and I want to ask you about one more thing that you’ve done. I wish I had a lot of time to ask you about all the things, because you have a whole musical theater life that I haven’t really asked you about. But I want to actually ask you about Kombat Opera Presents.
Which was, I think, before all of these things we’ve discussed, correct? Or not?
You mean the TV series?
Yes. Where did it sit in the world?
No, that was...oh that was after...pretty soon after Jerry Springer: The Opera
It was, okay.
Jerry Springer: The Opera originated in the National, and then went to the West End, and then back at BAC. BBC said, do you want to do something? And I said well, how about these five little half hour operas, and again, based on subjects...TV subjects. They’re half an hour.
They’re almost used as you took television shows and almost made parody of them through...by creating an opera about them. What is it about turning these things into opera that makes them feel like parody, or what was it about these subjects that felt specifically like opera would parody them well.
My guess, to be honest, no one else is really doing it.
And I...so...and also, again, people underestimated how well these things are put together, you know. So, the actual editing on a lot of those like Wife Swap and all of those, and like The Apprentice was so brilliant, you know. So you go, in a way...and I think also, it’s that thing of normal, you know, normal people doing stuff, and it’s going back to comedy and saying, just not being afraid of being uncomfortable or ugly or just embarrassing, so you’ve got all that to play with. But at the same time, because people weren’t so sort of polished in terms of...you know, I think as they are now. Because you know, I guess anybody who’s under 25 who’s got a phone has just...is like...we’ve got a whole generation of presenters who are not afraid of the camera. Because they didn’t have that. People weren’t so slick in a way. And that’s always been funny, isn’t it? People trying to be grand and failing at it. Failing is one of the great laughs, isn’t it, you know?
Failing is one of the great laughs, one of the great tragedies, it’s all of it. Failing is sort of what opera has made its...all of its storytelling about.
yeah, that’s true, you’re right, that’s true. But also, some of them were quite upbeat. The end was quite upbeat, it just felt like a...I’ll be honest with you. I’ve stumbled into everything I’ve done, I’ve gone, “Yeah, that feels like a good thing to do. Let’s do it.” And I only learn by the midpoint or the endpoint...I only learn when I’m too far down the path whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, and I mean, you go...but by which point it doesn’t matter anyway, whether it’s good or bad, you’ve lost a kind of clear judgement on whether it was the right or wrong thing to do.
Richard, thank you so much. This has been the most wonderful conversation.
Well, bless you. Good luck with all that, and I can’t wait to see where you are.
Richard Thomas has a full season of musical theater and cabaret work next year, but I hope we can get him back to the opera soon. Thank you to both Richard and Eva Maria Westbroek for today’s conversations, and thank you for listening. I’m Keturah Stickann.
60:39 - Mozart played on a piano
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