Showing posts with label Royal Opera House. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Royal Opera House. Show all posts

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Royal Opera House 2015-16: JDCMB's top choices



Yesterday the Royal Opera House held its big press conference to announce the new season. And it's a goodie. There was so much to announce that chief executive Alex Beard gently told Antonio Pappano he had to wind up his speech so they could move on. "I'm a Sir, and don't you forget it!" laughed the irrepressible music director.

During the question session an American journalist asked about attendance figures. Some houses in the US have problems, he suggested, with actually getting people to go and see things. How are sales doing here? Kasper Holten, head of opera, told him that for the past season the operas have averaged around 94 per cent. Kevin O'Hare, artistic director of the Royal Ballet, modestly added that for ballet it's been more like 98-99%.

I get the feeling they are doing something right. A mixture of balancing old and new repertoire and productions, scheduling the right number of performances of each piece, setting the ticket prices at levels which - if still steep to many - still do a rather healthy trade. In the new season there are some ambitious and radical treats alongside a fair few war-horses with exciting singers. Eight new productions. A new full-scale opera commission from Georg Friedrich Haas. New ballets with new scores to be written for our top choreographers by Lowell Liebermann, for Liam Scarlett's first full-length ballet, Frankenstein, Mark-Anthony Turnage, for a new Christopher Wheeldon ballet; and Esa-Pekka Salonen for a new work by Wayne McGregor. An eagerness on Tony Pappano's part to get the orchestra out of the pit and playing in its own right on the stage - which would, of course, also give us the chance to hear the maestro exploring non-operatic repertoire, a treat that we don't hear often enough in London.

One name, amongst the very many being trumpeted, was missing. Oh dear, what is this - a Kaufmann-free season? A brand-new Cav'n'Pag starring...Aleksandrs Antonenko. Tosca starring...ooh, the excellent Franceso Meli, which is great in itself, but...? On the way out to the coffee and pastries, rumblings were going on: WHERE'S JONAS?

Well, I found him. Buried deep in the pages of the brochure, there he is, singing...two performances of what is tipped to be the last revival of Francesca Zambello's production of Carmen. Kaufmaniacs might like to put 14 and 16 November in their diaries.

Aside from that, here are my personal must-sees of the opera season.

1. The aforementioned new Cav'n'Pag - Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, conducted by Pappano, directed by the exciting young Italian, Damiano Michieletto, and starring Eva-Maria Westbroek, Carmen Giannattassio and, in both tenor roles, Aleksandrs Antonenko. "There is another tenor besides Jonas Kaufmann," declared Pappano. "He's a great singer." Holten told us that the production will be set in southern Italy in the 1980s - "but it hasn't changed much since then." Pappano's presence in the pit would alone be enough to get me running to this.

2. A revival of Holten's Eugene Onegin. Yes, really. It got largely hideous reviews, but I rather loved it. It's apparently having something of an overhaul and there's a thrilling cast: as Tatyana, the young Australian soprano Nicole Car, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, Michael Fabiano as Lensky, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Prince Gremin and Semyon Bychkov conducting.

3. An actual staging of an opera by Chabrier. L'Etoile, a rare opéra bouffe by the sparkling French master, to be staged by Mariame Clément and conducted by Mark Elder. I can feel the fresh air zipping in already.

4. Rare repertoire, top that? Yes: here comes my pin-up hero Enescu (honest, guv, I've a big poster of him above my piano, brought from Bucharest), and his opera Oedipe, the latest in the ROH's splendid focus on early 20th-century operas that can use some attention. Fabulous cast includes Johan Reuter, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Sarah Connolly, Claudia Huckle, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Alan Oke and more. Conductor: Leo Hussain, director Alex Ollé.

5. Gerald Barry's The Importance of Being Earnest is back, this time being performed at the Barbican. I couldn't get in last time and it sounds like a seriously hilarious must-see.

6. New commission, Morgen und Abend, from the composer Georg Friedrich Haas and librettist Jon Fosse, based on the latter's novel. Graham Vick directs. Apparently it begins with a huge monologue for the great German actor Klaus-Maria Brandauer. It's a co-commission with the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

7. At the ballet, besides all those brilliant pieces with brand-new scores, The Winter's Tale is being revived, as is Raven Girl, they're going to do Ashton's The Two Pigeons for the first time in 30 years, and there's a new Carmen (to Shchedrin's version) from Carlos Acosta. (See my interview with him in the latest edition of About the House Magazine. He is even more lovely than you think.)

That's just the very tip of a warm sort of iceberg that includes a new Lucia di Lammermoor, a Tannhauser revival complete with Gerhaher as Wolfram, an ambitious project based around Orpheus and featuring a new staging of Gluck's eponymous opera with John Eliot Gardiner bringing in his own orchestra (though many of us are sure the ROH's own orchestra would have done it just as splendidly) and being directed by both John Fulljames and the choreographer Hofesh Schechter, an all-dancing as well as all-singing job, and with no less than Juan Diego Flórez in the lead, with Lucy Crowe as his Eurydice. Other stars aplenty: Karita Mattila in Ariadne auf Naxos, Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, Venera Gimadieva and Rolando Villazón in Traviata, Bryn Terfel singing Boris Godunov for the first time in a new production by Richard Jones.

The new website of Opera Europa will soon be making it easier for us all to see live-streamings from 15 different European opera houses in one website, the ROH included, and an increasing capacity for co-productions is beginning to feed Covent Garden's plans as it does ENO.





Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mahagonny rising and falling

Sobering to wake up the morning after this particular opera to see on the news scenes of devastation from the cyclone in Vanuatu. A hurricane is the central force - in some senses - of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Brecht and Weill show us the impact on the city's collective psyche of nature's approaching Armageddon, turning the place from deathly, over-regulated calm to equally deathly venal over-permissiveness. The hurricane, though, takes a "detour" - despite the "footnotes - of which Brecht & Weill are unaware" that the director at Covent Garden, John Fulljames, brings us.

Yes, Mahagonny, written in the late twenties and premiered in 1930, feels as if it could have been written yesterday, in certain ways. But that is not because of the hurricane, even though there was one. It's because of the corruption, the moral vacuity, the drunkenness, the greed, the selfishness, the falsity. Focusing on climate change, which is specific to our times, but was not to the late 1920s, at the expense of these other qualities, specific to all times, is only the first of many problems I had with the production and the performance. (Reviews so far have been mixed,  but I don't seem to have seen the same show as any of them.)

The trial scene, including Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick (centre)
and Kurt Streit as Jimmy (right, on the box).
(c) ROH, photo by Clive Barda
Dystopian societies were order of the day for composers, film-makers and authors in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Think of them: Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (published 1932), Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane (- yes, really - 1927), and that's just for starters. One can trace influences to the rise of the Soviet Union, the seismic devastation left by World War One barely ten years earlier, the runaway inflation that followed it in Germany and Austria, the boom and fearful bust of the late 1920s, the rise and rise of the USA and its skyscrapers (construction of the Empire State Building began in 1929). As John Fulljames put it when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, Brecht's vision is "America with a k"- the work is set there because that was the new place, the boom place, but it's an imaginary version of the country: today you might perhaps choose Dubai or Shanghai.

The production has one desperately powerful and chilling concept. It is built - by Es Devlin's inspired design - around shipping containers, which double as brightly coloured houses rising as far as the eye can see. But when you see a shipping container, what do you think of? Personally, I can't help associating them with people being smuggled and suffocated therein. Early on in this opera, a chorus of men in grey suits and hats - implicitly western city workers - are herded into a container to be taken to Mahagonny. The staging, with its climate change warning, points to our own likely dystopia: we will all have to flee our cities and find somewhere new to go, because, as Brecht puts it, translated by Jeremy Sams, we don't need hurricanes, "we're spoiling the world just fine."

Brecht does like to bash us over the head with his messages, though. He can never simply put a fable in front of us and let us draw our own conclusions. A good red pen wouldn't have gone amiss from time to time. The four lumberjacks from Alaska who are destroyed by the place, one by one - except for Billy - recap their words about the terrible winters and the great pine trees they felled so often that a gentle excision or two wouldn't have hurt - except that I suspect Brecht would have given you a black eye if you'd tried.

Another problem, though, for which we can't entirely blame Brecht & Weill: strophic songs are awkward on an opera stage. This stage especially. The set takes up most of the space, so the action is confined principally to the very front. When it acquires more than two dimensions, it goes upwards into split levels. Perhaps that solves part of the intimacy problem - it's a large house for not a large troupe and a piece in which words are all-important - but there's less room to play with and the fable-like nature of the story perhaps invites a more symbolic, static approach than a naturalistic scenario might. But in short, there's not enough going on in the strophic songs. Yes, we need to focus on the words - but we need a little more action, too, or the pace can really sag, and it does.

In similar fashion, many of the cast are under-characterised. These individuals are archetypes, of course, but they need to come to convincing life. Only our hero, Jimmy McIntyre - sung magnificently by Kurt Streit - assumes a measure of actual personality. Even Christine Rice, in fabulous voice as Jenny the prostitute, could give the role more nuance; when she refuses to help Jimmy, who loves her, it should probably come as a sickening shock, but doesn't. Then there's Anne Sofie von Otter as Widow Begbick - one wants to admire her, given that she is a magnificent artist and one of today's very great singers, but this role needs an overwhelming presence, a true battle-axe personality, and neither she nor her direction - which turns her into a dip-dye-pink-haired Estuary type - provides enough of that essential force. (Have a look at the extracts on Youtube of Patti LuPone in the role in the US). Sir Willard White is a brilliant Trinity Moses; one wants more of him. Peter Hoare as Fatty does not have much to do either, but his very presence, standing still and smoking, carries a fabulous weight of imagery. The singing is often operatically beautiful, especially from Streit and Rice - and according to Jeremy Sams, whom I interviewed for my article last week, so it should be. Full marks to orchestra, chorus and Mark Wigglesworth on the podium.

For me, the message of Mahagonny is not about what Brecht puts on stage, but what he doesn't. If this society is eating itself away through ennui and self-destructiveness, feeling something's missing, why? What is it that is missing? Try these:

No families. The only women on stage are prostitutes and the Widow Begbick. No children. No older people. The men can have sex, but apparently only with women who are doing it for money.
No art. The populace possesses nothing creative, nothing expressive.
No sport or fitness or teamwork. They do have bare-knuckle boxing, which is singular and kills its combatant.
No community. Every man (and it's mostly men - but it's true of Jenny too) for himself.
Nothing for people to do except indulge their basest appetites well beyond their hearts' desires. No orchestras or painting classes, that's for sure.
No education.
No history.
Nothing to encourage any actual sense of humanity or kindness or relationship.

Only money, appetite and self-interest have any value here. There is one grim reference to religion, right at the end. Brecht bashes us on the head with it, and so does Fulljames, turning Jimmy's execution into a scene reminiscent of the Crucifixion.

Some of this is also why the updating doesn't quite work. The nature of the piece is much of its own day; there isn't space within it to turn it into a convincing picture of our own times and the make-up of our society. Filmed images of the front of the ROH and the blown-up bus in Russell Square 2005 do little to help.

Inside us all there is, perhaps inevitably, a personal opera-director who pipes up: "I want to see it like this instead..." My mini-me would like to see it set...
...in Germany, in 1930. Performed as it might have been then (and in German - I liked the translation and can see why it perhaps needs to be done in translation, but I'd rather hear it in German anyway). I would set it as a play within a play, amid the society it would have been in; people impoverished, desperate, surrounded by the rise of fascism, with the work's message bowling out loud and clear and horrific. "Nothing can be done to help the living," goes the final chorus, sending us out thoroughly depressed. Brecht and Weill don't leave 'em laughing. No redemption here. Imagine that message in Germany three years before Hitler took power.

'Nuff said. Shudder. I'm off to comb my cats.




Sunday, March 08, 2015

Brecht and Weill: the bite lives on

Here's a piece I wrote for The Independent about Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, which opens at the Royal Opera House on Tuesday. It's never been staged there before and it's about time. It stars Sir Willard White, Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice and many more, and is staged by John Fulljames with a new translation by Jeremy Sams.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/brecht-has-lost-none-of-his-bite-how-the-message-from-a-1920s-opera-resonates-today-10094014.html

This exploration of the opera's themes by Will Self is well worth a watch, too.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Making a splash with Der fliegende Holländer

Royal Opera House, 5 February 2015. ****
(This is my review for The Independent, now online here.)

Adrianne Pieczonka as Senta, with the chorus of ghost sailors
Photo: Clive Barda

Before the opening night of Der fliegende Holländer some of the Royal Opera House Orchestra had already taken a soaking; apparently the patch of on-stage sea for act III found its way into the pit at the dress rehearsal. But Tim Albery’s Olivier Award-nominated staging, first seen in 2009, is an immersive and immersing experience, pulling you into its depths even if you don’t get splashed en route.

Like many of the most interesting Wagner productions, it is not overloaded with activity, but homes in on human interaction, within elemental shapes; the basic concave shell could be a sail, a wave, a ship’s belly, or the slope of the shore’s hillside. Dark, stark and strong, it is impressively lit by David Finn, with intriguing angles, sometimes harsh, sometimes beautiful, usually symbolic. There seems no need to interpret to excess. Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman comes across not as psychosis, but a genuine love; at the end, instead of throwing herself into the sea, the poor girl seems to die of grief. The mini model ship, though, sometimes feels like a prop too far.

There are two ways, very broadly speaking, to treat this opera. It can emphasise the influence of its musical roots, including Italian bel canto, Weber and Marschner (his Der Vampyr); or it can look forward to the composer’s mature masterpieces. It can be gothic horror with high emotion and great tunes; or a dusky foreshadowing of the philosophical drives that Wagner brought to bear on the Ring cycle and its companions. This account is the latter in no uncertain terms: Albery’s atmospheric staging and Andris Nelsons’s spacious conducting combine into a seriously grown-up angle.

Bryn Terfel’s Dutchman is so strongly characterised that the doomed seaman’s entire history seems visible at his first entrance, weary and burdened, dragging the ship’s rope around his shoulders; vocally he paces himself finely, saving the strongest for last as the dramatic tension peaks. As Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka is simply magnificent, with a warm and radiant voice that melts in its lower register and cuts higher up, and the ability to inhabit the role to heartbreaking effect. The central pair are more than superbly supported by Peter Rose as Senta’s father, Daland; tenor Michael König is a lyrical Erik; and in smaller roles the contributions of Ed Lyon as the Steersman and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mary were outstanding. One of the night’s biggest plaudits, though, goes to the chorus: the terrifying clash of the locals and the ghost ship’s crew in act III packs a massive punch.

Some elements perhaps still need to settle a little; on this opening night it was hard not to wonder whether Nelsons’ drawn-out tempi challenged sustaining power too much. The overture dragged surprisingly – not aided by the hypnotic waves of grey curtain rolling from left to right – but Nelsons’ skill as an accompanist with forensic control of line and texture allows the singers to shine without shouting, to be supported without ever being drowned.


Thursday, February 05, 2015

Bryn Plus

I had a wonderful interview with Bryn Terfel last week and it is in today's Independent, here. Bryn sings the lead in Der fliegende Holländer at Covent Garden, opening tonight.

Here are a few bonus bits of the interview.


Bryn on...Andris Nelsons (who conducts the Wagner tonight):

"The first time I met him was in Birmingham - and then I heard the Boston Symphony Orchestra had snapped him up. He’s married to Kristine Opolais,of course, which will only make him an even better conductor of singers – but he can sing! Goodness gracious, you should hear his voice. He's a stunning bass-baritone and he loves to sing from the pit- and he laughs and winks at you. From what I hear, the orchestra loves him as well. Isn’t that a great formula already? Who knows where he’ll go?"

Bryn on...his foundation to help student musicians:


"Whatever I do concertwise now, the money I get for that goes to the foundation. I need to work a little bit harder, maybe, on getting people to invest some of their money into the youth of my chosen career, so I’ve given some nmoney to young Welsh singers, I’ve given some mopney to a young accordionist who's doing really well at the moment, Ksenija Sidorova, I gave her a little foundation money – I’m sure that any student coming out of college would like some help. So that’s something for the future. In the next 10 years I’m going to home in on my foundation. I started it because I heard from students that they were coming out of university with debts and that made me think that maybe they need the money now, while they’re still in college. So the money I’ve given to students, they’re in college now, spending it. And there’s no stipulation about what they can spend it on – they can buy shoes, a car, a dress – and these are things you need as a performer. I’ll never forget Sir Geraint Evans telling me: 'Buy a new suit.' And he was right. Because that generation, thety’d come to rehearsal in a three-piece suit! I’ll never forget who I got money from. Capital Radio gave me £500 once. The Kathleen Ferrier Scholarship I won was £5000 and that was really important for extra coaching and extra language coaching."

Bryn on...the great pianists:

"I’ll never forget going to hear Martha Argerich play with the young Verbier Symphony, full of kids under 25 years old. I sat there with Peter Gelb and he said 'It’ll be brilliant tonight.' I can guess a pianist will be brilliant by the names, but to hear piano music being played I need to study a little more, I think, on the difference between brilliant and mediocre, because I think they’re all fantastic. And Peter said that at the end of Horowitz’s career he was his agent and filmed him playing in Moscow for the last time. He said they didn’t want to film him from the front of the audience, so he had the camera on Horowitz from behind - and looking through into the audience, all these Russian people were sobbing. But he said Horowitz had said to him: 'Only one pianist will take over what I’ve started, and it’s Argerich'. So I was about to listen to this woman – I listen to a lot of Horowitz anyway on Youtube - his White House soirées with presidents are recorded on video. So that was one of the most exciting evenings I’d ever had, having heard that story."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Opening tonight: this



Sick as the proverbial parrot this morning because yesterday a friend offered me a ticket for the first night of Andrea Chénier at Covent Garden tonight - and I can't go. And they're in short supply, to put it mildly. In this all-too-rare opera, Jonas Kaufmann stars as a poet during the French Revolution who takes up his pen against hypocrisy - and is killed for it. Sound familiar? Anyone who continues to worry about the "relevance" of opera need look no further.

Eva-Maria Westbroek
photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke

For those of us who can't get into the real thing, there is a cinecast on 29 Jan.

Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading my interview with the fabulous Eva-Maria Westbroek, who sings the role of Chénier's beloved  Maddalena, in the January issue of Opera News. Follow the link here.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Perturbed by Poppies

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/tom-piper-and-orfeo-from-poppies-to-opera-9961278.html
My interview with theatre designer Tom Piper from yesterday's Independent. The man behind the Poppies at the Tower is now doing Monteverdi's Orfeo at Covent Garden/The Roundhouse, but he had quite a few things to say about commemorations, crowds and critics. It made the News page.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Free ZooNation! Mad Hatter's Tea Party to be LIVE STREAMED

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party: ZooNation in rehearsal
Photo: David Sandison
I spent an utterly enthralling and invigorating few hours at the ROH the other week watching ZooNation rehearse its new family show for the Linbury, The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, and then writing about it. Huge respect for these amazing dancers who work so hard but manage to create so much fun while doing so. Full feature is in the Independent today along with a photo gallery from the rehearsals.

The show - the first-ever commission in hip-hop style from the ROH - runs from Saturday until 3 January, but the theatre has just announced that the performance on 18 December will be live-streamed on a) the Royal Opera House's Youtube channel and b) the BBC Arts website. If what I saw is anything to go by, it's going to be both terrifically danced and terrifically bonkers - and the tickets have been going like the proverbial hot cakes. Indeed, it's pretty much sold out - just a few tickets left now for Saturday 13 Dec 12.30pm - so you may have to log on to share the fun with ZooNation's dazzling stars Tommy Franzen, Lizzie Gough, Teneisha Bonner and, of course, 'Turbo'.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The secrets of the great Domingo



In case you missed this wonderful web stream from the Royal Opera House yesterday, watch it here now. Tony Pappano interviews Plácido Domingo about his extraordinary career, singing baritone instead of tenor, and much, much more.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

No tittering at Anna Nicole

Went to Anna Nicole last night at the Royal Opera House, and took with me an American friend who was seeing it for the first time. She thought Richard Thomas's libretto was brilliant, which it is, and she laughed at the jokes, of which there are many.

At the start of the interval, the besuited guy in front of us turned round and told her to stop laughing.

Problem: this opera is meant to be funny.

The librettist would have been overjoyed to get such a positive reaction (elsewhere in the house sharp intakes of breath could be heard around some of the filthier lines). So would the composer. So would the performers; there's nothing worse than uttering something that's meant to be hilarious and eliciting...well, polite silence.

Meanwhile the management is doing its best to open up access and encourage wider appreciation of its artforms. Nobody I know in the echelons of musical performers and creators is remotely stuffy or elitist; everyone, but everyone, wants the audience to enjoy their work. The whole music world is falling over backwards trying to open itself up to bigger, broader audiences.

But frankly, if other opera-goers won't let people laugh at the jokes, what hope is there? All that effort - straight down the drain. Deity-of-choice [to quote the opera], help us all.

This incident is a nice little supplement to the time a critic was spotted telling off a small African-American child in the RFH (remember that?) and the occasion on which another one told me and my niece to stop laughing at a Prom - the incident being a pianist who as his post-concerto encore played a fugue on a Lady Gaga song, and my niece was the only one of us who actually knew what it was. If I've personally encountered such situations three times in just a few years - and I am press, for goodness sake - then I shudder to think what other people are being subjected to out there.

My friend, incidentally, comes from Detroit, which is one reason she laughed so much - for her, the portrayal of the background to Anna Nicole's trailer-trash early life rings all too true. Now she lives in Berlin and is one of the more vital movers-and-shakers in the classical music world. She sees it as her mission to help find ways for this industry to move ahead in new directions, a forum where the community of music-makers around the world can work together to create an innovative, forward-looking future. Her organisation is called Classical:NEXT. Bring it on.

[UPDATE: For those who are still not sure what Anna Nicole is all about, here is a preview from the ROH. It's a tragicomedy by Mark-Anthony Turnage, based on the true story of Anna Nicole Smith. The end is desperately sad, but the first half is full of wit and wordplay. The librettist Richard Thomas also wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera]

Sunday, August 31, 2014

"It's got to be obsessive." Meet Mark-Anthony Turnage

I went to see Mark-Anthony Turnage the other week to talk to him about the revival of Anna Nicole that is to open the Royal Opera House's new season (11 Sept). Article is in the Independent now and the uncut version is below. First, a taster: the PARTAY scene with the amazing team of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole and Gerald Finley as Howard Stern... 

One more thought: isn't it also high time someone staged his earlier opera The Silver Tassie again? 





The premiere of Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage, in 2011, was unlike any other the Royal Opera House has experienced. The foyer was plastered with images of the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith, complete with supersized fake breasts; and on the stage’s red velvet curtains the initials for the Queen, ER II, were replaced with “AnR”. This startling transformation of empty celebrity into high art is back to open the Royal Opera House’s new season on 11 September, with a special performance for an audience of students.

Turnage himself is all for this latter idea. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “I feel it’s part of a genuine effort by Covent Garden to get a wider audience in – they really want to make a difference.” Still, he has no idea how the work will go over with this youthful crowd: “I hope they’ll see it as a comic piece with a tragic end. But it’s quite likely that none of them, mostly aged between 18 and 26, will have heard of Anna Nicole Smith,” he remarks.

The eponymous heroine, to remind you, built a career as model and TV presenter after having her breasts surgically enhanced to vast proportions. She married an octogenarian billionaire, but was excluded from his will, lost her son to drugs and died of an overdose aged 39 in 2007. The court cases around her have rumbled on into recent weeks.

Still, it is the archetypal “fallen woman” resonances of her tale that well suit the genre of opera. “I think you can get too obsessed with the idea that it’s a story that relates to today,” says Turnage. “We were after a story that’s universal. Relevance – so what? If it dates, it dates. This time I won’t read the reviews.”

Anna Nicole was a hit with some for Turnage’s gritty, jazzy, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful score and its snarky libretto by Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera). Others, considering the subject too trashy for an opera house, couldn’t abide it. For its composer, creating it was both agony and ecstasy.

“I found it very hard to write,” he says. The difficulty was the comedy: “It’s so hard to make people laugh!” He says he relied strongly on Thomas’s skill and experience with that side of it, adding, “All the miserable, angsty, lyrical stuff – that’s much easier for me.”

Controversy still surrounds the work: several opera houses in the US have demurred from staging it because of its bad language. But at 54 Turnage is no stranger to controversy. He shot to fame in his late twenties when his first opera, Greek, established him as the “bad boy” of British new music. While modernism and serialism were still excessively dominant forces, he drew vital influences from popular idioms, which was considered highly rebellious; and much was made in the press of his Essex background and his passion for football. “I’d played it up,” he admits, “and it hasn’t done me any harm.”

More fuss emerged in 2010 when his orchestral work for the Proms, Hammered Out, proved to have rather a lot in common with Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies". The imitation was a sincere form of flattery, plus a musical gift for his son, who liked the song; but eventually, Turnage says, “I paid 50 per cent to Beyoncé. I’d handled it really badly,” he reflects. “I should have come clean about it from the start.” His biggest regret, though, seems to be that he did not get to meet the R&B star.

His penchant for popular idioms may not have endeared Turnage to musical establishment organisations that give annual awards; incredibly, his only prizes are for his opera The Silver Tassie, which scooped an Olivier Award and a South Bank Award in 2000. Nevertheless, he has a strong following among both public and musicians, constantly garnering an impressive string of international commissions at the highest level, with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The premiere takes place in Flanders, in October, of Passchendaele, a work commemorating World War I; further highlights ahead include another opera for Covent Garden, planned for 2020.

“People say I’m prolific,” Turnage remarks. “Well, I’ve got a lot of kids, so I’ve got to write a lot of music. I’m not writing to be indulgent, I’m writing to provide for my family.” He has four children aged between 18 and three, from two ex-marriages. Composers, he acknowledges, can be difficult to live with: “You can become so focused on work that you can be a pain in the arse. I think I’ve learned how to switch off.” Today he lives alone in a compact north London flat where his desk companions are busts of Beethoven and Brahms and, on his computer, an exceptionally scary photograph of Stravinsky.

“People do find composing hard and they do struggle,” he says. “But that struggle, the pain of it, is also very attractive to me, very engaging. If we’re not totally bound up in this strange world we’re in in composition, then something’s wrong. It’s got to be obsessive.”

Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London, from 11 September. Box office: 020 7304 4000