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Pet Shop Boys: Opera’s new stars?

About the author

Clemency Burton-Hill is a presenter of the BBC’s Culture Show, Review Show, and Radio 3 Weekend Breakfast. A published novelist, she writes for the FT Weekend, The Economist’s Intelligent Life and the Guardian.

(John Wright)

(John Wright)

The pop duo’s ambitious new musical biography about WWII codebreaker Alan Turing opens this week at the BBC Proms. Clemency Burton-Hill finds out more.

What do Richard Nixon, Walt Disney, Mahatma Gandhi, Jerry Springer, Colonel Gaddafi and Anna Nicole Smith have in common? Unlikely as it may sound, they are all the subject of recent operas. And now the latest figure from history to join their midst is Alan Turing (1912-1954), visionary godfather of the digital universe, without whom you would most certainly not be reading this sentence.

From his invention of the Universal Machine, precursor to the stored-programme modern computer, to his incredible code-breaking feats during WWII and his tragic and mysterious death, Turing’s extraordinary life is the basis for a new work by the Pet Shop Boys called A Man From the Future, which will receive its world premiere at the BBC Proms this week.

If the Pet Shop Boys – duo Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe – seem an improbable inclusion in the world’s largest classical music concert series, they are in fact passionate advocates for the idea that all music, from classical to K-pop and everything in between, is built of the same DNA. In their programme note for the Prom, Tennant and Lowe acknowledge the influence of classical composers such as Handel and Pachelbel on their work. “One of the reasons we recorded the Village People’s Go West is because it has the same stately chord progression as the famous Canon by Pachelbel,” they reveal. And as the composer and academic Brian Inglis points out, their anthemic Hold On of 2012 “is entirely based on Handel’s Eternal Source of Light Divine from the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne. Their Love is a Bourgeois Construct from 2013 co-opts Michael Nyman’s Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds, itself based on [music by] Purcell.”

Pet projects

The incurably curious and ever-pioneering PSB have always been up for grand artistic collaborations: in the past 15 years they have also written a film soundtrack, a ballet score, a musical and a children's play. According to Inglis, A Man From the Future is merely the latest adventure in a “complex negotiation between popular culture and high art which has been present almost since the beginning of [their] career.”

Such negotiations are particularly pertinent when it comes to the trend of using the exalted form of opera to bring all sorts of human biography to life. No art form currently suffers a deeper identity crisis than the ‘high’ one so often associated with warbling fat ladies, ludicrous plotlines, prohibitively expensive tickets and sumptuous costumes. Yet opera was once the ultimate popular culture of its day, enticing audiences who could sing along to music composed by men who enjoyed the stature of today’s rock stars.

What a contrast to today, when opera’s place on the mainstream cultural spectrum is so marginal that practitioners are frequently forced to justify its very existence. (When the brilliantly inventive and affordable English National Opera had its public grant slashed by 29% recently, nobody even feigned surprise. And every year, sure as day and night, the eternal questions get a little more pointed: Who should opera be for? Who should pay for it? And what should it be about?

That last question seems to have at its heart an assumption about opera’s supposed propriety, as if certain characters might not be a fit subject for this grandest of arts. If Philip Glass’ operatic explorations of the lives of Walt Disney and Mahatma Gandhi are examples where form and content have, however unexpectedly, married well, there was uproar when Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas decided to set Playboy playmate Anna-Nicole Smith’s life to opera. Yet the piece has been hugely successful around the world and returns to the Royal Opera House next month. At the time, Turnage told me, “I'm not interested in things that are set 100 years ago. Her story had something very powerful about it, and it undoubtedly drew me in.” Thomas described her life as “very absurdly beautiful, and eccentric… all qualities of the medium of opera.”

Alan Turing (Getty Images)

Alan Turing was 'the ultimate digital visionary' (Getty Images)

Enigma variations

On those terms, Alan Turing’s life certainly seems ‘operatic’ enough. On the one hand he was the ultimate digital visionary: the mathematician, logician and voracious reader who in coining the very concepts of computation and algorithm in their current form transformed human existence. On the other, he was a tragic, elusive victim of his era’s bigotry. Criminally prosecuted by the UK government in 1952 for his (then illegal) homosexuality, he was forced to undergo chemical castration. Less than two years after the process began, aged 41, Turing died of cyanide poisoning – an inquest ruled it a suicide – and only received a posthumous pardon from the Queen last December.

The Pet Shop Boys have based their lyrical narrative – which will draw on the forces of the BBC Singers as well the BBC Concert Orchestra, electronics and narrator Juliet Stevenson – on Andrew Hodges’ biography Alan Turing – The Enigma. “It is called A Man From the Future because Turing was way ahead of his time in the realms of both technology and sexuality,” they explain. “His open expression of homosexuality was astonishingly brave and forward-looking at a time when gay men were relentlessly persecuted by the government.” Although the work celebrates the pardon, and the progress of gay rights in general, it will tackle face-on the wider issues it threw up; the “contradiction”, as Hodges put it in a recent interview, of “making an exception for one person on the grounds of what they did for the state”.

BBC Presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch, who will introduce Wednesday night’s Prom, told me she thinks the work is a “hugely exciting venture for a duo whose music has always had something operatic about it, both in terms of its scale of ambition and in their flair for the dramatic.” On why opera is the right medium to tell this particular tale, she says, “I don't think any opera composer dealing with a real-life character sets out to offer a definitive biography. That's not really the point of opera – it's about people, their struggles and transformations, and ultimately about the human condition. As a genre, it pays attention to the innermost experiences of characters who find themselves in some kind of life crisis. Whether they're real people or fictional, operatic characters serve as archetypes through whose experience and transformation we get to know ourselves as a society and as individuals.”

When put like that, opera, for all its current woes, has never felt more relevant. As Hodges says, “The fact that a public work like this [is] going ahead in the very centre of one of our most famous concert series, on the BBC… there's a sense of making up and making good, of expunging a lot of what was so bad about the old world.”

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