Tuesday 4 July 2017

Introducing the Pterodactyls of Ptexas

Pterodactyls of Ptexas
Stephen Crowe's new opera Pterodactyls of Ptexas is being performed on 26 July 2017 at part of Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival, with a performers including Joseph Houston, Fleur de Bray, Oliver Brignall, Laura Bowler, Alistair Ollerenshaw, Nick Morton, Jonny Story & Drummond Bowskill. The website describes the opera as 'new electronic opera set in the Wild West- stuffed with trigger-happy cowgirls, gyrating dinosaurs, and saloon brawls. An ambitious young woman navigates the chauvinistic world of pre-history, belting out neolithic arias in the process.'. Intrigued? I certainly was. Stephen has written the following to introduce the opera further:

Stephen Crowe - Pterodactyls of Ptexas
Stephen Crowe - Pterodactyls of Ptexas
I first got the idea for the opera when I was trying to impress a girl I had fallen in love with in a bar. We both worked there. I told her I wrote operas. She asked if I could write her into one. I said I already had. By the time we’d sat down to talk about it I had whipped up some bollocks about a Wild West scenario in which she was the starring role.

I wrote out the libretto based on what I’d come up with, off the cuff in the bar, and showed it to her the next day. At that stage it was called Daisy the Cowgirl.

I thought it was too expensive to actually stage (cast of five, plus a string orchestra, I was thinking), so I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. In truth I was probably too frightened that I didn’t have the chops to pull off such an ambitious enterprise. A few years later the relationship with the girl in question had somehow exploded and I had moved to Berlin. I came across the libretto and read it. Pretty good, I thought (honestly surprised not to be cringing HARD). But there was something missing. Pterodactyls. So I added them. But then it didn’t make sense. So I changed a bit more. And a bit more. And then I realized I had to just start from scratch and give it a new name. And so that’s when it became Pterodactyls of Ptexas.

Stephen Crowe - Pterodactyls of Ptexas
Stephen Crowe - Pterodactyls of Ptexas
I wrote my first opera before I had ever seen one. I was at art school in Liverpool and I decided to write a little thing for me and my friends to sing together. We affectionately called it The Opera, even though none of use were even remotely classically trained. I wrote the text and played all the instruments and we recorded it in the flat we all shared on a four-track recorder that I may or may not have stolen.

That opera was called Das Fishgold and was about a taxidermist who falls in love with a man once she has killed and stuffed him in revenge for his having accidentally killed a goldfish.

The first opera I ever saw was Don Carlos on an arts school exchange trip to Sweden. Me and my friends performed The Opera in a snowy forest in Orebro and one of the pupils said to me “Why are you painting? This is your art.” I begged to differ.

Over the next year I dropped the painting and started making films. Then I wrote the music to those films. Then I made the people in my films sing. But the films weren’t musicals. They were definitely operas. Five minute operas. Two minute operas.

After art school I wrote something called ‘Domestic’, an electronic opera about a dysfunctional marriage, set to harsh electronic music, raised some money (through the blessed Arts Council), hired a theatre in my hometown of Nottingham and staged it.

Characters and Dinosaurs
Stephen Crowe - Pterodactyls of Ptexas
Stephen Crowe - Pterodactyls of Ptexas
Three of the characters in Pterodactyls of Ptexas are based on real people. There’s the girl I was in love with, there’s Jessie Chambers (DH Lawrence’s first crush) and defecating-onstage-while-punching-himself-in-the-face punk singer GG Allin.

The reason that I included GG Allin in the opera is that when I was at the Edinburgh festival doing my Francis Bacon Opera with Oliver Brignall singing the role of Melvyn Bragg we had an argument about whether or not GG was authentic or fake. Ollie thought GG Allin was bullshit, so I secretly vowed to force him into a bald cap a and string vest one day and change his relationship with the wholly-horrid singer.

Naturally many of the lines and events in the opera come from real life situations, not including the mistaken-identity-blowjob or the jail-break-by-pubic-hair scene. I have always loved novels where there’s a good escape scene, like The Count of Monte Cristo, or The Three Musketeers, so I had to have one in this Wild West opera.

The Pterodactyl bit of the opera (SPOILER ALERT) comes when the main character, Lamb, has a dream that she can go back to any point in time to take one photograph. This is an idea that has obsessed me for a long time. Where would you go? Would you see if Jesus really DID rise from the dead on the third day? Maybe a photo of the apostles moving the stone and dragging his body away would mean the end of Christianity? Or would you want a picture of Helen of Troy, to see if it really was a face worthy of launching a thousand ships. Whatever you come up with would obviously be massively revealing. Lamb end up going further back in time than ancient historical moment, to the time of the dinosaurs. The photograph she takes is of pterodactyls in their natural environment. The colours are unexpected, and weirder still, their posture- frozen in the photo- suggests a bizarre ritual dance, or even a primordial disco.

The Music
The music is a violent clash of techniques and sounds- half acoustic, and half electronic. There’s old-fashioned classical notation for the piano bits that jostle with samples of everyday sounds- all mashed into glitchy electronic melodies and beats. I also use audio samples from old TV shows, jazz standards and stony-faced serious, operas.

Pterodactyls of Ptexas is at Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, 17 Duke’s Rd, London, WC1H 9PY, at 815pm on 26 July 2017, full details from the Tete a Tete website.
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