Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Damian All Bran posing in front of the site of John Dee's house in Mortlake, now a block of flats.
When I first misheard that Damon Albarn – of Blur and Gorillaz fame – was writing an opera based on the life of rapper and producer Dr Dre, my interest was piqued to say the least. When I heard that it was actually called Dr Dee: An English Opera, and based on the life of John Dee, sixteenth century mathematician, astronomer, alchemist and occasional advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, I was less excited, mostly because I had never heard of the man.
But having heard the opera performed by Albarn et al on a windy, muddy field in the middle of Wiltshire at the Onefest festival last weekend, I am now more than intrigued. John Dee (1527-1608), was by all accounts a visionary yet mysterious man. On the one hand a scientist and brilliant scholar, fascinated with mathematics, astrology and navigation; and on the other hand – though Dee saw no distinction – an alchemist and magician, who studied divination and Hermetic philosophy. He coined the word 'Britannica' (or British Empire) and communed with angels. He had the greatest personal library in England (held at his mother's house in Mortlake), holding some 4,000 books. His skills in navigation were a valuable source of information to explorers of the day such as Raleigh and Drake. Elizabeth I consulted him on astrological and scientific matters, even entrusting him to choose her coronation date. In his later life he turned more towards studying the supernatural. He eventually ended up Warden of Christ's College, Manchester (the city Albarn's opera premiered), and remained so after he returned to London. By this time Elizabeth I was dead and James I wanted nothing to do with the supernatural. The Magus died in poverty in Mortlake, southwest London, his library in ruins, aged 82.
But his popularity, genius and mystery was such that he was a legend in his own lifetime, inspiring literary works including Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1596). Just a few years after his death, Shakespeare's the Tempest (1610-11) features the sorcerer Prospero, said to be modelled on John Dee.
The late twentieth century saw a renewed interest in John Dee, including the publication of Peter Ackroyd's The House of Doctor Dee (1993). Derek Jarman's Jubilee, made at the height of punk (and the Queen's Silver Jubilee) in 1977, has John Dee (played by The Rocky Horror Show and Crystal Maze's Richard O'Brien) showing Queen Elizabeth I what England looks like four hundred years in the future – in 1977, with its gangs and punks, ruins and decay, and Queen Elizabeth II dead.
Dr Dee, the opera created by theatre director Rufus Norris and Damon Albarn, was inspired by comic book writer Alan Moore. Post-Blur, Damon Albarn released an album he described as "a song cycle that's also a mystery play about London" in the form of The Good, the Bad and the Queen, in 2007, as well as Journey to the West (2008), a soundtrack to the Chinese opera Monkey, so it almost comes as no surprise that Albarn's latest project is an opera of 'strange pastoral folk'. Though possibly more suited to a concert hall (where it was first heard almost a year ago in Manchester), there was something apt and atmospheric hearing it in an English field. Along with Albarn on vocals, keyboards and guitar, the opera features Renaissance and African instruments and choral music; altogether about ten other musicians were performing with him. Those expecting Parklife last week at Onefest were disappointed; those with a more open frame of mind were pleasantly bemused.
Fans of the ever-experimental Damon Albarn often complain that he should be more famous than he is, and those with less talent have more fame, such as Lady Gaga or Madonna, say. I blame his name. Everyone's heard of Blur and Gorillaz but the name Damon Albarn is an awkward one which just doesn't flow. I can never remember his name and usually call him Damian All Bran (which occasionally makes me think we should collaborate on a project together, you know, and call it something cool like: All Bran vs. Barnflakes, or something).
Dr Dee is released on 7 May 2012