CHICAGO -- Stewart Copeland is in town, and he's got a brand-new bag.
Brand-new, at least, for Chicago.
The multifaceted American composer and instrumentalist, best known as co-founder and drummer of the English new-wave rock band the Police, is here taking part in rehearsals for his latest opera -- that's right, opera -- "The Invention of Morel," whose world premiere at Chicago Opera Theater is presenting this weekend at the Studebaker Theater in downtown Chicago.
As the 64-year-old onetime rocker, amiably laid-back as ever, puts it, he's "having a lot of fun -- the process of putting this together is so engrossing."
Although the multiple Grammy-winning Copeland has five music theater works to his credit -- "I'm not a beginner anymore!" -- he admits he's on a learning curve when it comes to writing operas. "There's still so much to learn. If they hadn't pulled 'Morel' from my grasp, I could have spent two more years on it" -- this in addition to the 31/2 years he already has devoted to his and co-librettist Jonathan Moore's operatic adaptation of the famous 1940 sci-fi novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares.
Copeland is just one among a short list of rock musicians -- think of the iconic band Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, Blur and Gorillaz's Damon Albarn and singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, among others -- who have migrated to opera in recent years in search of new avenues of creative freedom and expression.
When asked what attracts him to the art form, Copeland observed, "Writing a song is a lot of fun, but a song is just a bite-sized musical endeavor." To him, opera represents "the highest mountain" one can climb if he or she wants to grow as a musician, as he told The Washington Post in 2013.
And writing a new opera, he told me, gives him the satisfaction of having "complete control over a very large musical mission. It's highly collaborative. The good thing is that you get feedback and input from the performers."
If opera is not to become an ossified museum relic, so believes Chicago Opera Theater general director Andreas Mitisek, it must turn to the best musicians in other genres to bring their experience and artistic perspectives to bear on creating new works of music theater that speak to today's audiences. It was Mitisek who spearheaded "Morel" as the first commissioned opera in the Chicago company's 43-year history, a dream of his since becoming COT chief in 2012.
Along with the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass' "The Perfect American," a dark study of Walt Disney scheduled for April performances at the Harris Theater, "The Invention of Morel" will mark Mitisek's last hurrah as general director before he steps down from that position in September.