Damon Albarn has already mastered the basics of indie rock with Blur and indie dance pop with Gorillaz, so his next move was anyone’s guess. Naturally, he’s dived in to opera. Opening over the weekend in Manchester in the UK, Dr Dee is an opera about 16th Century Elizabethan mathematician and alchemist John Dee, who was considered a radical forward thinker of his time, but until now has largely been unknown outside of academic circles.
The opera, which is a far cry from the stuffy performances some of you might have seen, is quite radical itself – scenes and scripts change all the time, including Albarn adding in a scene just 30 minutes before show time. Albarn performs 10 songs in the production and he’s relieved that audiences have been gushing with praise. “It’s one of those things where I’ve put so much into it,” he says, “so I’ve been delighted with the audience reaction. Of course, beforehand I was racked with self-doubt. I realised it could all go badly wrong.”
Director Rufus Norris says of the madcap production, which sees Albarn’s last minute changes giving the performance an air of anarchy, “It was frightening, because it’s a long way to fall. Fortunately, Damon doesn’t suffer from vertigo.” It’s pretty out there stuff even by Albarn’s standards, but he sees a bit of himself in the occult practising protagonist, which he says “kind of mirrors what happened to me. I found myself wanting to understand what kind of beliefs drove someone like that.”
Albarn is particularly intrigued by Dee’s final years as a ruined exile in Manchester after his dealings in the occult. “Magic and the occult are part of my life. I’ve got to come out of the closet with this”. Albarn has revealed that he has spent time in the library Dee studied and worked in where a burn mark on a table was supposedly caused by Satan’s hoof, and what’s more, unsuccessfully tried to contact him in a séance.