Goldfrapp make Retro Space Opera


29 Tuesday 29th March 2011

The protagonist, Auguste Piccard was the inspiration for the quintessential mad scientist, Professor Cuthbert Calculus from Tintin, and rumoured to be the namesake for Star Trek's famed captain! In successive dangerous balloon missions towards the stars he consistently broke world altitude records, and his grandson was the first to make a complete round-the-world balloon trip.

We spoke to Will about why he chose to make an opera about him.


How did you get the idea to do an opera?

Well, I've been doing a lot of stuff with silent film. Apart from the fact that there aren't millions of great silent films, I think I've slightly got to the end of doing silent film scoring because you've got a real orchestra, a real audience, and somehow the kind of lifeless imagery on the screen never gets far enough up there on the emotional stakes to meet the people who are in the auditorium. I thought, I really want to do something that has dramatic content, like a film, but I want it to be real people, joining in on the real thing. And I suppose that is really an opera.

What drew you to Piccard's story?

It combines my geekish amateur science interests with a story that had all the right elements. I thought it was immensely brave to have designed a capsule that you climbed into and shot up into the sky, just because you thought you could. Then I liked all the details he had thought about – for instance that if you painted it black on one side and white on the other that he would be able to rotate it so that if it got too hot they could put the white side to the sun and cool down, or if they got cold they could rotate the black side to the sun and warm up, and he just had this wonderful practical but slightly Heath Robinson mind.

Work by Kathy Hinde, whose video art will screen behind the singers.

What bearing does your work in pop have on your work in classical music?

People listen to all sorts of different music. I'm inspired by a lot of classical music, and I'm sure that's true for a lot of musicians, whether they're jazz, classical, pop or whatever. The more you break some of these barriers down the better it is, really.

The way that pop songs are put together is good for constructing things to be concise. That's helped me with some of the structuring. Someone comes on and they say what they've got to say and then we move to the next scene. But [with opera] you've got another game to play, drawing much longer threads together. You can set something in the first half and then come back to it in the second, and its meaning has changed even though it might be a very similar piece of music. It's a new way of exploring time, and how music and time work together.

The typical audience for an opera is different to the audience for a pop song. What audience are you hoping for for Piccard in Space?

Opera has this connotation of being a) elitist, b) up-itself, culturally and c) kind of absurd, you know it is unbelievable that people should sing in this way. But if you start looking at what it actually is, some of those things disappear. The mad sounds that opera singers make – that big vibrato, that ridiculous style of delivery, is quite particular, and can put people off. But the reason they do that is because they can make their voices incredibly loud, louder than the loudest brass instrument. Their technique is all about trying to make a sound fill a huge space that can dominate a huge orchestra. That in itself is exciting, that an opera singer on their own can make a sound that can compete with fifty or sixty musicians playing. It's very primal, elemental. Now we have people who can do things on microphones, but these people have trained their voice to do without microphones. It can just get to you in a way that theatre, film, any other medium doesn't quite do.

Piccard in Space will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on April 13

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