The current sensation at the Battersea Arts Center in London delves into the themes of any number of beloved operas: infidelity and misdirected love, rage and untimely death. An aging diva, cheated by life, sings a heart-rending aria expressing her profound weariness with failure: ”I’ve had enough of dying/I just want to dance.” But the gavotte is nowhere in this diva’s thoughts — her dream is to become a professional lap dancer, working the pole in some squalid dive. Such is the seamy lyricism of ”Jerry Springer: The Opera.”
The opera, which is still unfinished, began as an even rougher one-act last summer, and is very much in keeping with the ”trash TV” spirit of Springer’s show. But it doesn’t stop at a simple musical rendition of the syndicated program’s sideshow ethos. It is in equal parts satirically bigoted, transcendentally melodic, philosophical and unremittingly profane, a musical wilderness of amorality that somehow manages to come off as life-affirming and peculiarly epic.
The often-staid realm of the London stage has gone wild for ”Springer.” Although it has yet to reach the phase where it’s open to critical review, it has already drawn a torrent of adoring press, even from the grayest corners of established opera criticism. The London Daily Telegraph, for example, hails its score as ”wonderfully inventive” and calls the production ”revoltingly funny.”
Stage luminaries of every stripe, from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Nicholas Hytner, have swarmed to see the thing. Hytner, who will take the reins as director of the Royal National Theater next year and directed the new Broadway musical ”The Sweet Smell of Success,” can’t get enough of it. ”What I love is its violent marriage of high and low culture,” he says. ”To hear the kind of vulgar chaos of ‘Jerry Springer’ submitted to the disciplines of classical opera, weirdly enough, results in something more than the sum of those two halves.”
Even Harold Prince has taken notice. Last year, upon reading about it, he wrote to the opera’s creators asking to see the libretto; by the time Prince heard back from the Battersea staff, he’d read in the newspapers that he was expressing interest in the production. ”I suppose I am,” he now says. ”It’s so nice to hear of a modern opera that isn’t — to put it mildly — pompous.”
It certainly is not that. Richard Thomas, 37, who composed the music and wrote the libretto with the English comedian Stewart Lee, 33, has created a pell-mell score that bangs together musical fragments in unrelated keys and unrelated tempos — though the result, somehow, feels all of a piece. The work contains traces of many of Thomas’s formative influences: Bach, Miles Davis, Harrison Birtwhistle, Arvo Part, Burt Bacharach, the Sex Pistols, Mozart and even the French composer Olivier Messiaen’s blend of religious harmonics and bird song. Stewart Lee’s contribution, besides a shared comic sensibility with Thomas, is a surprising dose of John Milton, William Blake and Samuel Beckett.
”I don’t really view musical styles as styles — just as textures,” Thomas says. ”You’ve got your sonic canvas, and you’ve got all these amazing colors. And I like to paint bright.”
Of course, operas based on topical subjects have become a controversial fixture of the form in recent years. You need hardly look further than John Adams’s 1987 ”Nixon in China” or his 1991 epic based on the Achille Lauro hijacking, ”The Death of Klinghoffer.” There have been renditions of the lives of Harvey Milk and Malcolm X; in 1992 came ”Tania,” a work by Anthony Davis that told the story of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, and meticulously jumbled reality by including a bluesy love duet between Betty Ford and Fidel Castro.
Whereas these so-called CNN Operas sought to create melodramatic contexts for high-profile news stories, ”Springer” burrows in quite the opposite direction — into the anything-but-newsworthy lives of dispossessed souls whose ambition is to confess their most lurid proclivities and throw chairs at one another on TV. It’s scarcely an innovation akin to the once-shocking realism of Mascagni’s ”Cavalleria Rusticana,” but ”Springer” offers a similar corrective. Just as tragedy once abandoned its Aristotelian marriage to the downfall of nobles, so here does opera turn away from their modern-day equivalents: news celebrities, even the hapless Leon Klinghoffers of the world. CNN Operas elevate the lives of characters who loom large in the televisual reality of the public imagination, while ”Springer” elevates those who loom small. And the surrealistic clash of genres works brilliantly. In fact, it makes you think not only that modern opera can be relevant: it can actually be fun.
The thing begins, as it would, with a surrogate ”audience” of six singers, a cadre of sleazily dressed fans who act as a chorus. One woman, richly tattooed, is decked out in fishnet stockings and plenty of leather; another ”crowd member” is a nebbishy man wearing a neck brace, reason unknown, with ”Jerry” embroidered on it in red.
As darkness descends, a beatific chant –“Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” — begins, very much in the reverent structure of a Mozart requiem. Then the chorus gives an idea of what it has come to see: ”My mum used to be my dad/I was jilted by a lesbian dwarf.” They call out for the ”cocaine abusers with no noses” and an array of more obscenely labeled types. In full-throated ecstasy, they cry, ”Bring on the losers!” This command heralds the arrival of Jerry himself, ever abiding the madness over which he presides. Unlike his guests, Jerry does not sing; he must act as the solid ground upon which animals tear one another’s flesh.
The Damage Parade hobbles by at a brisk pace. We hear the dishy revelation that Kylie, Tremont’s fiancee, is actually a man. Bisexuals are unmasked and belt out the standard ”talk to the hand” retort. After a tenor coprophiliac exposes his diaper fixation, a 40-ish woman called Baby Jane takes center stage. Clad in fetishistic little-girl attire, she stops the show with a starry-eyed aria about daytime-TV fame. With the hopeless elation of a Kurt Weill heroine, she sings: ”This is my Jerry Springer moment/I don’t want this moment to die/So dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians/I don’t want this moment to die.”
Dysfunctions heap upon the stage until it becomes an emotional Gettysburg. But any notion that the opera offers a mere pageant of American freaks is shattered — for, in the atonal chaos that ends Act 1, Jerry Springer is gunned down.
And so, a Don Giovanni without the panache, Jerry descends into hell, where he is called upon to referee a cosmological skirmish that’s every bit as histrionic as the brawls on his show. Satan, it seems, is still bitter at being cast out of Paradise. As Jerry looks on in bewilderment, the Devil gets into a verbal scuffle with none other than Jesus Christ. (Their complex four-minute duet climaxes with Jesus singing the following dismissal: ”Taaaaalk to the stigmata!”)
After the kind of baroque plot twists that always figure into opera, a moment of truth arrives. Jerry is given a chance to plead for his soul. He chokes out a botched series of ”Final Thoughts” — the homilies that end his show — but the gambit fails miserably. Disappointed glissandi emanate from the tormented souls who surround him. Then Jerry does something that, in the midst of this freewheeling celebration of vulgarity, is so unexpected that it’s hilarious: he evokes William Blake. ”Without contraries is no progression,” he begins haltingly. ”Energy is pure delight.” He ends with a roar: ”And all that lives is holy!”
Miraculously, this does the trick. Jerry high-fives his fellow damned. (Metaphysical it may be, but this is Springer.) He is suddenly transported back to the moment of his shooting, where he lies cradled in the arms of Steve, the show’s stony-faced security man, and dies. Steve brushes a tear from his cheek, for Jerry’s all-seeing, all-abiding eye has closed — and now all that remains is bleakness and censure and Ricki Lake.
“Jerry Springer: The Opera” might never have come into being without the efforts of Tom Morris, the artistic director who has revitalized the Battersea Arts Center since taking over in 1995. Morris, whose boyish face never quite matches his authoritative gestures, is obsessed with the notion that theater in its current state is creaking to a halt and has become almost medicinal — a cultural obligation that people submit to without any hope of edification, far less of actual enjoyment. And in spreading the pestilence of posh tedium, opera has been the worst offender.
”It’s absurd to think of opera as grand or stodgy,” Morris says. ”If you’d have characterized it that way to Mozart or Gluck, they’d have laughed you off the premises. Opera evolved as a crude and accessible form. The audience would be eating dinner or having sex while watching it! So the idea now that one should sit in a grim-faced state to impress the president of his company and suffer through, well, that’s just madness.”
Under Morris’s tenure, the B.A.C., cached in the backwater of Lavender Hill in South London, has become one of the bright spots of the city’s fringe theater. Morris is known for putting on ”Scratch Nights,” evenings filled with 10-minute bits of low-tech cabaret in which artists present not shows but sketchy ideas for shows — then interrogate audiences about how to arrive at what he calls ”the suitable theatrical language for a subject.” The method produces odd but never dull results. Another recent Richard Thomas piece consisted entirely of an operatic (and profane) sparring match between two sopranos called ”Tourette’s Diva.” One of the few printable ariettas was ”You remind me of chemotherapy.” All of which did much to further obscure the line between high art and guttersnipe lingo, if there was ever such a line to begin with.
The inception of ”JS:TO,” as it is locally known, was not as an opera but as a Richard Thomas Scratch presentation called ”How to Write an Opera About Jerry Springer.” In front of an audience, Thomas sat alone at a piano and puzzled out how such a work might take shape, tossing bottles of cheap lager to anyone who came up with an interesting idea.
Not all of the feedback was gold. ”There wasn’t one good specific idea that came out of the beer thing,” Thomas says equably. ”One guy said we should include a guest that’s a goldfish.” As the work took shape, though, some of the reaction was invaluable. Thomas was especially keen to hear if the audience felt bored at any point. Bridging the distance between opera and the crowd, he believed, was paramount.
Curiously, both Thomas and co-librettist Lee (who is also the new opera’s director) have arrived at this moment of wild critical success not via the classical-music circuit but through comedy. The two complement each other much like a cinematic comic duo. Thomas is the refined iconoclast, a Cambridge-educated eclectic who likes to pretend his work is haphazard. Lee, with his affable leer and rogue forelock, is a comedian at first glance and has won many awards for his stand-up work. The two have teamed up not only on the ”Springer” project but also on English TV shows with titles like ”Attention Scum.”
Thomas’s career hasn’t always been swathed in silk and adulation. He spent years performing comedy-music acts in mangy British clubs. ”I’ve come a very weird route to where I am,” Thomas says. ”I was booed out of more rat holes than you can imagine. In one bit we did, based on Handel’s ‘Water Music,’ we performed on pianos like synchronized swimmers. We had flippers on our feet, a lady drowned, we played the theme from ‘Jaws.’ So I know the experience of getting shouted offstage, taking that slow humiliating walk up the aisle with flippers, literally being spat on.”
”So ‘Springer’ is your revenge?” I ask the duo.
”Actually, ‘Stand-up: The Opera’ would be the real revenge opera,” Lee says ecstatically. ”People stealing each other’s cocaine backstage, the waitress everyone’s shagged. Should we do that?”
”Maybe next summer,” Thomas says, nodding.
Not surprisingly, the two agree that beautiful rhythm in music is parallel to precise comic timing. They speak lovingly of ”The Simpsons” and of the perfect deadpan cadence of the American comedian Stephen Wright. ”See, not many people know about both opera and Stephen Wright,” Thomas says. ”That’s part of the problem.”
Richard Thomas knows where theatrical accessibility lives. When he plays the piano for a ”Springer” performance, he shaves a good 10 minutes off the show. His comedy days have instilled in him a terror of boring the crowd and, betraying the intricate beauty of his own music, he can’t resist racing ahead to get to the punch lines.
This whole ”Springer” phenomenon, as Lee is always pleased to point out, was Thomas’s vision. In fact, when Lee was asked to help structure it, he’d only seen one opera in his life, ”Das Rheingold,” Part 1 of Wagner’s ”Ring Cycle.”
”That’s why I knew Jerry had to enter hell,” he says, wryly savoring his ignorance over a slice of gray pizza one gray afternoon. ”From my experience of opera, I assumed someone always had to get dragged down somewhere.”
The original idea for the Scratch performance came to Thomas like a shot. ”I’d get back from jobs late at night and sit watching Jerry on cable,” he recalls. ”There were always six people screaming at each other with a crowd baying for blood; you couldn’t understand what people were saying half the time. It struck me — that’s opera.”
Anyone who sees the production might expect an English composer to demean Jerry Springer, even though the host himself was born in England. He’s an easy mark. Americans demean him, and most Americans don’t dislike Americans. But not only do Thomas and Lee genuinely like Americans, they revere Jerry. ”There’s such a refreshing honesty about him,” Lee says. ”He’s not about that brainwashing, self-help attitude of American culture you see on ‘Oprah.’ It’s so cruel and funny. We think he’s really good.”
”I love him!” adds Thomas, sipping some wine.
”He is deeply amoral,” Lee says admiringly. ”As in Blake, everything is holy. He gives people a forum whether they’re right or wrong. All he wants is to have them treated with human respect.”
Britons are mad for Springer’s scabrous, confessional tactics. His show is broadcast on cable most hours of the day and night; he has addressed the Oxford Union and substituted for beloved breakfast-TV hosts, to the country’s delight. When Springer’s episode titled ”I Married a Horse” was refused by stateside networks, British TV enlisted all the program’s guests and put on a splashy hour of its own on bestiality.
Even in conversation, Lee has a cheery habit of knocking high and low art against each other to see what flies off. ”Milton, Blake said, was of the Devil’s party but didn’t know it — for energy without judgment,” he says. ”Jerry’s quite like that. He enjoys expression of individuality, irrespective of morality. I’m not religious, but I wouldn’t want people offended by this opera. There actually isn’t a hint of blasphemy.”
Thomas nods and adds, ”In the show, Jesus and the Devil do the same job they do in the Bible.”
So the show manages to drag profound metaphysical questions of humanity into the dirt — or perhaps it elevates Jerry Springer to the level of high philosophy. The distinction has been blurred beyond recognition.
Then again, so have a lot of other distinctions: those between ”operas” and ”musicals,” for instance. This isn’t an issue confined to the London fringe. Nicholas Hytner, for one, seems content with the muddle. ”In London especially,” he says, ”boundaries of form seem to be crumbling. Those between musical theater, spoken theater, dance, opera. And the established operas, like the English National Opera, are becoming more and more alert to that. What music ‘should’ sound like is much more an open question than it was 20 years ago. The retreat into intellectual atonality was probably a necessary thing, and music seems to be coming out the other side — though no one yet knows what the other side actually is.”
The Springer work doesn’t necessarily offer a grand solution in its precise approach, but it is emblematic of the form’s search for ways to marry high art and pop structure. In fact, Thomas and Lee aren’t the only ones who see operatic potential in trash TV. The American composer Mikel Rouse has created his own ”talk-show opera” called ”Dennis Cleveland,” which will be performed as part of Lincoln Center’s New Visions series in May. Though Rouse watched the Ricki Lake and Gordon Elliott shows to study their seething emotional terrain, it’s a far chillier work than ”Springer.” His ”Cleveland” is cryptic and, despite the score’s rock rhythms, arcane. Where ”Springer” offers broad comedy, Rouse’s text is oracular: ”This time the plastic/That connects you to the world/Will be borrowing your image.” By virtue of its accessibility, ”Springer” is certain to pull a more diverse audience.
And accessibility, of course, is Richard Thomas’s meat and drink. He hopes that composers will simply re-examine what subjects are available to them, and Nicholas Hytner agrees. ”Richard is a serious composer engaging the underbelly,” he says, ”not on behalf of those who come to the opera to be punished by tedium. The point is that classical disciplines can be applied to all kinds of accessible forms. And composers will be invigorated by contact with a nonopera audience.”
Hytner, having now seen ”Springer” at two stages of its gestation, has little doubt that the work will find its way into a much larger venue — though that will most likely have already occurred, quite possibly in the West End, by the time he takes over the National in April 2003. Having missed his shot at ”Springer,” he wants to commission Thomas to compose a new opera.
In the meantime, Thomas and Lee are still focused on actually finishing the ”Springer” opera. One very real question is whether a big-venue production (complete with a faithful replica of the TV show’s set, which would make the work even more mind-bending) might draw a lawsuit — not from Jerry Springer himself but from Studios USA, which owns all the rights. The opera’s creators are heartened that they’ve yet to hear any minor-key rumblings from the production company’s lawyers.
In any event, no one’s claiming this opera is about the real-life Springer. Its creators have never met him. ”It really is an ur-Springer,” says Lee. ”He’s an icon, Jerry. I think of a story people told about ‘Being John Malkovich.’ Malkovich read a line and said, ‘I wouldn’t say that!’ And the writer replied, ‘Yeah, but The Malkovich would.’ That made me feel better about the whole thing.”
Jerry Springer himself — the actual Springer, who hears far more shrieking than singing during his workday — couldn’t be more pleased to hear about the opera and its success. I spoke to him on his 58th birthday; he was between taping programs whose topics were ”Wild and Bizarre Sex Fantasies” and ”I’m in a Cheatin’ State of Mind.”
After assuring me that his was ”the stupidest show on TV, of no redeeming social worth whatsoever” and that he could not imagine why anyone would like it, he said he’d love to see the opera. His only regret was that, should he ever attend, he’d have to show up in disguise, since to appear as himself would be ”unbearably presumptuous.” But he had no doubt that his work lends itself to the medium of coloratura.
”When you do away with the screaming on our show,” he said, ”we’re dealing with universal issues, core human drama. If you dressed our audience up and taught ’em the queen’s English, they’d be discussing many of the same things wealthy people talk about. Our show has all the themes: transvestism, cheating . . . it’s all there. Opera has stabbings. We have the Throwing of the Chair. They just use different weaponry.”
Marshall Sella is a contributing writer. He last wrote about the director Wes Anderson.