Elvis Costello has made a career out of confounding his fans. Over the years the man behind Oliver's Army has made a country album, worked with Burt Bacharach and made an unashamedly romantic album of love songs. Now he looks likely to baffle audiences again -- by writing an opera. Costello is preparing to write a piece of lyric theater based on the life of Hans Christian Andersen. It will premiere at the Danish Royal Opera in October.
He has made several forays into the classical music world already, having composed a ballet and collaborated with both the Brodsky Quartet and Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. But the complexities of operatic writing will provide him with his biggest challenge yet.
According to Henrik Engelbrecht, head of dramaturgy at the Royal Danish Opera: "We looked around the serious end of the rock scene for a person we thought could contribute to our art form. We very quickly came up with Elvis. We went to see him in Dublin with the idea of doing something about Hans Christian Andersen. We thought we would be teaching him about Andersen but he knew all about him. He already had a very operatic idea: that of a staged song cycle connected with the life of Andersen and actually about the writer's obsession with Jenny Lind [the Swedish soprano].
"There is an element of fiction: In Costello's version, Andersen has written Lind a number of secret arias (he was also something of an actor and composer), and the scenario is that he presents his pieces to her for the first time to sing."
The 50-year-old singer-songwriter has consistently expressed his unwillingness to be remembered for "a handful of songs [he] wrote 25 years ago." Or, more tersely: "I don't give a fuck about being a rock 'n' roll star. I just want to do the things that interest me." Costello said last year: "All the music comes out of the same head. It's just using different methods to get at the solution to whatever motivated you to write it in the first place."
Costello has in his time curated the South Bank festival Meltdown, and in 2000 took to the stage at the Hoxton New Music Days in London to do a surprise turn with the contemporary classical group the Composers' Ensemble.
He taught himself to read music 10 years ago. On composing his ballet score, "Il Sogno" (based on "A Midsummer Night's Dream"), he wrote: "I deliberately set aside modern methods involving computers, preferring a pencil and paper. The 200-page score was completed in approximately 10 weeks." The work was commissioned by the Italian company Aterballeto in 2000.
Asked why the Danish Royal Opera had looked to the world of rock, Engelbrecht said: "What we have is an art form that is 400 years old, and has developed. We don't do opera seria like we did in the 18th century ... One of the tasks we think we have is to look at other forms -- dance, rock and film -- anything that can invigorate our own art form."
The Danish Royal Opera -- whose new opera house opened Wednesday night with "Aida," starring Roberto Alagna, and which will this spring premiere an opera by "Handmaid's Tale" composer Poul Ruders based on Franz Kafka's "The Trial" -- will invite Costello to perform the song cycle in October. The work should be fully staged on the opera house's studio stage the following year. A director and cast have yet to be appointed.