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BEING A MEMBER
Damon Albarn's very English opera

 

It's Tuesday morning in the mess of glass, metal and international retail brands that is modern Manchester, though Damon Albarn has arranged to meet me somewhere very different. Just across the road from the city's Victoria station is Chetham's Library – the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and a place once frequented by Karl Marx. Inside its reading rooms, there is a beautiful hush. damonalbarna

Albarn, currently sporting a thick beard, is here in connection with someone currently much on his mind: John Dee, the confidante of Elizabeth I, mathematician, navigational pioneer, alchemist and supposed magician who served as the building's warden for 10 years at the end of the 1500s, when it was an adjunct of the nearby cathedral. By this time, having blazed an intellectual trail across Britain and Europe, Dee was at the end of his life, with plenty of controversy and emotional wreckage behind him. One biography sums up his presence in Manchester as a matter of "virtual exile, placing him far outside the orbit of the Queen and her court". His existence here seems to have been forlorn and unproductive, and made yet more wretched by the death of Elizabeth in 1603. He returned to London two years later, but lived for only another three years – though at 82 he hardly died young.

Now, Dee's ghost has returned to Manchester in rather more favourable circumstances. Albarn and the director Rufus Norris have built an "English Opera" entitled Doctor Dee around his story, which will be premiered as part of the Manchester International festival on 1 July. On the other side of town, a company of actors and dancers is deep in rehearsal, while elsewhere the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra is perfecting the score – any time now, they will be joined by a core of musicians, including Tony Allen, the 70-year-old Nigerian drummer whom Albarn credits with a "cosmic pulse". Albarn himself will take an onstage role – delivering, he says, songs that draw lines between Dee's time and our own, centred on "relationships, religion, hedonism, the reinvention of ritual . . . and politics, a little bit. There's a lot going on."

To make things even more interesting, the production is intended to evolve as it's rehearsed and performed, which partly explains Albarn's visit to Chetham's library: when the chief librarian appears with a handful of books once owned by Dee and strewn with his annotations, Albarn reaches for an A4 notebook, and scribbles down at least one line he seems to think might help him with a lyric. "This isn't like making a record," he says. "It changes. And when we present it on that first night, it'll still be in a state of flux."

The Guardian

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