Cobbling together a cast that includes pop music heavyweights Sting and Elvis Costello and classical music stars Barbara Bonney and the Brodsky Quartet is impressive enough. Convincing them to collaborate on as extravagant an idea as a modern opera is almost ostentatious.
But longtime Costello keyboardist Steve Nieve, who accomplished both feats, is downright modest about his achievement, chronicled on the new recording, “Welcome to the Voice.”
“When you think of opera, you think of something that is huge and grandiose and involves very expensive sets,” says Nieve over the phone from his New York hotel room. “I don’t think that’s what we are doing here.
“With `the Voice’ we wanted to get on the inside. The orchestration calls for a string quartet, and that’s the aspect of it we want to experiment with - how to make something big, intimate.”
“Welcome to the Voice,” last week by the Cadillac of classical music labels, Deutsche Grammophon, came two weeks after “The Best Of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years” and “Rock And Roll Music,” a collection of Costello hits, album tracks, B-sides and previously unreleased tracks. Nieve just completed a 10-city tour with Costello to promote the records.
The beginnings of “Welcome to the Voice” - about an unlikely encounter between a steelworker and an opera singer - date back to the late 1990s when Nieve, then based in France, was performing with Alain Chamfort, who composed the music of many Serge Gainsbourg songs.
Working up “A Concert For Four Hands,” an “unplugged” two-piano show for Chamfort, Nieve first met his future “Voice” collaborator, French cinematographer and psychoanalyst Muriel Teodori, with whom he now lives.
“Muriel was the musical director for that show,” recalls Nieve. “I needed to find an excuse to keep working with her, so I wrote what is now `The Prologue (of Dionysos)’ and sent her the music to try to seduce her. I asked her to put words to it. After that, we got together and kept working on it.”
“I didn’t have any idea of story or words when I sent it to her,” adds Nieve. “Muriel is French, but she wrote directly into English. That’s why it (the libretto) is imperfect, but, I think, at the same time perfect.”
It was the first step of what Nieve calls “a long journey.” An early workshop version of “Welcome to the Voice” was performed at the 2000 Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York with Costello in the lead role. “We were working with limited resources,” Nieve says. “We had to rehearse rather quickly. We didn’t have a proper string quartet; we used brilliant students from Juilliard at that time and a different cast, including Ron Sexsmith.”
Reaction to what the New York Times called “a new patch on the border between art music and pop” was favorable, but, Nieve notes, “at the time the record companies couldn’t see how we could possibly record this.”
So Nieve, who had attended the Royal College of Music before joining Costello’s band, the Attractions, in 1977, when he was 19, and Teodori decided to produce it themselves. “It was the best way forward,” says Nieve. “It gave us complete freedom as to who we would work with and how we did it. We wanted to record it in a certain way with certain people.”
Over the next few years, “we changed a number of things,” says Nieve. “I added instrumental moments, and some of those Muriel put new text to. New parts came into the work. It grew like a tree. I was on the road with Elvis, and sometimes she would give me text and sometimes I would give her music.”
One of the most significant additions was Sting, as both singer and bassist. “Elvis was concerned about all of the attention he got singing the lead character (Dionysos), that all the attention was on that,” Nieve says. “He said he would be happy to take a different role.” (On the disc Costello sings the Chief of Police.)
The search for Costello’s replacement took an unusual turn at the March 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cleveland. “The Police and Elvis Costello & the Attractions were being inducted at the same time,” notes Nieve. “I was sitting right next to Sting and couldn’t resist mentioning the project. To my surprise, he wanted to know about it right away.”
About a year later, Costello and Nieve were part of a tribute concert in Los Angeles in honor of Sting at the 2004 MusiCares Person Of The Year gala, and the keyboardist had another chance encounter with the singer-bassist. “I was invited to his dressing room,” remembers Nieve, “and he said, `I will sing and be involved in this project.’”
Nieve got a commitment in 2003 from Bonney, widely recognized as one of the finest lyric sopranos of her generation. “The Brodsky Quartet, which had been inside the project from the beginning, suggested we send it to her,” says Nieve.
The New Jersey-born, Maine-bred multilingual soprano and a visiting professor at London’s Royal Academy of Music was indeed interested. “She phoned me one day and said, `Please come over to my house in London,’” Nieve remembers. “I had lunch with her. In her kitchen she has an amazing piano, and it was just incredible to hear someone sing these arias with such an amazing voice.”
Rounding out the vocal cast are former Soft Machine member Robert Wyatt as The Friend (“Knowing Robert’s voice, it was a dream when he agreed to play that character,” says Nieve) and sopranos Nathalie Manfrino (Ghost of Butterfly), Amanda Roocroft (Ghost of Norma) and Sara Fulgoni (Ghost of Carmen).
As for the future of “Welcome to the Voice,” the 49-year-old Nieve (ne Nason) says he is now “dreaming” of staging the opera. “I’ve had interest from various places, and presenters in New York and Lyon, France, also have proposed to us dates,” he says. “I’m touching wood here, but I hope it will be on stage sometime next year.”
Asked if, when he was a youngster, he would have embraced the idea of attending an opera, or fled from the prospect, Nieve replies, “I don’t know. But I can remember a couple of marvelous moments I did encounter at the ballet, `The Rite of Spring’ by Stravinsky. I had no idea what I was being taken to, but it was absolutely brilliant.”
And does Nieve believe the motto emblazoned on the CD booklet, “the true salvation is the human voice”?
“We think that the human voice is kind of the most important thing that we have,” says Nieve. “It’s how we share our internal thoughts and desires, and it’s a musical instrument. But the most important thing is, it’s what makes us human.
“In the opera, (Dionysos) doesn’t believe in immaterial things and spirits, although he’s visited by them. The voice is an immaterial thing, yet it is very real and very present.”