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Elvis Costello tries an opera

‘Secret Arias’ to debut with singer playing two roles
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Elvis Costello was asked three years ago by Denmark’s Royal Theater to write an opera about Hans Christian Andersen, his first thought was, “Why didn’t they choose a Danish composer?”

“Then I recalled that Andersen belongs to the world,” Costello said.

On Saturday, his work “The Secret Arias” — based on Andersen’s unrequited yearning for Swedish soprano Jenny Lind — will debut at Copenhagen’s new waterfront opera house, with Costello himself playing two lead roles.

The opera is being performed in connection with the 2005 bicentennial of the Danish fairy tale writer’s birth. Renowned for his children’s classics such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Red Shoes,” he died in 1875.

For the musical chameleon Costello, it marks yet another expansion of his artistic range. After emerging from Britain’s early new wave scene, he has dabbled in everything from orchestral symphonies to harmonious pop. He has recorded with Swedish soprano Anne Sofie Von Otter and the Brodsky Quartet, but this is the first time he has written an opera.

His story tells a three-way drama between Andersen, Lind — nicknamed the “Swedish Nightingale” — and her American impresario, P.T. Barnum, who brought Lind to New York for her first U.S. concert tour in 1850.

“The songs will tell a story that I have imagined existing between the lines of Andersen’s biography and some of his most famous tales,” Costello told reporters this week. “They speak of a misfit’s love for an unattainable woman and a struggle between a huckster and someone who composes music in secret.”

It’s widely believed that Andersen wrote his tale “The Nightingale” with Lind — who lived from 1820-1887 — in mind.

Traditional opera, with exceptionsIn the past week, Costello has been rehearsing with Swedish soprano Gisela Stille at the new opera house, which opened earlier this year. Costello will play both Andersen and Barnum, while Stille will portray Lind.

The duo will perform this weekend in Copenhagen and next week in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city in the western part of the Scandinavian country. Next season, the Copenhagen Opera will stage a longer version of “The Secret Arias” with other performers.

Costello, revealing few details about his work, said it was a traditional opera, but with some exceptions.

“We will not have a symphonic orchestra,” he said. Instead, four musicians will accompany Costello and Stille at the opera’s main stage, which can seat as many as 1,700 people.

Costello said he was inspired by Andersen’s way of expression, adding that “many translations of (Andersen’s) works miss the really good elements, the macabre, the weird and the social critique.”

Many of Andersen’s fairy tales are rather gruesome.

In “The Little Mermaid,” one of his best known stories, the mermaid becomes mute after a witch cuts off her tongue in exchange for legs to replace her fish tail.

In “The Two Baronesses,” Andersen writes about marital infidelity and life in a brothel — something he personally experienced when living in Copenhagen. “The Traveling Companion,” published in 1835 as part of a fairy tale collection for children, is about death.

Kasper Holten, the Royal Theater’s 32-year-old opera director, said asking Costello to write an opera was a way to bring a broader repertoire to the $406 million opera house, instead of merely focusing on the big classics.