Pete discusses his ideas for a new Pop Opera.
The sad news is out! The public might never hear Pete Townshend’s current "pop opera". "I’m not writing it with the public in mind," he told me in his Wardour Street flat-cum-studio. "It’s purely an exercise for my own satisfaction." An exercise in what? Well, it seems that Pete has been doing some thinking about his own career as a composer and he has set himself a task, which he knows will be advantageous to him.
Could well be that you think his off-beat compositions are wonderful and hail him as the new brain of "pop compositions." He’s not so impressed with himself. I know because he told me. "My attitude hasn’t changed a great deal," he said. "It’s just that I don’t think of myself as a ‘big-deal composer’. I’m not recording any more because I’m writing it all now. I’ve had to brush up my musical knowledge and I’ve read a lot of books on orchestration. I decided that I was limiting my abilities as a songwriter by recording anything that I composed. There aren’t many instruments that I can play and so I’m bound to be limited. On paper I can write for any instrument I want to use. I am able to see my ideas right through from beginning to end. I think it’s stupid for people like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger to compose songs and then get other people to arrange and write them. A few weeks reading-up and they could probably do it themselves.
"In this mini-opera of mine I have a wide selection of instruments, although the majority of the music is written for a quartet. I have had to look to other composers for ideas to see how then have used their instruments. I’ve got a couple of friends who I’m going to show the music to before I try to get it played. They’ll be able to spot any mistakes in the manuscript by eye. For instance, perhaps I might have written something for the clarinet which it couldn’t possible do because it can’t play a certain two notes together."
I couldn’t resist the question: "Does this mean that you are leaving pop behind?", and I got a typically explicit Townshend answer. "No, I’m not leaving pop," he said. "I like ‘pop’ songs and you could call a lot of the songs in my opera ‘pop songs’. I’m now anxious to start moving musically. For instance, later on I’d like to do film music. I’m very interested in that side of things. As I said before, this opera is an exercise. I want to see if I can write. When it’s finished it would cover at least an LP, perhaps more. It would cost a great deal to make, and for what purpose? It would probably sell a couple of copies, that’s all."
After all the talk about the mini-opera ("I prefer that to pop-opera," says Pete) it would have been ridiculous to leave without hearing a synopsis from the writer. "It takes place in the year 1999 when China is breaking out and is about to take over the world," Pete told me. "The hero, or at least, central character, loses his wife and decides to go and live in this tiny country, which is about to be over-run by the Chinese.
"The hero goes through hundreds of different situations and there is music for each. He goes out in a boat and gets shipwrecked; he has a bad nightmare, and so on. I have used sound effects for a lot of the situations with music over them. I have written music to set the scene in some parts, but I haven’t tried to bring impressionist music in. This sort of stuff has been done so superbly by people like Ravel and Debussy that it’s not worth touching. I used the sound tracks of storms and things because I thought why mess about trying to get sounds when you can have them right there on tape?"
I asked Pete if any of his dry wit had crept into the opera. "You mean the type of thing that’s crept on to the latest LP?", he asked. "No, I don’t think so, there’s nothing terribly funny about it unless people are amused by a lisp. I’ve given the hero one but there was definite reason for it. You see, he must get immediate affection and as people feel sorry for anyone with a disability or impediment, I gave him a lisp. I thought at first that he could have a stammer, but I decided that that would become monotonous after a couple of scenes. His list isn’t very bad and it gets better or worse depending on what kind of situation he’s in. It doesn’t affect the overall sound of the opera. There’s a great deal of chorus work in it, but his lisp doesn’t stick out at all. After all, a chorus sounds like a chorus no matter who is singing."
Who did he visualize in the part of the hero if his production ever came to the stage? "Hard to say. It’s a very difficult part," said Pete. "He would have to be very clever and should have had an operatic training. I can’t see anybody who is on the current ‘pop scene’ doing it. Except, perhaps for David Garrick, or someone like him, although the hero is supposed to be about 25, so I’m not sure that David would be old enough for the part."
I left Pete to carry on with his opera. The completed thing will be 25 scenes’ long and he still hasn’t quite reached the half-way mark. Perhaps by the time he has finished it the public will have developed a taste for mini-opera, in which case Pete would probably produce it. At the moment he doesn’t think they would be terribly impressed. I hope he’s wrong. After so much hard work surely Pete’s exercise would be given the O.K. by a pop public which is becoming more and more discerning with every new release.