Welcome to the Voice is a short opera for voices, string quartet, keyboards, guitars, symbols, and one wind player who adds accents on instruments ranging from a clarinet to a shakuhachi. The music is by longtime Elvis Costello keyboardist and collaborator Steve Nieve, to a libretto by his creative and personal partner, Muriel Teodori, and the project originated with her desire to create a work based on "the collision between two very different aesthetic and social worlds, and to juxtapose a classical string quartet playing from a strict score with a jazz formation playing from a simple chord chart." Singers in this performance come from both the pop and classical worlds (and indeed they would have to in any performance of the work); they include Sting, English rock singer and experimentalist Robert Wyatt, soprano Barbara Bonney, and the Brodsky Quartet.
In many ways, Welcome to the Voice differs from others in the line of works that try to merge popular and classical styles in a dramatic framework. For one thing, it really feels like an opera -- the story, though simple, has a convincing over-the-top quality. Dionysos (Sting) is a steelworker of Greek descent, "a worker in the arsehole of this planet," who discovers opera. "My heart was ripped open by this angel and demon music," he sings, and he conceives a fatal passion for the Opera Singer (Bonney). His friend tries to dissuade him: "Dust and contempt is the music you long for -- all these poor themes hypnotize your strength, devitalize your real fight." But a delightful trio of operatic ghosts, Carmen, Norma, and Butterfly, eggs him on, with Butterfly telling him that he can "join all the heroes who like us died for love." Dionysos kisses the Opera Singer, but she recoils and summons the police. The Chief of Police (Costello), a splendidly evil character, laments "the disgusting mixing of the humans, as good people must disinfect the troublemaker; there's no room in this town for the troublemaker that you are." In the end the Opera Singer relents, and the two sing of the unlikeliness of love.
Beyond the work's characteristically operatic sense for drama, Welcome to the Voice is noteworthy in its treatment of the contrast between concert-music and vernacular idioms. That contrast is explored on various levels -- in the story itself, which includes elements of class conflict, in the voices used, in the language (where French stands in for the collection of traditional operatic languages, alternating with English), and in the music, with the string quartet forming one unit and the piano-guitar group another. But what's interesting is that the boundary between the two is porous and never especially sharp. Nieve intentionally avoids big pop effects, even where they might have seemed obvious -- a workers' chorus praises "Guevara and Gramsci and Saint-Just" (to which Dionysos chimes in "and Mozart"), but this revolutionary song calls forth no blazing guitars, just a rather singsong inflection of the work's basic language. That language lies somewhere between Elvis Costello and late Romanticism; it can bend slightly in each direction to accommodate Sting (who sounds more comfortable here than on his album of Dowland songs) and the operatic singers, but is never completely abandoned.
In short, this work may be something of a breakthrough. As with many concert works by composers from the rock orbit, it's a bit short on really memorable tunes. On the plus side is the fact that it doesn't really require the star voices present here; any group of college music students could mount a production that would cross boundaries by involving local rock performers. Indeed, the work needs to be performed; this recording, recorded in chunks in London, New York, Sting's villa in Tuscany, and several other places, has a slightly disjointed quality that is not intrinsic to the music itself. Here's hoping this is not the last recording of this innovative piece.