For fans of the esoteric the news was wonderful: Alan Moore writing an opera on mystical adviser to Queen Elizabeth, John Dee, with Gorillaz. It sounded like a match made somewhere in an alchemical lab with every potential of turning into gold. There was just one problem: Gorillaz couldn’t be bothered to come up with some artwork for Moore’s magazine Dodgem Logic, despite having the issue held for them several times. As Moore told it:
And then we just got through to the point where I just met them, I said, yeah, I can get the other two-thirds of the opera written by the end of February, middle of March at the latest. It will mean working flat out, but I can do it. You still alright for that deadline for issue three? And they said yep, and it turned out they wouldn’t be able to make that issue three deadline even though we extended it for them for a little bit because they had too many commitments, so at that point I decided I had too many commitments as well.
While Moore’s relationships with other former collaborators have also been fractious at times, there seems little reason to doubt this. Further interviews with Albarn have tended to use neutral language along the lines of ‘Moore moved on from the project’ despite the latter’s clear enthusiasm and expertise on the topic. (Fitzpatrick, 2012)
In keeping with his usual habits, Moore simply got on with the various other projects he had going and published the incomplete libretto for the opera in Strange Attractor (2011). Damon Albarn made his own opera anyway, Dr Dee (2012). It received mixed notices; Pritchard in The Guardian called it more of a masque than an opera, while Christiansen in The Telegraph praised its dazzling staging and design. Albarn’s CD, however, comes across as less successful, offering rather tepid meanderings into psychedelia – what The Quietus called, ‘less philosopher’s stone, and more curate’s egg: a handful of fine songs where Albarn plays to his existing strengths, but mired in a sea of over-reaching folly’ (Graham, 2012). As Kitty Empire writes in The Observer, ‘this record isn’t anywhere near as dense with magick as you might have expected. Rather, Albarn remains nostalgic for a strange, lost England, one not a million miles from PJ Harvey’s on elegant, moving songs such as “Cathedrals”‘. (Empire, 2012)
Moore’s notes offer a much richer—if nonetheless tantalisingly incomplete—glimpse of what might have been. The lovely thing about ‘Between the Angels and the Apes’ is how the notes reveal (once again) Moore’s structural approach to composition; as Richardson observes, ‘Rarely does a comic by Moore seem like it just “goes”; every page, every issue, every arc seems to be following an almost mathematical formula’ (2012). Consider the opening section of the outline:
If we’re to create an approximately ninety-minute piece on the subject of Greatest Dead Englishman John Dee, then a solid and conventional place to start structurally would be a classic three-act construction with sections of a half-hour each. This also seems to fit nicely with the triangular Greek delta symbol (which is how Dee identifies himself in the facsimile notes presented in A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Yeers between Dr John Dee and Some Spirits [Meric Casaubon, 1659] and is also the elemental symbol for fire, which is in turn the element that represents the highest spiritual component of the magician or, indeed, the ordinary human being).
Moore further breaks down each section into subsections with flashbacks, framed by opening and closing scenes of the dying Dee in Mortlake with his daughter. Doing so brings a female voice and perspective to what tends to be a male-centered story in most retellings which center on Dee and his later partner in endeavours, Edward Kelly.
The elements of Dee’s life and world that catch Moore’s interest show his magpie attraction to the wondrous and grotesque. He wants the first section to focus on Dee’s imprisonment ‘for treason after casting an inauspicious horoscope for Queen Mary’, when his cellmate happened to be the leper Bartlett Green (Moore, 243). Moore suggests doubling the role with that of Kelly ‘to make a subtle connection between these two mysterious figures (both of whom had bits of their bodies missing)’ (245).
It almost seems as if Moore comes up with the idea of breaking the fourth wall in the opera while he writes his outline, suggesting that the magician can sense the audience as ‘spirits of futurity’ watching him from the time to come. Like the final chapter of Voice of the Fire, breaking that wall breaks down the sense of certainty about the barrier between reality and fiction. His approach to Queen Elizabeth is that she’s a kind of Faerie Queen, and he suspects ‘that Dee’s devotion to Elizabeth was at least partly erotically inspired’ so imagines her as more ‘otherworldly and erotic’ than traditionally envisioned. This recasting of the much-reproduced image of the queen has the practical aspect of making her ‘distinctive and unusual enough to make the character seem fresh again’ (244).
To capitalise on the fluid aspects of live performance, Moore suggests, ‘we will need at least two or ideally three performers to take the part of Dee himself. The main one will be the elderly and dying Dee who both opens and closes the opera, but we might need two other performers to depict Dee at the three stages of his life’ in the flashbacks (245). Moore begins to sketch out not just the narrative of the opera but many of the staging and costuming plans. A fully realised conception begins to emerge from what had been planned only as a libretto, leaping into life like his own magical performances, bringing an organic whole out of a mix of words, image and sound.
For example, his conception of Queen Elizabeth, in which he name-checks Miranda Richardson’s wonderfully demented embodiment of the monarch in Blackadder, suggests she must be ‘strange and fey’ and should ‘accentuate the fact that English royalty of this period (and, arguably, any other period) were incredibly strange and exotic creatures who were literally as different from the human beings around them as if they had actually been the faerie race of Spenser’s poem’ (248). She has to be a highly sexualised figure to demonstrate her powerful appeal (and for Moore, a powerful woman is always appealing), but also to give an opportunity to employ ‘fantastical and psychedelic’ interpretations of period costumes, a theme he carries over into musical suggestions as well. Readers of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen would find this Elizabeth right at home in the 1969 iteration of the League. Moore muses on ‘intensely mathematical and Hendrix-fast harpsichord pieces’ that might be inspired by letting the mind race over the re-imagined Elizabeth.
‘Between the Angels and the Apes’ is a fascinating look at a show that will doubtless never be, that includes some of the text as well as the notes for the piece. Taken in that same spirit of imaginative psychedelia, it can create an amazing opera in your own head.
Albarn, D. 2012, Dr Dee, Virgin Records [Music CD]
Christiansen, R. 2012, ‘Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee, ENO, London Coliseum, review’, The Telegraph, 27 July 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/opera/9359720/Damon-Albarns-Dr-Dee-ENO-London-Coliseum-review.html [Accessed 7 September 2012]
Empire, K. 2012, ‘Damon Albarn: Dr Dee – Review’, The Observer, 5 May 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/may/06/damon-albarn-dr-dee-review [Accessed 7 September 2012]
Graham, B. 2012, ‘Damon Albarn: Dr Dee’, The Quietus, 5 May 2012. http://thequietus.com/articles/08720-damon-albarn-dr-dee-review [Accessed 3 July 2012]
Johnston, R. 2011, ‘Damon Albarn, Alan Moore, Jamie Hewlett And The Two Doctor Dee Operas’, Bleeding Cool, 5 July 2011. http://www.bleedingcool.com/2011/07/05/damon-albarn-alan-moore-jamie-hewlett-and-the-two-john-dee-operas/ [Accessed 3 July 2012]
Moore, A. 2011, ‘Between the Angels and the Apes’, Strange Attractor Journal, no. 4, pp. 241-265.
Richardson, W. 2012, ‘Friday Recommendation: Promethea‘, Multiversity Comics, 1 June 2012. http://multiversitycomics.com/columns/friday-recommendation-promethea/ [Accessed 7 September 2012]
K. A. Laity has written several essays on Moore’s work as well as on various aspects of magic and comics. Her works include Owl Stretching, Chastity Flame, Unquiet Dreams, Rook Chant, Pelzmantel, Unikirja and many stories, plays and essays. Laity has been described variously as an all-purpose writer, Fulbrighter, uberskiver, medievalist, humourist, flâneuse, techno-shamanka, Jane Quiet scripter, Broad Universe social media wrangler, and Pirate Pub Captain, currently anchored in Dundee, Scotland. Website http://www.kalaity.com
This article is part of a series on Alan Moore’s short comics, guest edited by Maggie Gray. To read the other articles in this series click here.