To those who have been wondering what happened to Anna Calvi, who has been almost invisible since she finished touring her 2013 ‘One Breath’ album apart from a few one-off special ‘intimate’ shows and a recent live EP for luxury fashion house Burberry, the answer may be that she has turned into a musical writer for opera.
Actually, that’s hardly a surprise. Several of the tracks on both the eponymous first album and on ‘One Breath’ had a distinct operatic flavour to them (check out the title track to ‘One Breath’ or ‘The Bridge’ for example) while Anna has always looked to be at home when working with The Heritage Orchestra and other assorted orchestras and choirs at ‘special shows’ in London and at the Edinburgh Festival.
Coupled with the fact she admitted a while ago to struggling to nail down a fresh batch of songs and was suffering a dose of writer’s block (though a third album is frequently rumoured to be in the works) and that, despite her immense talent, she has been so far unable to make a mainstream breakthrough, perhaps opera and theatre is her future?
Calvi has vacillated between describing ‘The Sandman’, for which she wrote the music, as an opera and a theatre play. It began life as a rather deep and convoluted dark short story written in German by E T A Hoffman in an 1817 book, Die Nachtstücke (The Night Pieces). It deals with such lightweight matters as hallucinations, post-traumatic stress and castration. The themes have turned up regularly in popular culture in work by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), Roy Orbison and even in Hellboy.
With her exposure to psychology (her parents are hypnotherapists and she has been observed to be doing something which looks a lot like self-hypnosis on stage), this sort of subject matter seems to be right up her street (well, apart from castration).
In this new version of ‘The Sandman,’ the play/opera is directed by Robert Wilson, the 75-year old American experimental director and playwright who has been described as the world’s foremost avant-garde theatre artist and whose list of collaborators reads as a who’s who of the glitterati of highbrow show business. Interestingly, numbered amongst them are several that Anna Calvi has worked with, notably David Byrne, and one wonders if that is how the introduction came about.
‘The Sandman’ premiered on 3rd May at the Ruhrfestspiele Festival, Recklinghausen, Germany and runs there until 9th May, after which it transfers to the Schauspielhaus in Düsseldorf (sporadically, 20th May to 9th July). There is no sign yet of performances anywhere else.
Anna Calvi may have found her métier with this move and the world of opera will be all the better for it. On the other hand, as the web advertising for ‘The Sandman’ says, “at his (Wilson’s) side is British singer-songwriter Anna Calvi, who is famous for dramatic rock and poetic texts.”
Indeed she is, and anyone who has been fortunate enough to witness, live, the grace of songs like ‘Rider to the Sea,’ the power of her cover of ‘Jezebel,’ the blistering guitar solo of ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ and the overt sexuality of much of her work will be hoping this doesn’t signal the premature end of her rock music career.
‘Whip the Night,’ from the ‘Live for Burberry’ EP. It was written for ‘The Sandman.’