Stewart Copeland Talks About His Opera Adaptation of 'The Tell-Tale Heart'

Categories: Q&As

By: Greggory Moore
Before any journalist decides to write a story about Stewart Copeland, just know that the chances of you surprising him with a double entendre about the Police are very slim. In the myriad articles written about the drummer over the last three decades, he's heard 'em all, no matter what new product he's selling.

"I had a nice piece come out in the L.A. Times today," Copeland says as we begin an interview he's doing in support of The Tell-Tale Heart, his Edgar Allan Poe-based opera currently making its U.S. premiere at the Long Beach Opera this week. "You know: 'Copeland finds synchronicity in opera.' Then the print version was different than the online version, something like: 'Copeland finds message in an opera.' They just can't resist!"

We here at the Weekly tried to ignore it ourselves. But with every breath we took, the beating of that hideous Police heart! We sat down with the longtime composer to talk about his new adaptation of Poe's immortal short story, his unlikely career path into the world of operas, and yes, plenty of questions about the Police.

OC Weekly (Greggory Moore):Have you ever tried to do a rough estimate of how many interviews you've done in your life?

Stewart Copeland: Um, no, I haven't, actually. If I really wanted to, I could probably. I keep records of everything.

What would be a rough guess off the top of your head?

You promise to print it? Five hundred million.

Do people tend to ask about The Police even when you're doing an interview for something like this that has nothing to do with The Police?

People do. I usually forget what the hell it is I'm selling once I get talking, so I'll answer pretty much any question. [It doesn't bother me,] provided that when such a story comes out it at least mentions whatever the hell it is that I was trying to sell.

The Police was something you did for a nine years three decades ago, yet for the vast majority of people, your public persona is dominated by it.

Well, actually, yes and no. It depends on where you look. [...] Sure, there's a lot of Police conscious [...] in the tiny sliver of the world that knows I exist at all, but in the opera world and in film composing that's pretty much downplayed. It's kind of interesting: "But I don't want a rock drummer, I want a film composer!" So for 20 years I was pretty much downplaying that previous life in my reputation as a film composer--which is pretty much how I earn my living, so that makes that important. [...] The films that I've scored are right up there of paramount importance, and the Police part of the story is only an interesting footnote. [...] As far as punters reading newspapers, I don't get the name-check [for film-scoring], but my work is out there. And the way that I got that work is my reputation as a film composer, rather than as a drummer in a rock band. (Pause) That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

How long have you been a fan of Poe?

Well, pretty much since I was terrified as a kid by a black-and-white film of "The Tell-Tale Heart," where they had it under the piano, and you could see the floorboards shaking: Thu-thump, thu-thump. "Ah, shit!" And that stuck. And then you go through high school and college and do your literature--and Poe, of course, is a towering figure of American literature. Who isn't a fan of Poe?

Would you characterize yourself as someone who's particularly interested in psychology?

[Pause] Yes, [but] more mass psychology than individual psychology. [...] In my last years in college I majored in mass communication and public policy, which is all about how the Zeitgeist is formed through the media, through word of mouth, through tradition, and so on. So, mass psychology I've always been really interested in, yes. But you're probably thinking about individual psychology, such as would be relevant to "The Tell-Tale Heart." Um, I'm no great authority. I did Psych 101. But you don't have to be a scientist to get the psychology, the pre-Freudian psychology of "The Tell-Tale Heart," where it grapples with the psychological issue of madness. Is madness necessarily derangement? And the protagonist in this story keeps saying, "How could I be mad when I'm so clever about how I did this murder and covered up all the traces? How could I possibly be mad? (Breaking into song) I'm not--MAAAAAAD!"

His reason for telling the tale is to establish his non-madness--which was an interesting question for Poe, pre-Freud: What is insanity, and what is crime? He's clear to point out that there was no motive for this crime; it's just evil, it's just fuckedness. [...] One of the things that does emerge and that I kind of had fun with [in the opera] is the obvious joy that Poe takes in telling this story. And it's tempting--particularly for me as a dramatist--to make that autobiographical. The lust, the drooling for the deed exposed the author himself as a potential perpetrator of such a "glorious" crime. [...] He really inhabits that crazy mind.

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