Composer Charles Hazlewood talks us through the music in the Beggar’s Opera, Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs)…
The Beggar’s Opera hit an unsuspecting London like a thunderbolt in 1728. Here was an ‘opera’ about low-born, mucky people doing low-born, mucky things to each other (in those days operas were exclusively about the aristocracy or mythical deities: the common man didn’t figure); an ‘opera’ whose musical foundations seemed embedded in the fleshpots and gin palaces; specifically an opera where arias – instead of being art-house confections – were a festering muck-heap of scabrous ditties belonging to everyone and no-one: the popular songs of the day. (On the occasions where Gay deploys a tune by Purcell or Handel, he deliberately and rudely turns it on its head with lyrics of dubious morality).
Gay’s use of music is always specific, and always drives his message home: for instance in a moment of shattering irony at the climax of the piece when Macheath is about to hang, Gay takes the most iconic and aristocratic of all English folk tunes, Greensleeves – widely supposed (then as now) to have been written by Henry VIII – and screams out the moral of the piece over it: that if the rich were to hang for their crimes as well as the poor, there wouldn’t be a man left alive in England.
The Beggar’s Opera was a barbed comment on the times, as salacious/prescient/hilarious/bleak as a Hogarth cartoon. It was also effectively the prototype for the modern musical.
But down the years The Beggar’s Opera has lost its teeth, not least because these once ubiquitous little tunes have evaporated from our collective consciousness. When the show is revived, it is invariably as a charming museum-piece. The score entirely lacks the resonance John Gay endowed it with. The tunes have lost their context.
If The Beggar’s Opera is to speak now with the same tangy urgency it had in 1728, then it needs music which does exactly what it did in Gay’s original, i.e. to plunder the sounds of now, (as well as the elegant trappings of then).
And so my mongrel score for Dead Dog in a Suitcase (and other love songs) – a Beggar’s Opera for our times after all – straddles electro disco, new wave, grime, dubstep, noire, trip hop, punk, ska, as well as eighteenth century counterpoint and the great Purcell. I have bent and bastardised certain originals (you can’t carbon-date a tune!), and written a huge amount of new material. My hope is that these tunes will jostle for position in the ear of the unguarded listener, a cacophony of infectious ditties as disarming and debilitating as the unbalanced times we still live in.