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The Classical Elvis Costello

Of the wide variety of guests appearing on this season of SPECTACLE, Renee Fleming—world-renowned star of the Metropolitan Opera—is probably the most surprising. But as the episode reveals, Fleming and Elvis Costello share more common ground than might initially seem apparent.

The Pennsylvania-born soprano trained as a jazz singer, and has recorded with the likes of Michael Bolton (for better or worse) and Joe Jackson. She recently performed at the all-star “We Are One” concert that kicked off the inauguration ceremonies for President Obama, and she even sang—in the Sindarin language, no less—in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Perhaps less expected, though, is how easily Elvis converses about opera throughout this show. But maybe it shouldn’t be such a shock, since he has consistently involved himself in projects related to classical music for the last fifteen years. After co-composing the mostly orchestral soundtrack for the 1991 British mini-series G.B.H., he plunged deeper into classical territory with the art-song cycle The Juliet Letters in 1993. Rolling Stone called this collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet “alternately biting and rueful, evoking the sardonic humor and bleak beauty of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.”

In 2000, Elvis appeared at New York’s Town Hall, performing the role of the Chief of Police in Steve Nieve’s opera Welcome to the Voice. (He has revisited this work by his long-time keyboard player several times, singing on the 2007 cast recording and, most recently, returning to the role in late 2008 at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris.) In 2001, Elvis composed the music for a new ballet as part of his work as “artist in residence” at UCLA. That same year, he produced For the Stars, an album of pop songs by the Swedish opera singer, Anne Sofie von Otter.

In 2004, Elvis’s first full-scale orchestral work, Il Sogno (The Dream)—an expansion of the piece he began at UCLA—was performed in New York. Commissioned by the Italian dance company Aterballeto and based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the piece was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, and stayed at the top of Billboard’s Contemporary Classical Charts for 14 weeks.

Elvis was also commissioned by Copenhagen’s Danish Royal Opera to write a full-length work based on Hans Christian Andersen’s real-life obsession with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Several songs from this unfinished project, which is titled The Secret Songs, were performed at the Opera in 2005. Last year, the Miami City Ballet premiered Nightspot, a collaboration between Elvis and choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Still have any doubts about Elvis Costello’s credibility in the highbrow music world? Last July, as Declan McManus, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music from the University of Liverpool. So, if you don’t mind, that’s “Dr. Costello” to you.

– Alan Light

Alan Light is the former Editor-in-Chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, he is the author of “The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys” and a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence in music writing.