09.29.09 THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
It's a bizarre sort of ensemble, a kind of genre-busting supergroup. Distributed carefully about the stage in a smallish studio theatre are stars of theatre, opera, the recital hall and, in a random invasion from left field, the stadium. The assembled include Derek Jacobi on spoken voice, Simon Keenlyside on sung voice, Natalie Clein on cello and Iain Burnside on piano. And wandering in beardedly from the rock and roll hall of fame, that'll be none other than Sting. Plus his wife Trudie Styler.
What possible cause can this disparate gallery of superstars have to muster on the same stage somewhere in the intestinal labyrinth that is the Royal Opera House?
Here's a clue: Sting has not brought his guitar, or indeed his lute. He and Styler are appearing as actors. They sit in well-upholstered armchairs. From his, Sting delivers the words of Robert Schumann, while around him, male musicians perform Schumann's music. Meanwhile, Styler recites the letters of Clara Wieck, the pianistic virtuoso who became Frau Schumann, interleaved by performances from the trio of female musicians.
Twin Spirits is a celebration of the life, love and music of the Schumanns. At times romantic and tragic, it traces their early infatuation, the thwarted hope as Clara's father refused Schumann access to his daughter, their eventual marriage, followed all too soon by the composer's illness which killed him at the age of 48.
The title refers to their conspiratorial habit, when banned from meeting as young sweethearts, of arranging to play the same piece of piano music at the same time.
"I didn't know much about the letters," Sting cheerfully concedes in a break during rehearsals. "We went to the first rehearsal and started to read the story and then the music started to come to life.
"It became much less abstract. It became about their passion and their difficulties. It's a very compelling and emotional story. Audiences who see it or hear it are as deeply affected. It's a real tear-jerker. Clara is quite something."
Needless to say, it's all for charity. Sting and Styler were first embroiled in the lives of the Schumanns when asked by their Wiltshire neighbour Lady Chichester, whose brainchild Twin Spirits is. "I think she asked us because we were cheap," Styler says.
Twin Spirits has been performed to an audience on four previous occasions, first in Salisbury, latterly in New York, with a variety of musicians, each time to raise money in the field of musical education. But this time it is being memorialised on film under the direction of John Caird, before an intimate audience including Willard White and Alfred Brendel.
No one will ever mistake Sting for a great actor, but he has a useful role to play in breaking down the barriers between his world and the one represented here onstage.
Songs from the Labyrinth, his collection of mainly John Dowland songs performed on the lute, was a classical chart-topper in 2007. On it he read a letter from Dowland to Robert Cecil. "It just makes it come to life," he says. "Classical music for most people is very distant and abstract. You put a story to it and it brings people in. It's a good strategy; if you want people to listen to this music more, then tell the story."
There will be a queue of purists - devotees of the Kinderszenen and Dichterliebe - who might baulk at the notion of Schumann being voiced by the author of De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da. Sting makes no grand claim to artistic kinship, but would argue that on a deep level all composers draw from the same well. "I don't suffer from bipolar depression which it seems Robert Schumann did, but I certainly have a tendency towards melancholy. A lot of musicians do. We tend to see life through the prism of minor keys."
And then there is intensely wrought musical voicing of Schumann's passion for Clara. There's certainly an overlap there. "As a songwriter, 99 per cent of songs are about relationships - longing for love, failed love, missing love. Of course that's what people want to hear: the mystery of man and woman."
The money raised from the DVD sales of Twin Spirits will go towards a Royal Opera House education programme to bring young people into the building who aren't normally exposed to classical music, ballet or opera.
"It's their culture as much as anybody else's," Sting says. (Not that he professes to go much himself. He can't recall attending Covent Garden. The last opera he saw was "probably Tosca at the Met".)
With his former teacher's hat on, Sting has just put his name to the Government's National Year of Music which aims to encourage children to learn a musical instrument as early as possible. "If you get the chance to learn an instrument when you're young, take it," he says, "as who knows where it will lead you?
"Music and songwriting can be rewarding careers." It's appropriate to add a rider that not many are going to end up quite as rewarding as Sting's. But for all the wealth, copiously augmented by the reunion tour of the Police, Sting professes still to be learning.
"I'm a student musician. I tend to listen to music not for relaxation or necessarily enjoyment. I tend to listen to learn. So I don't listen to very much pop music because I'm not quite sure I'm learning anything there. But classical music, definitely. Harmonically, in terms of counterpoint arranging, I can learn a great deal."
Having flirted with Dowland and the lute, what else does he listen to?
"My tastes are to the baroque. I love Bach. It is a lifetime study. I don't have time for much else. I play very badly but I can get through the partitas and the cello suites on guitar and even the lute now."
It leaves little room for practising his thespian craft. At the height of the Police's fame he made cross-border forays in Quadrophenia (1979) and Dennis Potter's Brimstone & Treacle (1982).
In recent years he has been confined to playing himself in the likes of Little Britain USA and Ally McBeal and, most recently, Br?ºno. The last time he played a character not called Sting was 11 years ago in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
As he and Styler look devotedly into each other's eyes, they evidently don't have to work too hard. "We're reading letters," he says. "It's not as if I have to learn Othello."
© Daily Telegraph By Jasper Rees