Opera has a long history of over-the-top spectacle and melodramatic plots. Composer Jacob Cooper decided to embrace that excess, creating a contemporary opera that imagines the tragic end of one particularly tempestuous pop diva.
Mellissa Hughes — pictured on a recent music-video shoot in Brooklyn, N.Y. — plays Britney Spears in Timberbrit, an experimental opera by composer Jacob Cooper.
Mellissa Hughes — pictured on a recent music-video shoot in Brooklyn, N.Y. — plays Britney Spears in Timberbrit, an experimental opera by composer Jacob Cooper. Katie Hayes/NPR
The work is called Timberbrit — as in Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. It's a tragic tale that imagines Spears' last concert, in the final hours of her life. Timberlake returns after a long absence to win back Spears' love, but in the end she chooses the audience's love above all else.
Cooper began work on the opera by experimenting with a technique called time-stretching. Using digital audio software, he slowed down Spears' songs — and suddenly the light pop tunes seemed hauntingly tragic. Phrases like "Hit me baby one more time" took on an entirely different and more weighted meaning.
Cooper then collaborated with his performers to create new pieces of music inspired by those slowed-down hits, and writer Yuka Igarashi crafted fresh lyrics using the vernacular of Spears' songs — tears, love, dreams, innocence.
As a doctoral student at Yale, Cooper has looked at the psychological aspects of how traditional operas stretch time during death scenes — the way a dying character in Rigoletto or Boris Godunov, say, will pause to sing a 10-minute aria. Not realistic perhaps, but it packs a punch.
Cooper has expanded on that distinctive musical tradition by creating an entire opera enveloped by a fatal slowness of action. The idea is that in Timberbrit, Spears' prolonged destruction amplifies the tragedy of her downfall.
The opera premiered in New York City as a semistaged production in 2008 and is currently being developed into a fully staged version.
Meanwhile, the cast and crew of Timberbrit recently shot a music video of Cooper's song "Worst Fantasy," inspired by Spears' "Toxic." In keeping with the opera's process, the videographers started with a slowed-down, stretched-out recording of the original, then manipulated it and built on it to create something new.
The result: a distillation of Spears' music videos and public meltdowns that forces viewers to take a second look at both pop-star lives and the way the public devours them.
This piece was originally produced for NPR's Intern Edition by Claire Happel and Sarah Metcalf.