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Last Updated: Friday, 5 September, 2003, 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK
Paxarotti packs punch in Newsnight opera
by Ian Youngs
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Newsnight: The Opera has made its public debut in London, as a "scratch" performance, or a work in progress.

Jeremy Paxman and Michael Howard on Newsnight
The original Paxman versus Howard duel took place in 1997
"Did you threaten to overrule him?" boomed Jeremy Paxman's bass-baritone at Home Secretary Michael Howard across a news desk.

Mr Howard's mezzo-soprano answers skirted around the question and became increasingly flustered as the pace and intensity of Paxman's questioning built up.

"Did you threaten to overrule him?" Paxman continued with a few pauses for dramatic effect until they both reached a crescendo once the question had been asked 14 times.

"Right," Paxman declared. "Michael Howard, thank you."

That exchange, as Newsnight viewers know, gained notoriety after taking place on the BBC Two programme in 1997.

And it now forms the highlight of Newsnight: The Opera, which is being tested out at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in south London.

For the project, 12 composers were asked to come up with musical segments based on their favourite news stories.

At the scratch performance on Wednesday, six were played out - each lasting 10 minutes - tackling subjects from the death of Diana, Princess of Wales to the weather forecast.

David Durham
David Durham sings the parts of Paxman and Jonathan Aitken
The purpose of the scratch performance was to get feedback, and the audience was invited to the bar afterwards to give their views to cast and crew.

But despite the opera's name, the Paxman piece was the only one based on Newsnight, with the others culling material from different news shows - all using the original transcripts.

In the Newsnight segment, Paxman's role is sung by David Durham, who looks exactly like Paxman except for the fact that he is black, towering and has a beard.

"I love Jeremy Paxman with an absolute passion," Durham told BBC News Online. "I watch him every night.

"We watched the Howard footage and I tried to absorb the rather bemused and slightly sadistic element."


Durham, who trained as a chef for Egon Ronay, had just eight days to prepare and rehearse, he said.

Tom Morris
There's something quite camp about news presenting which suggests its emotionality
Tom Morris
He approached the new production as he would any other role, he said. "As an actor, you just try and serve the material."

The show's creator and director is Tom Morris, the BAC artistic chief who will shortly move to the National Theatre, taking new, experimental projects with him.

The National is the current home of another operatic innovation that began at the BAC - Jerry Springer: The Opera - which has gone on to achieve critical and commercial success.

Mr Morris got the idea for a news opera from the Paxman-Howard battle, which was "very funny and incredibly structured", he said.

"That seemed to invite being set to music."

And it made him think about the nature of news and why people watch it - deciding that viewers got an "emotional hit" from being let in on suffering.

He added: "There's something quite camp about news presenting which suggests its emotionality but is not allowed to admit to it."

Kate Adie in Tiananmen Square
Kate Adie's Tiananmen Square script was sung on stage
In Newsnight, the music and vocals are used to enhance the reports and give them new emphasis - and the results are either satirical or dramatic.

So in the reports about Jonathan Aitken's "sword of truth", Michael Fish failing to notice the storms of 1987 and David Beckham being sent off in the 1998 World Cup, the show becomes an unusual form of satire.

The figures being parodied are both the reporters and those being reported on.

'People's princess'

But in reconstructions of reports of Princess Diana's death and Kate Adie's experiences in Tiananmen Square during the student uprising in 1989, the tone is more serious.

In the Diana piece, different performers sing tributes given by Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela - and Mr Blair's words about the "people's princess" suddenly sound like they were written for the stage.

One unexpected side-effect is that the show highlights scripts that were well-constructed and powerful - and exposes those that were not.

The combination of funny and not so funny worked very well
Laurence Gough
Audience member
But the purpose of Thursday's performance was to get feedback from the public, and most remarks were positive.

"The standard of performance was much better than I was expecting," said Liz Gough, 56, from Blackheath, south-east London.

Her husband, Laurence, 54, said: "The combination of funny and not so funny worked very well - it challenged me and made me think."

Katherine Pakenham, 40, also from Blackheath, said: "The Kate Adie piece was particularly good - they really captured the rhythm of her voice."

'Ambiguous and difficult'

But it should tackle more up-to-date material, according to Tony Gilland, 34, from Tottenham, north London.

"Michael Fish, Jonathan Aitken - we all know the story," he said. "More recent stories would be more ambiguous and difficult."

But Mr Morris said he had "absolutely no idea" how much of Wednesday's show would appear in the finished version.

"In this bar now, there are 30 conversations about what we do next," he said.

But as Richard Thomas, who wrote the music for the Jerry Springer opera, told him in the bar: "It's got legs."

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