The worlds of pop music, opera and technology will collide on stage this Thursday night.
That is when a new production of “Timberbrit,” a musical featuring music by Jacob Cooper MUS ’06, will take the stage at St. Mark’s Church in New York City. The opera is loosely based on the love affair between Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
Cooper started working on the piece about three years ago. He wrote the music using a technique called “time-stretching,” in which a computer program slows down songs to a fraction of their original tempo. Cooper first used the technique to create background for his compositions and then started taking inspiration from the sound of the slowed down songs to write original music.
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In 2007, Cooper began applying the technique to pop music, and he said he discovered that songs by both Spears and Timberlake yielded interesting results. Cooper said the idea to write an opera with this music followed shortly thereafter.
“With these two characters, they’re sort of operatic in themselves, so I figured: why not make a drama out of it?” Cooper said.
The director of “Timberbrit,” Jamie Castenada, said that though he initially fell for Cooper’s music, he added that he also enjoys the way the musical depicts both the glamour and grit of celebrity culture. Castenada, a staff member of New York’s esteemed Atlantic Theater Company, is also the founder and artistic director of FireStarter Productions, which is helping produce the show.
“In the show when we see these people, even in their caricature status — blonde hair, Fedora hat — we see the light and the glimmer and we see the sweat and the spit and a little bit of the mud along with it,” Castenada said.
The production uses video projectors to stream live video of the performers, which Castenada said both allows audience members an intimate look at the actors and lends the piece a sort of rock concert aesthetic. The screens will also project images and film that Castaneda said he hopes will to bring out the “very sensory” nature of Cooper’s music.
Chris Theofanidis MUS ’97, a School of Music professor who worked with Cooper at Yale, said that one of Cooper’s strengths is his willingness to collaborate and take inspiration from other art forms and artists.
“A lot of his pieces I feel are visually stimulated in some way,” said Theofanidis, who went on to highlight one of Cooper’s compositions, a stretched out version of a piece by Purcell, which was performed alongside video projections of a person dying.
Theofanidis said that “Timberbrit” is another example of Cooper’s ability to create interesting works by combining a variety of genres and styles.
“The interesting thing about this show is it’s kind of the reverse of what you usually get from these artists [Spears and Timberlake],” Theofanidis said. “You usually get really small sound bites and little snippets, but this really forces you to linger on the words.”
Neither Castenada nor Cooper admitted to being avid fans of Spears or Timberlake, but they said they had learned a lot about the celebrities while working on this show. For fans of the artists, Cooper warned that “Timberbrit” is neither a tribute to nor a send up of the performers.
“If you’re an avid fan you will be able to tell where things come from — maybe,” Cooper said. “But it’s entirely original.”
In addition to Cooper, both members of the cast, Mellissa Hughes MUS ’06 and Ted Hearne MUS ’09, as well as the show’s bass player Joe Magar MUS ’06, are Yale alums.
As for the future of “Timberbrit,” Cooper and Castenada said they’d like to do another larger-scale production in New York or go on tour with the piece. But they said future plans will depend on whether the project, which involves about 10 people, can secure additional financial support.
“There are cities that are interested [in hosting “Timberbrit”],” Cooper said. “It’s just the funding that’s hard to find.”
A semi-staged version of Timberbrit was first performed in March of 2008 at New York City’s The Tank, a non-profit organization that provides support for a variety of artistic projects, before being staged at Yale in April of the same year.