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Libya’s ‘Gadhafi’ Focus of London Opera

September 7, 2006 GMT

LONDON (AP) _ He’s been called a terrorist, a pariah and a statesman. Now Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is an operatic hero.

The larger-than-life dictator is the central figure in ``Gaddafi: A Living Myth,″ the highly anticipated season-opener from the English National Opera.

``The audience isn’t going to know what’s hit them,″ said ENO’s artistic director, John Berry, ahead of Thursday’s opening night.

``It’s not necessarily going to be a comfortable evening, but it will be highly contentious, visceral experience.″

With its genre-bending form and highly charged content, the show is a gamble for Britain’s second-largest opera company. For one thing, it’s not really an opera, but a multimedia musical that uses dialogue, song, dance and film to tell a story of politics, power and image.

Composer Steve Chandra Savale has called the show _ complete with a chorus of uniformed female bodyguards belting out songs of praise for their leader _ ``an anti-musical.″

Savale, a member of dance/hip-hop collective Asian Dub Foundation, mixes North African rhythms, reggae and drum’n’bass in his score. The libretto is by Scottish playwright Shan Khan, who has said his only previous exposure to opera was the Mozart biopic ``Amadeus.″

The play charts Gadhafi’s journey from international pariah, accused of supporting international terrorism, to a statesman who was visited by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2004 after abandoning attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Its backdrop is the violence that has shadowed Gadhafi’s long reign. His regime was held accountable for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, and for the 1986 bombing of a Berlin nightclub popular with U.S. servicemen.

The play depicts Gadhafi brooding in his bunker, awaiting U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s retaliatory air strikes.

Savale and Khan also try to capture the leader’s charismatic side, as well as the idiosyncratic brand of pan-Arab socialism laid out in the ``Green Book,″ Gadhafi’s guide to political philosophy.

Savale said in a recent interview that Gadhafi’s ``idealism, that self-belief ... makes him interesting, whatever you think about him.″

``Gaddafi: A Living Myth″ is the latest in a series of works to fuse opera and politics _ often to controversial effect.

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U.S. opera composer John Adams has written both ``Nixon in China″ _ about U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Beijing _ and ``The Death of Klinghoffer,″ based on the murder of an elderly American during a 1985 cruise-ship hijacking. Fifteen years after its premiere, it routinely attracts protests wherever it is staged.

Even more provocative was ``Jerry Springer _ The Opera,″ a blend of lowbrow TV and highbrow culture that included arias about transvestitism and diaper fetishism and a Jesus Christ who admits he is ``a little bit gay.″ It was a hit in London’s West End, but saw dates across Britain dropped and a U.S. run put on ice amid protests from outraged Christian groups.

``Gaddafi″ is an important one for the ENO, which has weathered a period of financial and management turmoil that saw it lose its chairman and artistic director late last year.

The company, whose 2,400-seat Coliseum theater is London’s largest, is keen to reach beyond its graying, middle-class core audience.

In 2004 it performed part of Wagner’s ``The Valkyrie″ to thousands of rock fans at the Glastonbury festival. The company’s 2006-2007 season includes a Sanskrit-language opera about Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and the Broadway musical ``Kismet,″ alongside more standard operatic fare by Verdi and Mozart.

It appears ``Gaddafi″ has succeeded in attracting at least one new group to the Coliseum.

A spokeswoman at the Libyan People’s Bureau _ the country’s London embassy _ said ``the whole embassy″ planned to attend the opening night.

``Gaddafi: A Living Myth″ runs through Sept. 16.

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On the Net:

English National Opera: www.eno.org