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What do metal and opera have in common?

Metal and classical. Riffs and strings. It shouldn’t work, and yet history shows the two go together like Hetfield and “YEAH”s. We grabbed a conductor’s baton and endeavoured to find out why

"Beethoven and Mozart were the rockstars of their time. They were living total lives of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Fucking animals!”

Hammer is talking to Perttu Kivilaakso of Finnish cello-metallers Apocalyptica, about the ongoing and culturally significant connection between classical music and heavy metal. Using cello as their instrument of choice since their days as a Metallica tribute band, Apocalyptica have long straddled both worlds. Now Perttu and partner- in-strings Eicca Toppinen have entered deeper into the classical establishment by creating Indigo, a work for the Finnish National Opera, which premieres this month. With a modern story about a shady corporation and a parallel universe, it combines a love for metal institutions such as Slayer with an appreciation of 19th century composers including Puccini and Verdi, and is scored for a traditional symphony orchestra. So not your usual West End Show.

“We didn’t feel the need for regular drums or electric guitar – that’d be too obvious,” explains Eicca. “We were more thinking about how we could make an up-to-date opera but be melodic, because modern opera nowadays is very atonal and definitely not romantic. We know the classical world, because we’ve been classical session musicians, but our approach comes from rock and metal, and we’ve never been ashamed to write haunting melodies.”

Over the last few decades, metal has enjoyed an increasingly close relationship with classical. There are multiple collaborations, metal bands that incorporate classical instruments, and a legion of symphonic bands with operatic vocals. Jan Butler, lecturer in popular music at Oxford Brookes, reckons the relationship has flourished because of similarities in their technical and thematic approaches. “There are things in classical music that really lend themselves to metal, such as virtuosity and the idea of power chords,” she offers. “They also share subject matter, with a tendency to write about madness, nature, Satan and so on, and those are things that 19th century romanticism was concerned with. This dark imagery has a close link to things in that era of classical music.”

The most famous crossover to date is perhaps Metallica’s S&M live album, made in conjunction with the San Francisco Symphony and conductor Michael Kamen in 1999, but there have been similar collaborative projects from X Japan, Satyricon, Dimmu Borgir, Therion, Manowar and Paradise Lost, who two years ago performed with an orchestra and choir at the Ancient Roman Theatre of Philippopolis in Bulgaria. The set’s just been released as a live album, Symphony For The Lost. Vocalist Nick Holmes explains that the classical instrumentation added a shadowy dimension to their gothic-tinged metal.


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