A couple of months ago Damon Albarn premiered his new work Dr Dee: An English Opera as part of the Manchester International Festival. As the name would suggest, Dr Dee concerns the life of the Elizabethan mathematician, cartographer and magician John Dee, with original music composed by Albarn (singing and conducting a chamber group live on stage throughout the show). Well, maybe it was because I was so blown away by Bjork’s magical Biophilia show a few days earlier at the festival, but I found the opera to be a massive let down. You can read more of my thoughts on Dr Dee An English Opera here.
One of the main complaints levelled at Albarn’s production was that its oblique nature did nothing to explain the fascinating story of John Dee to an audience unfamiliar with the man. I was lucky enough to have some knowledge in advance and was able to spot some of the key moments in Dee’s life - but even then the narrative felt scrambled and made little use of some incredible source material (namely the man’s incredible life story). That’s despite this promising write up in the MIF’s program:
There was once an Englishman so influential that he defined how we measure years, so quintessential that he lives on in Shakespeare’s words; yet so shrouded in mystery that he’s fallen from the very pages of history itself.
That man was Dr Dee – astrologer, courtier, alchemist, and spy.
Queen Elizabeth’s Magician - John Dee is a 2002 television show produced by the UK’s Channel 4 for their Masters of Darkness series, and tells the man’s incredible story in a much more accessible way. While perhaps not revealing anything that the more avid Dee student wouldn’t already know, the show is informative and entertaining (if slightly cheesy) and serves as a good introduction to the man and his legacy. It’s also a good watch for fans of Alan Moore, who appears throughout the show and talks of Dee’s magical practices and their influence - and the three-note “spooky” sax motif is more memorable than anything in Albarn’s opera: