Dr Dee draws on a 400-year-old tradition of festive courtly entertainment – the masque. A well-travelled confidant of Queen Elizabeth I, versed in mathematics, navigation, astrology and alchemy, Dr Dee was thought to have been the model for Shakespeare's Prospero and Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, In later exile to Manchester, Dr Dee founded the first public library in the English-speaking world; he coined the term 'Britannia' and at court, put forward the notion of empire.
This concept of a developing sense of 'Englishness' drove Albarn to write the opera – a meditation on episodes and themes from Dr Dee's extraordinary life which proceeds, as would a masque, in a series of tableaux. The opera is set on three levels: below is the pit of hell, where the orchestra plays; stage level is the earth – the domain of Dr Dee, played by an actor; above is the Gods, where a singer performs songs, using a combination of Renaissance and African traditional instruments, which comment on the events below.
Central to the drama is a defining episode in Dr Dee's life: acknowledging no ideological barriers between science and magic, Dr Dee is encouraged by the Elizabethan 'skryer' (mystic) Edward Kelley to commune with spirits and angels; their celestial messages come to a bitter end when Kelley delivers advice from God that he should be allowed to sleep with Dr Dee's wife...
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