Pop-Star Tragedy

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Mellissa Hughes as Britney Spears in Timberbrit, composer Jacob Cooper’s unconventional take on the pop star and her long-ago flame Justin Timberlake.

[Opera] It’s hard to believe that anybody would hear Britney Spears and think about… opera. But that’s exactly what happened to composer Jacob Cooper ’02. 

As a doctoral candidate in music composition at Yale, Cooper began to experiment with a technique called time-stretching, which uses computer programs to slow down music to a fraction of its normal speed. “I thought it was interesting to change music around like that,” he says. When he slowed down pop star Britney Spears, he discovered that light and breezy tunes—such as her 2004 hit “Toxic”—became “really dark” and grandiose, even tragic.

The sound reminded him of something else: opera. He thought, “Why don’t I make a story out of this?” The result is Timberbrit, Cooper’s one-act opera about a fictional reunion between Spears and ex-flame Justin Timberlake. After premiering in semi-staged form in New York City and at Yale, a fully staged production ran for three days in November 2010 at the Incubator Arts Project in New York City. The November shows were a critic’s pick in Time Out New York and a “Voice Choice” in The Village Voice. The project also attracted the attention of NPR’s All Things Considered in 2009.

The hour-long opera imagines that Britney Spears decides to stage her final concert. While she’s performing, Timberlake appears on stage to express his eternal love. Anyone who reads People knows that Spears has a new album and that she and Timberlake are ancient history, but Cooper isn’t overly concerned with reality. In fact, the show concludes with Spears’ death. It is an opera, after all.

The music in Timberbrit is original; Cooper took only inspiration from the slowed-down pop songs. Directed by Jaime Castañeda and with lyrics by Yuka Igarashi, the opera starred Mellissa Hughes as Spears and Ted Hearne as Timberlake. Sherng-Lee Huang ’02 was one of two video designers.

Cooper, who started composing music while at Amherst, will return to the college this fall as a Joseph E. and Grace W. Valentine Visiting Lecturer in Music.

Photo courtesy of Jacob Cooper '02