Dirty Monteverdi

The link between a bawdy cabaret trio and the father of opera. By Leon McDermott

IN THE red corner, spitting bawdy venom and wearing deathly pale

facepaint, are The Tiger Lillies, one of British music's hidden gems.

In the blue corner is Monteverdi, the inventor of the opera as we know

it, dead for 350 years but still alive on the most prestigious stages

in Europe.

They are, you might say, an odd pairing. But look a little closer at

both, and similarities appear, which is why new Edinburgh International

Festival director Jonathan Mills invited Martyn Jacques's anarchic band

to stage a tribute to one of Europe's most revered composers. Under

Jacques, The Tiger Lillies have spent 20 years making music that is, by

turns, elegant, shocking, beautiful and baroque. Jacques's lyrics -

delivered in his unique voice, which can stretch from a deep baritone

to a piercing howl in the space of a bar - are obsessed with the filth

and the grime of modern life; he revels in obscenity and gruesome

imagery, even when he's singing in a show for kids.

The most successful Tiger Lillies project of them all has been

Shockheaded Peter, a reworking of the 19th century German story of

Struwwelpeter, about naughty children and the grim ends that befall

them. It was a brilliant, perfectly judged mix of the hilarious and the

horrible, and nine years after it first appeared, it is still touring.

This new project, says Jacques, isn't that different. Monteverdi, he

says, "was quite shocking, quite the subversive figure in his time".

The composer would take risks that were literally life-threatening: "He

would sing bawdy, secular songs in front of the pope, or he would mess

with the establishment by doing the same."

Like the great Greek dramatists or Shakespeare - his contemporary -

Monteverdi wrote about battle and honour, about the conflict between

desire and power. On the new Tiger Lillies album Love And War, there is

a direct tribute to the opera composer: Trancred And Clorinda, a song

inspired by Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, an operatic scena

by Monteverdi set during the first Crusade. Centuries later, a war is

still being fought in the Middle East, and Jacques draws some

interesting parallels.

"I suppose," he says, "the new songs are attacking the whole war thing,

and in fact, they're almost like the way I would imagine Jesus would

address George Bush or Tony Blair - though really, they're an attack on

all the men - and God, there have been millions of them in the world -

who have performed violent acts as a way of gaining money and power."

That said, Jacques claims to be "not religious at all". Rather, he

quite likes the idea that "thou shalt not kill", and that's the message

of the songs.

If all this sounds rather serious, it isn't, whether on record or on

stage: part of what makes The Tiger Lillies work is their fearless

blend of the funny and the deeply shocking. These are laughs in the

face of death - the most honest kind. Monteverdi would surely approve.

A Tribute (Of Sorts) To Monteverdi is at the Usher Hall, 8pm, on August 25