Kicking off the Cultural Olympiad which is being staged in London ahead of this summer's Olympic games, Damon Albarn and director Rufus Norris' Dr Dee opens at the London Coliseum tonight (25 June). Premiered as part of last year's Manchester International Festival, the pair tell Q about the "English opera's" origins, their fascination with the Elizabethan thinker John Dee and the production's evolution as it's made its way from Manchester, via Albarn's recent solo album based on the same songs, to the English National Opera's home. Rufus Norris: "Damon and I had tried to work together on a couple of projects in the past, the first one was probably five years ago with an idea that never quite came to fruition but set up some seeds that have blossomed during this. This project was initiated by the Manchester International Festival, they approached Alan Moore and asked him about great dead Englishmen and he came up with Dr Dee. From there they approached Damon and me to see if we wanted to work on it with Alan. Not long after that Alan realised the medium wasn't really for him so he left the project but not without completely inspiring us. He left us completely amicably so Damon and I got together and continued."
Damon Albarn: "Why Dee? I think he was such an important part of our empire building and his contribution was completely written out of history. It just shows you how history is never what happened. It's how it's presented and it's always written through the eyes of the winners."
Norris: "Dee was really on a voyage of discover in all sorts of ways and was fantastically clever, probably the brightest man of his age in Britain and certainly the most inquisitive. At that time maths was considered by some as a dark art, while things that are ridiculed now, like magic, were not judged in quite the same way. That sea-change happened in Dee's life time and that's the tragedy of the character. The capitalist culture of how we live now was cemented, particularly with James I, and that led to Dee being rubbed out of the history books and the damnation of him in is lifetime."
Albarn: "He was eluding to such kind of modern ideas of a universal consciousness and a religion's religion that would break all boundaries. If you imagine that our empire had been built on those kinds of principles the world would be a different place today. Although it's hard to articulate in itself as an idea, but as something to meditate on I really like that. Imagine if the world had gone more John Dee's way, what it would be like. Also he came up with the concept Britannia, the whole idea of this island which through great seamanship and organisation could take over the whole world, or large bits of it."
Norris: "We've changed quite a lot [since its premiere in Manchester last year], in one principle way. In Manchester the John Dee figure was silent and everything went on around him and we found that wasn't involving enough for the audience. So we've given him a voice, literarily, and so he's in the heart of it and that allowed the audience in a lot more into his personal route through it. Both emotionally and narratively. The other thing is we put it together in quite a concentrated period for Manchester, which was partly to do with the subject matter and partly to do with the way Damon works, so we've managed to - I hope - make the whole thing more coherent. Each movement is more sophisticated and crucially the allusion between one movement and the next is much more fluid. It feels more like a complete work now."
Albarn: "The last night in Manchester was probably the best one. I'm going to do a little bit more work on it, fine tune here and there. People now know what to expect in away so it will be a more interesting run-up to the London premiere because it will be, Oh this is what it is! whereas before it was, What the fuck's that?. It was always going to be like that, it was always going to be something that people had to approach with a very open mind. It's wonderful doing that kind of work it's also when you finish and can get a bit of perspective."
Norris: "It's one of those tricky things, what do you call something like this? If you call it an opera, people who don't go to the opera won't go and if you are an opera aficionado you go, Proper opera doesn't have microphones! You can't quite win."
Albarn: "An English opera? I think there's a certain cadence within the songs of that period, with modern folk and then pop music and English folk pop. There's an English candence that we haven't lost, that's what I was saying. Obviously hundreds of years apart there are these certain things that are the same. The same way as in parts of our language still resonate from that period. Things that we use and are not even aware they come from there. In that sense, it is the definition of a tradition, some thing that changes, but some thing which connects periods."
Norris: "The production is working on two levels. One is the story of John Dee and certain sections of his life, and the other huge layer of the show is Damon's contemplations on England and English history - our spiritual and esoteric sensibilities."
Albarn: "That's why decided to perform in Dr Dee, I genuinely like the language. I liked how it was making me feel. I liked being in that world and it was a chance to sing about religion and stuff. On the first night I was incredibly self-conscious and nervous, by the last night I was singing out a bit more but not like trying to compete with them [the professional opera singers in the production]. I saw it as they were clear in their world and I was coming from the future through a crackly broadcast from the future."
Norris: "There was also another stage in the development of the production in that Damon made an album between Manchester and London and allowed him to explore music ideas and develop it in a different form. He's very instinctive and does keep developing ideas. In Manchester it was changing every night and it will continue to evolve. It's very exciting to be with someone like that who doesn't worry about what you can and can't do it's just about making the thing better. He trusts his instincts entirely which is quite liberating."
Albarn: "Is it nice being able to tinker with it as it goes along. That's the really, really nice aspect of it, if something isn't quite right... That's the process I wanted to continue and persist with it."
Norris: "It's an honour to be part of the whole endeavour [the Cultural Olympiad]. It's about England and Britain and that's something Damon and I are very attached to, albeit with quite a complex take on that. It doesn't come from nationalism but a knowledgeable fondness I'd say. It's appropriate it's part of the whole festival."
Albarn: "The English National Opera, which is a bigger stage so I'm really looking forward to it. I think it's opening the Cultural Olympiad. It's another festival, isn't it?
Norris: "Damon and I have also done a film between Dee 1 and Dee 2 and that will be opening at the beginning of next year and our next project will be grown from there."
Albarn: "[On following Dee with a Blur show in Hyde Park on 12 August] I thought as it's an all kind of British year, I might as well go for it. I've got a few songs that might work..."
Norris: "Have I got my Blur tickets [laughs]? I haven't done that yet, but I'm presuming I can hit Damon for a freebee. I bloody hope so anyway!" Paul Stokes @Stokesie