Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed love affair told in opera

By Nicola Bryan
BBC News

  • Published
Dodi al Fayed, Prince Harry and Diana, Princess Of Wales are seen in St Tropez in the summer of 1997Image source, Getty Images
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Princess Diana, Prince Harry and Dodi Al Fayed were on holiday together in St Tropez weeks before the tragedy

A new opera about Diana, Princess of Wales' relationship with Dodi Al Fayed will open later this week.

Silver Spoon: The story of Princess Diana and Dodi tells of the weeks before they died in a Paris car crash.

Speaking ahead of its premiere at Anglesey's Beaumaris Festival, composer Lisa Logan said the show was respectful and celebrated the princess's compassion.

It comes ahead of the 25 year anniversary of the tragedy.

Image source, Diana Princess of Wales inquest handout
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CCTV footage shows Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed inside the lift at the Ritz Hotel Paris just before the crash

"I was looking for a story that was really well known, I was looking for a really strong woman and I wanted something that would potentially reach a wider audience," said Lisa.

"We've tried to be incredibly respectful of all the members in the royal family that are mentioned. I think I'm a royalist."

Image source, Press Association
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Princess Diana's death prompted an unprecedented outpouring of public grief

The chamber opera's librettist David Peimer said he had aimed for something more thoughtful than dramatic.

"I definitely didn't want to make it a potboiler, I didn't want to make it soapy or constantly have huge dramatic tension happening," he said.

"I wanted to go a bit more into inner life and hope that would hold."

Image source, Handout

On 31 August 1997, Princess Diana, Dodi and their driver Henri Paul were killed in a crash in the city's Pont de l'Alma tunnel after leaving the Ritz Hotel.

Her death prompted an unprecedented outpouring of public grief, with hundreds of thousands of bouquets left at her Kensington Palace home.

Her sons Prince William and Prince Harry were just 15 and 12 respectively at the time their mother was killed.

Image source, PA Media
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Princess Diana with her sons in 1993 at Thorpe Park in Surrey

At the time of her death Princess Diana, 36, had been divorced from Prince Charles for a year following four years of separation.

At the princess's inquest, heart surgeon Hasnat Khan gave a detailed account of their two-year relationship and said she had ended it a few weeks before she died following a holiday with the Al Fayed family.

The opera picks up several weeks before her death and is told from the perspective of two entirely fictitious characters, a pair of bumbling small-time crooks who decide to target a touring exhibition of Diana's jewellery and other memorabilia.

Image source, Getty Images
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Dodi Fayed was the son of author Samira Khashoggi and former Harrods owner and billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed

David explained the opera also sees the princess, a Christian, taking guidance from a fictitious priest over her relationship with Dodi, a Muslim, although it is believed she did speak to a real priest at Kensington about the relationship during this time.

"We've really focused upon their love affair, but then looking at interracial marriage," said Lisa.

In 2008 at the inquest into Diana and Dodi's deaths, Mohamed Al Fayed's press spokesman Michael Cole said the couple had been engaged.

"We're looking back to the 90s here - it would be big enough today if you had people in the royal family from two different religions marrying but then it was a huge thing," said Lisa.

Image source, Getty Images
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Broadway's Diana: The Musical swept the board at the Razzie Awards earlier this year

Some may consider another theatrical retelling of the princess' life to be a brave move.

Earlier this year a filmed version of Broadway's Diana: The Musical scooped five awards at the Razzie Awards - a parody award show honouring the worst of cinematic under-achievements.

But Lisa believes her opera is a more suitable vehicle for the story.

"My personal view as a composer is it's not the greatest subject matter for a musical," she said.

"A musical tends to be a bit more twee… this is a tragedy, this is more operatic in its musical form, so I would argue it's more suited to an opera than a musical and I certainly am not afraid to at least have tried and I welcome people's opinions."

Image source, Press Association
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Charles and Diana officially divorced after 15 years of marriage in August 1996

"For me it's an exciting challenge," said David.

"I'm happy for it to be attacked and slated and whatever because at least I know that we chose something boldly to go with.

"My instinct is that we need moments of reprieve, moments of boldness."

Image source, Getty Images
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Kristen Stewart took on the role of Diana in the 2021 film Spencer

The life of Princess Diana has proved irresistible to storytellers for decades, with several acclaimed actresses taking on the role.

Those to have played Diana in TV movies made during her lifetime include Caroline Bliss, Catherine Oxenberg, Serena Scott Thomas and Julie Cox.

Naomi Watts took on the role in the 2013 film Diana, which received a cold reception from critics who described it as "atrocious and intrusive".

More recent portrayals have received a much warmer reception, with the BBC's Will Gompertz describing Emma Corrin in Netflix's The Crown as "superb in a part much easier to get wrong than get right".

Last year Kristen Stewart took on the role in the film Spencer, with Mark Kermode in the Guardian describing her as "note-perfect".

Image source, Keynote Opera
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Soprano Maggie Cooper has watched hours of footage of Princess Diana to prepare for the role

So what does all this mean for soprano Maggie Cooper, who plays the princess in Silver Spoon?

She said seeing other interpretations had been an "added help", adding: "But this is something slightly different".

"I'm not trying to absolutely emulate Princess Diana. I think that's something for the film world."

Image source, Keynote Opera
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Silver Spoon has been in production for almost three years because of the Covid pandemic

She added: "In the world of opera we're usually either playing completely made up or fantastical people, creatures even... it's really challenging to play [Diana] because she was so loved by so many."

Tenor Sandeep Gurrapadi, who plays Dodi, said he was excited about the role, especially as there are few black or Asian characters in opera.

Image source, Keynote Opera
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Tenor Sandeep Gurrapadi plays Dodi in the opera

"Most of the time I end up playing a character which was written for a certain person and a certain era of time which most of the time doesn't look like me," he explained.

He said he was interested in how the princess and Dodi navigated their different faiths and cultural backgrounds: "There's this sense of mismatch, even though they might be of similar status in a monetary way, they're a world apart from an ethnic perspective, which is touched on a little bit."

Image source, Getty Images
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Prince William worked as a RAF search and rescue pilot at Valley on Anglesey for three years

Princess Diana's son and daughter-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, lived on Anglesey, where the opera is having its premiere, from 2010 to 2013.

So how would composer Lisa feel if they or other members of the royal family got to see her work?

"I don't think we're at all critical of the royal family because I personally am a fan, I think people don't realise how hard they work," she said.

She said she admired the princess's work changing attitudes to Aids and her visit to Angola in January 1997 when she walked alongside minefields.

"I think she was a truly special person," she said,

"I think that we show how fantastic Diana was and how compassionate she was for the people.

"I'd like to think that William, with his connection with Anglesey, would be really honoured with this being the first live opera done in his mother's memory and would feel that the themes we deal with are dealt with very respectfully."

David said if Prince William and Catherine ever got to see his work he would be "humbled and honoured and gently ask them how they are".

Maggie said she hoped they would find the opera "really, really moving".

"If they came they'd definitely have something to take away and I don't think there's anything too out there [or] too judgemental," she said.

Image source, Keynote Opera
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The Covid pandemic means the project has been on going for almost three years

Sandeep agreed: "We're not pontificating about anything or giving any sort of moral takeaways about what the story is or should be, it's very much a dramatisation of a certain period in a few people's lives.

"I don't know what's going to happen with the audience feedback, but at least from our perspective, I can tell you that it's a very authentic and honest portrayal".

A Silver Spoon premieres at Canolfan Beaumaris on Friday 1 July