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Super Fly!

September 4, 2008

Will David Cronenberg's buzzy new operatic adaptation of his cult flick get swatted in L.A.?

Be Afraid. Be very afraid: David Cronenberg is Fly-ing blind. With the help of a singing teleportation machine, a puppet chimpanzee, and a 40-strong chorus, the 65-year-old Canadian film director has turned his 1986 cinema classic The Fly starring Jeff Goldblum as a mad genius who accidentally melds his body with that of an insect’s, into what may be the world’s first horror opera. The movie’s surreal metamorphosis marks Cronenberg’s debut as a stage director. Certain fans that caught the premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in July were impressed by the transformation. “Someone’s six-year-old said, after seeing one of our rehearsals, that she thought she would have to sleep with her parents,” Cronenberg says. “So I guess it’s working.” The French critics, however, were less awed. Le Figaro’s Christian Merlin wrote that the production, “confirmed that cinema and theater, above all opera, are two very different arts.”

American audiences tend to be more forgiving than their European counterparts. But when the Los Angeles Opera/Théâtre du Châtelet co-production receives its US premiere this month, will diehard LA movie fans feel as let down as Parisian opera buffs? Horror aficionados may be particularly disappointed to hear that the opera version lacks the film’s lurid disintegrating fingernail and projectile vomiting scenes. But the “king of venereal horror’s” stage adaptation promises to make opera-goers cower behind their programs nonetheless, with its suspenseful new score by Oscar winner and longtime Cronenberg collaborator, Howard Shore, playwright David Henry Hwang’s foreboding flashback libretto, and extreme special effects. (Never has a primate been teleported across a stage with such grotesque results.) And that’s to say nothing of the potential shock caused by watching an opera singer emerge buck-naked from a teleporter and fly around the set impersonating a giant insect – something Pavarotti would never have attempted during his long career. “Opera singers generally aren’t used to being strapped into harnesses,” says Cronenberg of working with Daniel Okulitch, the audacious 32-year-old Canadian bass-baritone cast in the role of mutant scientist Seth Brundle. “When Daniel first tried scaling the wall upside down, he said I might get the vomiting from the movie whether I liked it or not.”

Though Hwang’s libretto draws on some of the film’s dialogue, Cronenberg isn’t remotely interested in regurgitating his movie on stage. The opera lacks video sequences, and, unlike the film, is told in flashback. The Fly may be the director’s biggest-grossing film (closely followed by 2005’s A History of Violence) and -- alongside last year’s Eastern Promises -- one of his most critically-acclaimed projects to date. But Cronenberg says he hasn’t watched The Fly since it first came out. Instead, he’s moved the story from the 1980s to the 1950s (as in George Langelaan’s original novella and Kurt Neumann’s 1958 movie adaptation) and focused on working with Shore and Hwang to bring out the story’s melodramatic narrative and intense emotions. “I always thought that the subject of The Fly was a good opera subject because of the classic love triangle relationship,” says Shore, who, having mulled over the idea of making an opera out of The Fly in the decades since composing the film’s soundtrack, kick-started the project by collaborating with Hwang before approaching LA Opera’s Plácido Domingo. With LA Opera on board, Cronenberg officially joined the team. Hwang adds: “The Fly contains all the ideas you associate with opera from the huge plot relating to birth, death and transformation to the tragic love story.”

In an attempt to attract new audiences, opera companies have lately sought inspiration from unlikely sources. In 2006, English National Opera transformed the life of Libyan dictator Moamar Gaddafi into an opera; Milan’s La Scala plans to operatize Al Gore’s eco-documentary An Inconvenient Truth for its 2011 season. “I think it’s absolutely critical for opera companies to stretch themselves artistically. LA Opera has often taken advantage of our rather unique opportunity to work with some of Hollywood’s brightest talents,” says Domingo of LA Opera’s own audience-expanding tactics, which have involved drafting in such Hollywood heavyweights as Franco Zeffirelli and Garry Marshall to direct projects. Woody Allen is making his operatic debut with the company this season, helming a production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. As a result of Domingo’s star power, LA Opera has not only been able to attract the attention of film industry A-listers, but also the talents of some of the opera community’s most respected names such as Anna Netrebko and David Daniels. Yet films don’t always make smooth transitions into operas, as recent adaptations of the 1983 Meryl Streep vehicle Sophie’s Choice and David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway proved.

Despite what the French critics say, Cronenberg seems to have an appreciation for the differences between the two artistic mediums and has been more than willing to play rookie on the opera set. Although the director grew up in a musical household -- his mother was a professional pianist and he played classical guitar as a boy – his only previous operatic encounter was during the making of the 1993 film version of M. Butterfly, Hwang’s riff on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. To his credit, Cronenberg has looked to his more operatically-experienced colleagues for guidance during rehearsals. “David is always willing to ask questions and listen to suggestions and would ask me things like, ‘can we do that on stage?’” says Okulitch. “There’s no artifice about the man.” Cronenberg, who generally casts everyone in his movies down to the extras, didn’t even attend auditions for the opera. “I don’t think anyone was interested in having me there,” he says, self-effacingly. “I’m used to being a benign dictator. But in this case I have to be a benign collaborator.”

Yet if The Fly is to create a buzz in – and beyond – LA, the director and his collaborators may need to reengineer the production’s DNA. Hwang plans to “make a few minor tweaks” to his libretto. “There were some lines I heard once too often in Paris,” he says. But the writer may have some trouble persuading the director to play along. “I’m very happy with what we did in Paris,” says Cronenberg. “I want the production to stay exactly the same.” Teleporters are notoriously temperamental machines, however. Brundle got a nasty surprise when he attempted to transport a chimp across his lab for the first time in the movie. Let’s hope Cronenberg doesn’t have to spend the rest of the year scraping the splattered remains of his first opera off the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage.


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