Opera is never an easy sell in Los Angeles: the ultimate 19th century European art form transposed to the ultimate 21st century American city
Operatics on the fly
Opera is never an easy sell in Los Angeles: the ultimate 19th century European art form transposed to the ultimate 21st century American city, with its freeways, its lowbrow pop culture and its quest for easy thrills. Previous administrations at the opera house have tended to play it safe, with a solid diet of Mozart and Verdi to keep the subscription audience-members coming. But the current management has taken an altogether different tack. It has come up with a gimmick that is, well, altogether more Hollywood: spicing up the program at the downtown Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with some distinct film-industry pizzazz.
The LA Opera's latest production of Puccini's trio of short operas - Il Nabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi - features the directing talents of William Friedkin, best known for making The Exorcist 35 years ago, and Woody Allen, the irrepressible comedian who still churns out a film a year come critical rain or shine. The other new production on the autumn schedule is, more baldly, an adaptation of a movie. And not just any movie - it is the horror movie, The Fly, first made in the late 1950s and then memorably redone by the Canadian master of horror, David Cronenberg, in the mid-1980s.
Horror is not exactly a common emotion at the opera house, and stage sets rarely stretch to sci-fi type labs in which scientists conduct dangerous body-altering experiments, only to find their skin degenerating into insect goo and their brains developing homicidal impulses. But LA has embraced the notion wholeheartedly - co-sponsoring the original production of the opera in Paris over the summer and now hosting it for itself. The credits for The Fly read like some kind of star-studded A-list film: music by Howard Shore, who scored The Lord of The Rings, production design by Dante Ferretti, who works regularly with Martin Scorsese, musical direction by Placido Domingo, the current overlord of the LA Opera and a superstar in his own right, and a libretto by David Henry Hwang, who wrote the worldwide Broadway hit M Butterfly.
Cronenberg himself directs, carefully explaining that the opera has to exist as its own piece of stagecraft, not just as a transposed movie. It was not exactly the easiest of sells. Domingo had approached Howard Shore to write an opera several years ago, only to be taken several steps aback when he found out what exactly he wanted to write an opera about. Domingo recalls saying: "Of all things, The Fly?"
Judging by the reviews, both in Paris and in Los Angeles, the end result has been a little underwhelming where it counts - in the music department. The Paris critics gave the show a "bad buzz", and the LA critics were no more favourably disposed. "I am at a loss to understand why The Fly has turned out so dreary," Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote. Still, the opera house has plugged away at its movie connection. The Puccini, at least, has been very well received, not least for the Woody Allen Gianni Schicchi, which has been praised for everything from its comic timing (as one might expect) to the attention to character and set.
Allen himself - a dogged Manhattanite and a rare presence in LA - got audiences in the right mood by describing the piece as "funny compared to Tosca, not funny compared to Duck Soup", and by describing himself as an opera philistine who is usually asleep by the third act. (Gianni Schicchi has only the one act). The trend is unlikely to stop here. Last year, Domingo hired Julie Taymor - the celebrated stage and film director - to do a gory dramatisation of the old English monster tale Grendel. More recently, he has been talking to Tim Robbins and John Malkovich about possible future collaborations.
Will the gambit work? It's too early to clock the ticket sales, but the approach certainly can't do any harm, especially in a town where those with money - the residents of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills - would just as soon jet off to New York for their entertainment as the unfashionable business district downtown.