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The Opera Auteur

With a filmmaker's perspective, John Schlesinger focuses on 'Peter Grimes,' and this time he wants to get it right.

October 15, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Sixty members of the Los Angeles Opera chorus are gathered in a Performing Arts Center rehearsal room for their first go-round of a pub scene in Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes."

Director John Schlesinger sits Yoda-like on the side. Having survived a triple bypass operation and a host of physical setbacks in the course of the year, the portly, mild-mannered 74-year-old now walks with a cane and strains to make himself heard.

"What's the name of that fellow?" he whispers to associate director Patrick Young, pointing out a tall, lanky singer cast as the Fool--a bit part, at best. Young supplies the information. Putting two fingers to his lips, the director lets out a whistle.

"Michael . . . oh, Michael," he calls as loudly as he can. Michael looks up in surprise. "You're supposed to be out of it--very much engaged in the game you're playing--not who's coming in," Schlesinger tells the singer. "And the people cleaning the tables should glance up every time the door opens. You're looking very detached."

To Schlesinger, this is clearly no run-of-the-mill crowd scene but a collection of individual actors--and actions--with specific motivations. The British director, best known for film work such as "Midnight Cowboy" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday," is nothing if not consistent. An emphasis on character and the smallest details of human interaction has always been the stuff of his storytelling style.

Schlesinger's intense scrutiny of the pub scene would come as no surprise to his boss on this project, L.A. Opera artistic director Placido Domingo. Domingo has himself been scrutinized twice by Schlesinger. He starred in the director's opera debut, "The Tales of Hoffmann," at Covent Garden in 1981, and in his staging of "Un Ballo in Maschera" eight years later at the Salzburg Festival.

"John goes deep into the work, reading between the lines and highlighting big moments," the tenor says. "[He works] on the dramatic aspects as though it was theater or being filmed close-up by a camera--and he's really good with movement, filling the stage."

But Schlesinger is under no illusions about the role of the opera director.

"Opera is a music medium," he says. "You have to realize that you are collaborating with the conductor and the score. At a certain point, you pass the baton and you don't open your mouth.

"It's all about letting go."


"Peter Grimes" is Schlesinger's fourth opera--and his Los Angeles Opera debut. A co-production with Milan's La Scala Opera, where it opened in June, the production has its West Coast premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Wednesday.

The story, set in an 1830s fishing village in England, deals with a driven and persecuted outsider whose apprentices are found dead under mysterious circumstances. Though the first death was ruled accidental, the violent, unyieldingly nonconformist Grimes becomes the collective obsession of the townspeople. His own torment and the village's goading send him to his death.

The New York Times' Alex Ross has called Britten's work "one of the supreme 20th century operas, perhaps the greatest ever written in English." What is the real nature of the protagonist? What is his crime? Every generation has new answers, Ross says.

"It's a masterpiece of a work--musically and dramatically," Schlesinger agrees, munching on a chicken Waldorf salad three weeks before the opening. "The orchestration, choral harmony and feeling of 'sea' are extraordinary. And the plot--a man judged on hearsay rather than on evidence--is quite modern, in a way."

Schlesinger had originally talked with former L.A. Opera general director Peter Hemmings about staging "La Traviata" for the company in the mid-'90s. It was Domingo, then artistic advisor at the opera, who suggested the grittier "Grimes." Schlesinger says he welcomed the change. "I've always been drawn to dark things, I don't know why," he explains. "And I've never identified with the pack."

The Schlesinger "Grimes" was set to have its world premiere in L.A. during the 1998-99 season, with Domingo in the lead. But things didn't go as planned.

First, the more Domingo considered the title role, the more he decided it wasn't for him. After watching a production at Chicago Lyric Opera, the singer pulled out.

"I don't like the character," Domingo says now. "Sometimes you have to do negative roles, but this one is cruel with little boys. "

The need to find a replacement shifted the schedule, and the "Grimes" premiere went to La Scala, L.A. Opera's junior partner in the production. The venture was far from positive.

Philip Langridge, who stars in the L.A. Opera production, also headed the cast in Milan. He calls it his "worst performing experience in 40 years."

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