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A Hollywood treatment

To spruce up familiar repertory, L.A. Opera often turns to veterans of the remake-minded film world. Thus, William Friedkin takes on Richard Strauss' 'Ariadne auf Naxos.'

September 05, 2004|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

"It was right in this room," William Friedkin says, easing himself into a wing chair and waving an arm about the elegantly comfy wood-paneled study in his brick Tudor Bel-Air manse. "Placido and Edgar stopped by and gave me their offer: 'What do you think of doing "Ariadne auf Naxos"?' "

Friedkin, the Oscar-winning director of "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist," was already on a first-name basis with Los Angeles Opera general director Placido Domingo and artistic director Edgar Baitzel when they posed that question. In 2002, he had staged a double bill here that was a hit with audiences and critics alike. He obviously relishes describing his later negotiations with the men.

"I leaned back, pondered and said, 'Yeah, good idea. Can you cast it well?' "

They assured him they could. They had commitments from soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer and tenor Peter Seiffert, hot new singers well known in Europe and on their way to the top in this country.

So within minutes, Friedkin says, he gave his consent. The resulting production of "Ariadne," Richard Strauss' quirky masterpiece about a moneyman, a composer and a willful diva, will open a seven-performance run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next Sunday.

Friedkin, moreover, is far from the only Hollywood hand who has joined fortunes with Los Angeles Opera. In November, the company will revive the late Herbert Ross' 1993 production of "La Boheme." In May, Academy Award-winning actor Maximilian Schell, who directed an impressive "Lohengrin" in 2001, will stage "Der Rosenkavalier." Next season, Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman") is scheduled to mount a little-known Offenbach opera. Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy") and the late John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy") are among the other filmmakers who have done productions here.

L.A. Opera's masterminds clearly decided that veterans of moviemaking could bring theatrical gold to the lyric stage. But how did they know that the culture of an industry dubbed Tinseltown had the potential to be in sync with high art?

"Placido and I -- we were the committee -- sat down to develop an overall core idea for our productions," Baitzel says, recalling discussions after Domingo took the helm four years ago. "And here was this list of film people, hundreds of them, who just might fit the bill." But the pair's primary motivation for striking such a rich vein, he says, was to mine Hollywood's "remake" mind-set. They saw it as a way to contemporize operas from past centuries -- in other words, the standard repertory.

"In Europe today, they're having a crisis," Baitzel says. "Productions are all about interpretation. [Directors] have gotten so far out and so far from the original intent -- because the operas themselves are old news there -- that audiences finally feel disconnected from the result. So what we want to do is give both a recognizable form of the story and a creative challenge that helps with updating -- a bridge to the near and far."

Opera and film directors are "two different kinds of beasts," however. "We couldn't cast Julia Roberts. That means our organization must kick in and provide a Bill Friedkin the team he needs. We must adapt to him, fill in the blanks for him."

A link to the contemporary

Friedkin, who turned 69 last week, has certainly earned his operatic bona fides. Before his local double bill -- a starkly otherworldly version of Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" paired with a sweetly uproarious take on Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" -- he directed a production of Berg's "Wozzeck" in Florence for conductor Zubin Mehta that was widely acclaimed. Now his calendar for the next several years is studded with additional opera projects here and in Tel Aviv; Munich, Germany; and Turin, Italy.

"I follow the doctor's credo," he says. "Do no harm. The onus is on me to have an approach that's original and sincere." But just because most operas performed today were written in the 19th century or earlier "does not mean we need to stage them as though Victoria were still on the throne." Finding a link to the contemporary, he says, is critical.

"Ariadne," which the director believes allows him to take liberties, certainly lends itself to the fanciful, in terms of both theatrical invention and metaphor. A comedy of deft and subtle caricature swathed in a mixture of Strauss' glittery vocal heroics at their grandest and his simple musical affection at its most heartwarming, the libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal twists the Teutonic ideals of ultimate-love-through-death and art-as-a-holy-entity until the two become endearing outgrowths of human folly.

The work is a delectable but elusive opera-within-an-opera, peopled with gods, commedia dell'arte characters, impresarios, creators and a wealthy patron. They argue about the respective merits of art versus commerce and about how the two collide -- the same issues that might well be squabbled over at a high-powered Hollywood meeting.

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