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Monster's ball to curtain call

Eric Owens is glad that L.A. Opera's `Grendel' and the malfunctioning wall he sits on are up and rolling.

June 03, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Maybe you read about it in the Mumbai Mirror, a tabloid insert to the Times of India -- the item appeared Thursday under the headline "That's weird."

The story has traveled across the miles and over the seas: Los Angeles Opera's planned May 27 premiere of composer Elliot Goldenthal's first opera, "Grendel" -- directed by his life partner and frequent artistic collaborator, Julie Taymor of "Lion King" fame -- was postponed to next Thursday because of computer glitches that left a massive mechanical set piece virtually inoperable.

The May 27 performance became a dress rehearsal, and the next two scheduled performances were designated "previews" in order to keep critics from showing up until the official opening.

Headline writers had a field day with the fact that "Grendel" -- the Beowulf legend told from the point of view of the man-eating monster of the title, played by bass Eric Owens -- had been undone by another monster, computer technology.

The first preview took place Thursday night -- and one may be sure that cast members, as well as the audience, kept a nervous eye on the "ice-earth unit" -- an imposing 48-foot-long, 28-foot-tall, 20-ton rotating wall capable of changing the onstage season from winter to spring.

But the good news came on Friday morning from Owens. "The wall behaved, and things went very well," he said, with a characteristically booming laugh.

Thirty seconds were tense. "There was one point where the wall started moving a little later than usual, and I was on it, and I thought: 'Oh no, is the wall broken?' " Owens said. "But then it started moving, and I thought, 'Whew! OK.' "

In any case, Owens observed earlier this week, the "wall" story seemed to have brought "Grendel" to the attention of the general public. "It sort of confirms the adage that there is no such thing as bad press," he said. "We might get more of an audience that just wants to see what the fuss is all about."

Opera company spokesman Gary Murphy confirmed that ticket sales had spiked after the wall story broke. "It brought a new awareness to the project. We anticipate several sold-out performances," he said.

Of course, an upsurge in "Grendel" interest won't solve one problem for L.A. Opera: While Grendel ate people, the computer-monster ate money. Delaying the opening will wind up costing Los Angeles Opera more than $300,000 because of lost ticket sales, extra rehearsal time and technical repairs. And none of that tab will be picked up by the "Grendel" co-producer, New York's Lincoln Center, which is scheduled to present the opera for four performances beginning July 11 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Trouble on the set

This is not the first time a Los Angeles Opera presentation has spawned an accidental soap opera. In 2002, the company was to present the Kirov Opera production of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," only to see the ships bearing sets and props turned away on arrival because of a labor dispute that caused a shutdown at West Coast ports.

The ships went on to Tokyo, leaving the company scrambling to build new sets and get costumes and props flown back from Tokyo in time for the opening. Murphy said that story also caused a spike in ticket sales, but less so than for "Grendel."

The sets were here for "Grendel" -- they just didn't work. And no one had more reason to worry about that than Owens, essaying a role that L.A. Opera Artistic Director Edgar Baitzel has called "one of the biggest bass-baritone parts ever written." The singer spends most of his time on the wall, so he has a more intimate relationship with the set piece than perhaps anyone.

Until the Thursday preview, it was nail-biting time. Friday the 26th was supposed to be a day off but turned into a marathon tech rehearsal instead.

And less than a minute into the May 27 dress rehearsal, as Owens recalled, a rotating platform within the huge wall got stuck "and the ice side of the platform sort of started cracking. Some people watching thought: 'That's a cool effect, the ice is supposed to be cracking.' But I was like, 'No, that's not cool. It's stuck, and it's going to rip the floor off the platform!'

"So we had to stop after the first few seconds of the show. And when they brought the curtain down, the people in the house started clapping. I guess they thought: 'Oh, that was a lovely show.' "

The wall incident did not stop soprano Laura Claycomb, who sings the role of Queen Wealtheow, from throwing a Memorial Day cast barbecue. (The cheeky invitation read: "No mechanical walls allowed.") Claycomb roughed up a large stuffed Elmo doll and hung it on a wall as an ersatz Grendel monster.

It also did not stop waggish "Grendel"-ites from cracking that the opera might have fared better had it taken a staging tip from the title of the play opening June 11 across the Music Center plaza at the Mark Taper Forum: Alfred Uhry's "Without Walls."

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