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High-wire opera

`Grendel' takes flight, with `Lion King's' master and an award-winning composer. But it hasn't been easy.

May 21, 2006|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

DANCER Salvatore Vassallo is not in this scene. He has come to rehearsal to show his fellow performers the ropes, so to speak.

Vassallo, along with five other male dancers and assorted stage crew members, is taking a flying lesson. On a recent morning in Santa Clarita, the group is gathered in the cavernous, warehouse-like rehearsal facility at Branam West Coast, a company that designs and provides equipment for flying effects in theatrical productions, be they pop music extravaganzas or "Peter Pan."

But this project is neither rock 'n' roll nor a Broadway musical. It's opera. The dancers are learning how to die agonizing deaths while suspended in midair for a grisly massacre scene in "Grendel," a new work by Elliot Goldenthal that will receive its world premiere Saturday -- in a staging by his longtime mate, Julie Taymor -- at Los Angeles Opera.

Co-commissioned by the L.A. company and New York's Lincoln Center Festival, the $2.8-million production will be seen seven times at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before its New York premiere July 11 as part of the Lincoln Center event. It stars bass Eric Owens -- who last year appeared in the premiere of John Adams' "Doctor Atomic" at San Francisco Opera -- as the man-eating monster of the title, and features formidable mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as a dragon.

All the dancers have some flying experience, but the others say Vassallo has the most, so he is in Santa Clarita to give pointers. And, in fact, he looks as comfortable as any Cirque du Soleil acrobat as he slithers headfirst down a rope dangling from the rigging -- that is, until rope and dancer take a sudden, precipitous drop.

A collective gasp arises from the onlookers as Vassallo's head misses a mat placed below him and comes dangerously close to the polished concrete floor. Crew members scurry to replace the mat with another that's twice as thick and three times as long.

When asked afterward if the moment scared him as much as his audience, Vassallo shrugs. "I knew it might hurt, but it wasn't going to be fatal," he says.


Taymor trademarks

ALTHOUGH not everyone involved in "Grendel" is required to drop via a rope from the ceiling, Vassallo's plunge seems an apt metaphor for the risks of producing a new opera. In this case, those risks are heightened by the elaborate sets, costumes, puppets and special effects that have been trademarks of Taymor ever since she turned the animated Disney movie "The Lion King" into a colossal stage spectacle and a worldwide phenomenon.

What's more, though Vassallo was lucky enough to miss the floor, Goldenthal wasn't so lucky a few months earlier when he took a fall at home at a crucial point in "Grendel's" development that raised doubts about whether the show would go on at all.

"It's a new opera. I don't know it that well either.... We are going to be creating this production from scratch," Taymor cheerfully admitted at an April 10 design presentation for the cast and crew, early in the approximately seven-week rehearsal period. "We haven't even heard it. I find that terrifying and exhilarating."

Although they have had less than two months to rehearse, "Grendel" -- subtitled "The Transcendence of the Great Big Bad" -- has been gestating in the minds of Taymor and Goldenthal for more than 20 years. And, as Los Angeles Opera general director Placido Domingo joked at a March news conference in New York: "Their baby is a monster."

Goldenthal and Taymor have collaborated artistically before, including on the movies "Titus" and "Frida" (for which Goldenthal's score won an Academy Award) and the 1988 musical theater piece "Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass."

Goldenthal, an eclectic composer who studied under Aaron Copland and John Corigliano, has also composed a large-scale piece for the Pacific Symphony, "Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio," and the ballet "Othello," choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, which premiered in 1997 at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Critics have described his music, whether for a Shakespeare ballet or a big-budget Hollywood movie such as "Batman Forever," as accessible and emotionally charged.

He and Taymor describe the full-length "Grendel," which will clock in at about three hours with one intermission, as their most intense partnership to date. Domingo calls it the most ambitious undertaking in Los Angeles Opera's 20-year history. Indeed, the celebrated tenor introduces a new monetary unit to the global economy when he says the "Grendel" budget is about "1 1/2 'Aidas,' " -- that is, half again the average cost of mounting a new production of Verdi's 19th century monster.

The expenses are being split between the Los Angeles company and Lincoln Center, meaning that, according to Domingo's math, each is shelling out three-quarters of an "Aida." The Walt Disney Foundation and Holland's Joop van den Ende Foundation are the production's lead underwriters, along with a consortium of individual donors and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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