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Michael Jackson, Madonna ... `Manon'?

Vincent Paterson has created classic moves for some of pop's superstars. So what's he doing directing an opera?

September 27, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

In a rehearsal studio at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, tenor Rolando Villazon and soprano Anna Netrebko are working through the tragic finale of Jules Massenet's opera "Manon," the scene that Villazon's character (Des Grieux) believes to be a joyous reunion but Netrebko's (the title role) knows is only a bittersweet interlude before her death.

Hovering in front of them, murmuring "this is gorgeous," and suggesting how Villazon should lift Netrebko when Des Grieux first glimpses the evening star is Vincent Paterson, directing an opera for the first time -- though he choreographed the Los Angeles Opera production of "The Grand Duchess" last season and worked with Netrebko on a controversial DVD ("The Woman, The Voice") of radically restaged opera arias. His production of "Manon" premieres Saturday.

After the rehearsal ends, Netrebko talks with a visitor about Paterson's meticulous preparation as a director and what she calls his "big passion about opera. He always has tears in his eyes during the rehearsals because he loves so much what he is doing. He loves us, he loves the music and his assistant is always bringing him tissues because he gets so emotional. It's fantastic."

Pale and boyish, Paterson at 56 is still recognizable as one of the dancing gang leaders from the classic 1983 Michael Jackson music video "Beat It." And just a couple of years later he began choreographing other major Jackson projects: the videos "Smooth Criminal" and "Black or White," for instance -- titles that have acquired a certain irony because of subsequent changes in Jackson's public image.

Although he denies courting shock effects for their own sake, Paterson acknowledges collaborating with Jackson on the car-vandalism sequence in "Black or White," an act of violence that generated so many protests that the footage was quickly deleted. And he takes full responsibility for creating one of the classic rock moves of his generation: the full-frontal crotch squeeze.

It was with Madonna, however, that Paterson fully indulged his penchant for choreographic fantasy -- including the steamy "Express Yourself" video and the whole "Blonde Ambition" tour production. "There was always this tongue-in-cheek element with Madonna," Paterson recalls. "Where others look at the work and see sex and violence, I see humor and sensuality. It was incredible some of the iconic images that we were able to create together."

If the career leap from Madonna to "Manon" seems unlikely, don't forget that Massenet's doomed heroine has always been one of opera's prime material girls. "She's certainly a material girl," Paterson says, "and what she also knows is what Marilyn [Monroe] at the end of 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' says to Daddy: 'Don't you know that a girl being pretty is like a man being rich?' -- I'm paraphrasing.

"Manon doesn't have the money but she has a different wealth: the wealth of beauty and youth. And she sings more than once that you must take advantage of youth and beauty -- use it now -- because it doesn't last."

As it happens, Netrebko's Manon will look like Monroe in one of her scenes -- and like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in others, for Paterson has reset the opera in postwar Paris, and made Manon desperate to look like an international celebrity.

"I remembered photographs of my mom when she was young and thought that Anna would look gorgeous in those clothes. Most of all, I wanted to do something that would allow her and Rolando more physicality. I could only bring the opera forward to a certain point because of the large element in the plot of her being sent off to a convent. Any later than the early 1950s, it won't make sense." Paterson has also cut 20 to 30 minutes from the score to focus more intently on the main characters, he says.

For the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards, Paterson restaged "Vogue" with Madonna wearing clothes of the 18th century: Manon's era. So you might ask if making a rock star look like Marie Antoinette and an opera star look like a movie queen (three of them, in fact) represents Paterson's attempt to subvert entrenched notions of high and low art -- classical versus popular culture. "Divas are divas," he answers. "It's all the same in a way. High and low? For me there's only boring versus interesting, emotional versus emotionless.

"I love humor and I love contrast. There's a couple of moments in 'Manon' that people will talk about -- sexual moments. But I didn't walk into the room with them. They evolved out of the action. And when something evolves out of the truth of a rehearsal situation, if it feels honest in terms of the characters, I let it live."

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