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Movie magic, please

OPERA

When film directors David Cronenberg, William Friedkin and Woody Allen try their hand at opera, they know they'll have to adapt. Now how is that upside-down fly supposed to sing?

August 31, 2008|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

IN DIRECTOR David Cronenberg's 1986 movie "The Fly" -- remember "Be afraid. Be very afraid"? -- scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) commits a fatal error when he combines his own genes with those of a common housefly. At Los Angeles Opera these days, another dicey blending of species is taking place: Film directors are mutating into opera directors -- with, it's hoped, less alarming results.

The Cuisinart that mistakenly mixes Brundle's DNA with that of an insect in "The Fly" is a "telepod," designed to teleport objects and, occasionally, living beings. At L.A. Opera, the experimental crucible is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where three prominent auteurs -- Cronenberg, William Friedkin and Woody Allen -- have been at work on the productions that next weekend will kick off the company's 2008-09 season.

Friedkin and Allen share duties for "Il Trittico," a trio of one-act operas by Puccini opening Saturday in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Italian composer's birth. Friedkin, an L.A. Opera veteran, is directing "Il Tabarro" (The Cloak), the story of a tragic love triangle, and "Suor Angelica" (Sister Angelica), about a nun with a secret. Allen, staging an opera for the first time, is at the helm of "Gianni Schicchi," a romantic comedy he describes as "funny compared to 'Tosca,' not funny compared to 'Duck Soup.' "

Allen is convinced that Puccini must be celebrating his birthday by turning over in his grave. "I'm the average philistine at the opera who by the third act of Wagner's 'Siegfried' is asleep," he confessed recently. "I'm not the greatest choice in the world for this, but I'm doing my best, and hopefully nobody will get hurt."

As for Cronenberg, also an opera neophyte, the master of the macabre is directing “The Fly,” a new opera based on his 1986 picture, the 1957 short story by George Langelaan that inspired it and the 1958 film starring Vincent Price A co-production of L.A. Opera and the Théâtre du Chatelet — Paris, the new work was composed by Howard Shore, who has written the music for a raft of Cronenberg movies, including "The Fly," and whose other credits include the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." The opera had its world premiere in Paris in July and opens here next Sunday.

More film connections: Designer Santo Loquasto, who's often worked with Allen, is responsible for the look of "Il Trittico." Playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") wrote the libretto for "The Fly" -- Shore collaborated with Cronenberg and Hwang on the film version of "M. Butterfly." Filmdom's Dante Ferretti is the "Fly" set designer, and Cronenberg's sister and frequent collaborator, Denise, designed the costumes.

But don't expect "The Fly" to pay literal homage to the silver screen in the form of onstage projections. "I really wanted a theatrical experience. If I was going to do stage -- and I've never done stage, never mind opera -- I want that experience," Cronenberg says. "I don't want to muddy it with half-baked film-video stuff.

"In theory, there are many ways you can do close-ups onstage. You can do it with lighting, but I wasn't even thinking about that. I found that I could direct the singers just as I would direct actors on film."

Well, maybe not quite. Says Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, 32, who's essaying the very athletic role of Brundle: "He was always asking, 'What do you need? Can you do that and still sing?' And we'd say, 'Absolutely not!' And Howard would say, 'This is an opera. Why is he upside down on wires?' "

Cronenberg, Okulitch recalls, responded with words to the effect that, although the position is not ideal for singing, from a staging standpoint that's the only way a human fly can crawl across the ceiling.

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Not a gimmick

BECAUSE of its location in an industry town, Los Angeles Opera has frequently brought in film directors during its 21-year history, including Herb Ross, Bruce Beresford, John Schlesinger, Maximilian Schell, Gary Marshall and Julie Taymor. Right now, company General Manager Placido Domingo is wooing Tim Robbins and John Malkovich for future productions.

But Domingo says the fact that the company is enjoying "a very big Hollywood/L.A. Opera weekend" is somewhat coincidental: "The Fly" was originally slated to have its world premiere in L.A., not Paris, during the 2007-08 season, but plans were changed as the Southern California company dealt with creative delays and the illness of its chief operating officer, Edgar Baitzel, who died of cancer in spring 2007. Domingo, who will conduct the opera here, says he first became enamored of recruiting people from the movie world early in his performing career, when he worked both in film and onstage with Franco Zeffirelli, who moved fluidly among theater, opera and film directing.

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