Countertenor Jose Luis Munoz as Magda Goebbels in Garrett Fisher's… (Tim Aguero )
Garrett Fisher is a serious, Seattle-based composer of chamber operas who has long been devoted to telling historical and mythic stories.
But what he's trying to accomplish this weekend in the Southern California debut of his Fisher Ensemble at the annual Inglewood Open Studios artists showcase is not altogether unlike what Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom were up to as comical Broadway con men in "The Producers."
In Mel Brooks' 2001 musical (based on his 1968 film), the two were seen scrambling to raise $2 million from investors to finance a show about Adolf Hitler and his inner circle: "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden."
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Now here comes Fisher, hoping to do the same this weekend, more or less, with performances of a 25-minute sequence from his work in progress, "Magda G," which he hopes will inspire investors to hop onboard.
The projected budget of $2 million is the same as the budget for "Springtime for Hitler" in Brooks' musical, and so, roughly speaking, is the subject matter.
But there the resemblance ends. "Magda G" is more like "Wintertime for Hitler," and Fisher, 42, is not out to bilk prospective backers, a la Bialystock and Bloom, whose scam was to engineer a ridiculous flop that would close on opening night, freeing them to abscond with a leftover mountain of cash.
He's written a dozen operas since launching the ensemble in the mid-1990s, conceiving them for intimate, non-traditional spaces where they can unfold not only onstage, but surrounding the audience or even in its midst. They've been done mainly in Seattle and New York City, and one, "Psyche," is a video work for the Internet that includes hip-hop and electronic dance elements.
"Magda G" is intended to be done in a cabaret — eventually. Before staging it as a live opera, Fisher wants to release it as a film — hence the need for $2 million.
The main character is Magda Goebbels, wife of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who was a sort of unofficial first lady of the Third Reich. Hitler kept his sweetheart, Eva Braun, hidden from public view, marrying her shortly before they, and then the Goebbels, committed suicide in the Nazi command's Berlin bunker as the Russian army closed in during the spring of 1945.
Fisher says he knew nothing of Magda Goebbels until a bookstore browsing session about a year and a half ago. He learned about the fanatical devotion to Hitler that led her to give all seven of her children names beginning with the letter H, and about how she fed the six youngest cyanide pills in the bunker while the Nazi regime was giving up the ghost. It amazed him that any woman could bring herself to do that — and that Magda, who had a Jewish stepfather, would worship history's most efficient and prolific slaughterer of Jews.
The opera focuses in highly stylized fashion on Magda Goebbels' decision to kill her children, and includes a visitation from Medea, the queen in ancient Greek myth who was spurned by her husband, Jason, and avenged herself by killing their children.
"Because venues like [a cabaret] work well for my pieces, it means a lot of [standard] venues don't work well," Fisher said. "It's been one of my frustrations," and from the start he conceived of "Magda G" as a film, to be directed by Seattle-based Ryan K Adams, that could deliver the immersion and intimacy he values while reaching a larger audience.
The film aims to frame the opera with a backstage drama, set on the opera's opening night, about the travails of the cross-dressing male diva who plays Magda Goebbels. Countertenor Jose Luis Munoz has the lead role and will perform the sequence in Inglewood with Fisher on Indian harmonium, a gong player, and recorded elements.
The white paper dress that Munoz will sport as Magda Goebbels is the endeavor's link to Inglewood. It's designed by local artist Tori Ellison, who has created costumes, sets and puppets for two previous Fisher Ensemble operas.
Fisher Ensemble, "Magda G" opera preview, 6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Inglewood Open Studios, 1019 W Building, 1019 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood. Free; suggested donation $15. (310) 419-4077, http://www.fisherensemble.org.
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