In the interest of full disclosure, my experience with opera has been limited to selected pieces that I've heard on CD compliations, and things like that. I've never really gone to the opera, and my first experience with it was a few years ago when film composer Elliot Goldenthal premiered his opera, Grendel. So my second full opera experience was last night, when I attended a performance of film composer Howard Shore's opera, The Fly - loosely based on the 1986 David Cronenberg film that he had scored - performed by the LA Opera Company.
The story follows Particle Magazine reporter Veronica Quaife (Ruxandra Donose), recounting to a police officer the events that led to the tragic death of scientist Seth Brundle (Daniel Okulitch). Through flashback, we're taken to the Particle awards ceremony where Veronica meets Seth, outside away from the crowded reception. He's working on something revolutionary - and she goes back to his apartment where he shows her his work: two telepods that can transport an inanimate object from one to the other. When she takes the information to her ex-lover and editor, Stathis Borans (Gary Lehman), he thinks it's all a hoax. Relieved that his work wasn't exposed just yet, Brundle offers Veronica the chance to document his historical work. When he fails to successfully transport a baboon (it arrives turned inside-out), he's disheartened, but Veronica encourages him. Soon the two have become lovers, and Seth successfully transports the baboon. He is all ready to celebrate, but Veronica goes to see Stathis to "scrape him off her show". Upset and drunk, he decides to go through the telepods himself.
The second half of the opera involves the metamorphosis that Brundle undergoes. Believing himself to be cleansed and renewed, he tries to convince Veronica to go through as well - but she refuses, believing that something went wrong. With newfound strength and acrobatic skills, Brundle goes down to the local bar to find someone to take home. After breaking a man's arm in an arm-wrestling match, he takes home the trampy Tawny Perkins (Ashlyn Russ) who he tries to convince to go through the telepods. She refuses because she's afraid - and Veronica shows up to sing the classic line, "Be afraid - be very afraid." Turns out that something happened during the teleportation, and as Seth starts to metamorphosize over the course of the second act, he discovers that a fly was in the telepod with him - and the computer fused him and the fly together at he molecular level. No longer Seth Brundle, he believes himself to be "Brundlefly" - the new flesh. When Veronica finds out that she is pregnant with Seth's baby, Stathis insists she gets an abortion. But Seth stops her, because the baby might be the only human part of him left. But then the madness sets in, and he decides that the best way to transcend the flesh of his existence would be to merge four beings into one - Seth, Veronica, the fly and the baby. Stathis shows up to rescue Veronica from the telepod, halting the computer in mid teleport - and Seth is turned inside out. Feeling pity on him, Veronica shoots him in the head, and decides to keep the baby.
Directed for the stage by David Cronenberg, Shore's opera contains a libretto by M. Butterfly scribe David Henry Hwang. The story is pretty much the same as the film, but themes of "the new flesh" permeate the opera. Supporting characters are flat and two-dimensional (scientists at the party proclaim their hip-ness when they're not at the lab, and the bar patrons are portrayed as hicks who didn't achieve anything after high-school), but Brundle is portrayed more sympathetically, as a madman and genius who just wants to achieve greatness. The sets and costumes feel more like the 1950s design esthetic than the 1986 film, with the telepods evoking an enlarged wall safe with a television screen. The computer is portrayed by the off-stage cast, singing in monotone. The music itself is effective enough as underscore, but with the scant exception of a few bits, there isn't much of a melody that sticks with you. Considering the source material, this was probably the most disheartening aspect of the production, since the original 1986 score for The Fly is bold, evocative and strong, and (dare I even say) operatic. Instead of keeping with that style, Shore has instead opted for a more subdued approach to the opera, which works with the on-stage storyline, but doesn't grab the listener in any particularly effective way.
My experience and reaction to The Fly was the same I had with Goldenthal's Grendel. Maybe it's the limitations of my experience with opera, specifically modern opera. Maybe it's because the libretto was in English - with other operatic pieces I've heard, including Don Davis' Rio de Sangre suite, vocals were just part of the musical experience to me, since I didn't understand what they were saying. But maybe there's some strange kind of unwritten expectations that film composers are trying to meet when they delve into the concert world. Instead of doing what they're good at - providing dramatic underscore with themes and melodies that stick with you - they're trying to prove themselves to the concert world crowd, but doing what is perceived as "the thing to do". I could be wrong - but it seems to me that with so many modern pieces focusing more on palette than melody, it would be more likely that a piece would stand out if it has a unique palette as well as a theme. Anything that the audience can latch on to. The Fly as an opera would work effectively if it stuck with that idea. Instead, it just flows forward, giving us an interesting story with little musical identity. I understand the creative talent's decision to move beyond the film, but it just doesn't have as much power or emotion as I would have expected. With a limited engagement in Los Angeles for the next few weeks, it remains to be seen if The Fly will perform anywhere else.
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