Redefining Live Action Film : Music: Philip Glass pays tribute to filmmaker Jean Cocteau with ‘La Belle et la Bete.’
Philip Glass has a history with Hollywood. He has contributed music to feature films with aspirations toward art (Paul Schrader’s “Mishima” and Errol Morris’ “Thin Blue Line”) and to those without (“Candyman” and its sequel). He has collaborated with the less mainstream filmmaker Godfrey Reggio in extraordinary visual essays examining the state of the world (“Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and the wildlife short “Anima Mundi”) in which the nonstop music is an integral component, and the Philip Glass ensemble has become proficient in performing these scores live, with the films. And three years ago he began a trilogy of stage works based on Jean Cocteau’s classic films by setting the screenplay of “Orphee” as an opera.
With the second installment of that trilogy, “La Belle et la Bete"--which UCLA will be presenting with the Philip Glass Ensemble and soloists at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in four performances Thursday through Sunday--Glass has, however, entered into a different realm altogether.
“If you think about it,” Glass says speaking by phone from Kansas City, on tour with the opera, “this is a ‘performance’ of a film.”
Glass’ “La Belle et la Bete” is, in fact, many things. It is a screening of a fine print of a beautiful classic 1946 film, full of surreal imagery that Disney couldn’t resist acknowledging in its animated “Beauty and the Beast.” It is the performance of Glass’ score written to the film’s screenplay and performed in place of the soundtrack (with supertitles). But it is also an interaction of performers with film. The singers (in this case, mezzo-soprano Janice Felty, baritone Gregory Purnhagen, soprano Kate Egan and bass Zheng Zhou) not only provide the voices for the onscreen characters, they also acknowledge them.
Indeed, as unusual as Glass’ opera is, and there has never been anything like it, “La Belle et la Be^te” is a part of Glass’ ongoing process of breaking down barriers between music and the other arts.
“What this really is,” Glass explains, “is a continuation of the kind of work that I have been doing for 30 years, and I couldn’t have done it without having worked in theater and music theater and opera in all the different ways that I have, or without having had experience performing music live with film.”
Most of all, it is a continuation of his joy in collaborations with poets, filmmakers, novelists, playwrights and stage directors. This time, however, the collaborator was dead, and his work was a fixed entity. It required that Glass clock every syllable spoken on the soundtrack so he could determine the note values for his setting of the text--a considerable challenge given how fast spoken text moves in comparison to sung text.
Glass explains that his motivation for doing the project was partly that the challenge interested him.
“I am a tireless collaborator, but whether I am working on incidental music for Shakespeare with [director] Joanne Akalitis, or with Allen Ginsberg, I prefer to have all the work in front of me,” he says. “That becomes the source and the inspiration of the theater.”
As an extreme example, Glass wrote the music for the final section of Robert Wilson’s incomplete epic opera “the CIVIL warS,” which was to have crowned the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Arts Festival, to fit the detailed timings of Wilson’s staging.
There were other motivations for “La Belle et la Be^te” as well. On the practical side, Glass, who is a prolific opera composer, has been having trouble in the stingy ‘90s getting his operas performed. But here is an opera that he can take anywhere, that requires the transportation of no stage properties other than a film can. It also affords employment for Glass’ ensemble, and he always needs new repertory for the frequent tours necessary to support the group.
And there is also Glass’ relationship to Cocteau.
“For me,” Glass says, “Cocteau represents the basic questions of art that matter to us in the 20th Century. ‘La Belle’ is a simple fairy tale, but it is also something much deeper than that, in that it looks directly at the creative process.”
Glass sees allegories between the film’s characters and creativity. That the Beast is reborn as the prince through the love of Beauty, for instance, reveals the process of the artist finding his artistic soul.
But Glass also delights in the fact that he is celebrating an artist--a great poet, playwright, artist and actor--who made films that were truly artistic statements in way that is almost impossible today, given the economics of modern cinema. (The final work in Glass’ Cocteau trilogy will be a ballet based on “Les Enfants Terribles,” which premieres at La Scala next month.)
The most curious aspect of Glass’ collaboration with “La Belle et la Be^te” is the way it has progressed through performance. When Glass began, he imagined that the audience would quickly forget the artificial nature of the situation, that live performance and film would merge into a single experience.
He acknowledges now that that has not really been the case. The film, nice as the print is, gets slightly washed out by the lighting on the singers (although the degree tends to vary from venue to venue). But Glass wanted the singers to remain visible lest the film overwhelm them. And remarkable as the lip-syncing is, it can never be exact all the time. It just needs to slip for a second to remind the viewer that two different sorts of media are going on at once.
In the end, the contrast of music and film has turned out to be, for Glass, exactly the strength of the work. The singers now appear to react to the film, sometimes addressing each other, sometimes the screen. It is a mysterious, postmodern relationship where the singers can seem to be guiding the actors or vice versa. So, Glass says, his “La Belle et la Be^te” is not about film at all, but is theater.
That is an easier concept to experience than to explain, but Glass has gotten good at that as well, and he will be on hand to speak about the opera an hour before each performance.
* “La Belle et la Bete,” Veterans Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m. ; Sunday 2 p.m. $13-$36.50. (310) 825-2101. CenterStage discussion with Glass, free to ticket-holders, one hour before curtain .