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Verdi, Meet Armani

Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

During an early February rehearsal, a slightly rumpled fellow with an Aussie accent and an easy laugh walks up to the tenor playing the Duke of Mantua in the upcoming Los Angeles Opera production of “Rigoletto.” What, inquires the singer, is my state of mind in this scene?

The director, a stickler for behavior and body language, warms to the question. “You’re irritating everyone in the room--but no matter,” he replies. “You’re the big cheese and everyone’s inhibited by your fame. When a star or a big producer talks, no one interrupts or contradicts.”

The tenor later protests that there’s insufficient time for his offstage seduction. “There’s always Viagra,” the director cracks, breaking up the cast.

Producers? Viagra? In 16th century Italy? Actually, the references are apt. For starters, the director is Bruce Beresford, whose film work includes the critically acclaimed “Breaker Morant” and “Tender Mercies,” the Oscar-winning “Driving Miss Daisy” and the 1999 hit “Double Jeopardy.”

Opera, though a longtime love, is a smaller part of the mix.

Giuseppe Verdi’s tale of betrayal and revenge, moreover, has been reset in modern-day Hollywood. The womanizing Duke is a studio mogul; Rigoletto, the hunchbacked jester whose daughter the Duke dishonors, is an agent; and Sparafucile, an assassin hired to avenge the insult, is a stuntman--all appropriately clad in Armani. The evening begins with the last 2 1/2 minutes of a film being screened at the Duke’s home. Beresford directed that as well, using the overture as a soundtrack.

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Featuring the Los Angeles debut of Chinese baritone Haijing Fu in the title role, soprano Inva Mula as his daughter, and Roberto Aronica and Frank Lopardo sharing the role of the Duke, the co-production of the Los Angeles and San Diego operas will be performed at the Los Angeles County Performing Arts Center in March.

The concept is a catchy one, the opera’s general director, Peter Hemmings, acknowledges. Hollywood loves watching itself. Still, modernizing the story was an artistic choice, not a ploy to fill seats.

“Unlike ‘La Traviata,’ with its Victorian morality, ‘Rigoletto’ is a timeless story that sells however you do it,” he says. “Though Verdi pleaded that it not be updated, the idea of a man with money and power buying sexual favors is still prevalent today.”

Beresford, for his part, is drawn to the modern. Last year, he received raves for his production of “The Crucible,” Robert Ward’s 1962 Pulitzer-winning piece presented by the Washington Opera. And in April, he’s directing Carlisle Floyd’s “Cold Sassy Tree,” a Houston Grand Opera commission about a widower who scandalizes a town by marrying a young woman after the death of his wife.

Even the classics, the 59-year-old director maintains, require an occasional shot in the arm.

“There are seven or eight operas [that] companies do again and again,” says Beresford, casually attired in jeans, a black leather jacket and black boots. “What could be more tedious? If we ran the same dozen movies each year, audiences wouldn’t keep coming. Still, it’s always a risk to update a classic--I’m hoping this is one of those operas they term ‘director-proof.’ ”

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“Rigoletto” was the first opera Beresford saw as a teenager growing up in Sydney--his first exposure to classical music, in fact. Dad, a traveling salesman with a history of instability, objected if his son turned on the radio. Mom associated a taste for Beethoven and Brahms with homosexuality.

“That was before the late 1960s when it became de rigueur to be gay,” the director says. “I had to reassure her that I was also crazy about girls.”

“Rigoletto” triggered an “addiction” in Beresford--no matter that the production he saw was poorly staged. Lousy acting, painted backdrops and a lack of credibility were worth enduring, he says, for the opera’s string of “enchanting hit tunes.”

Since he found opera prohibitively expensive, young Beresford took a leap. “I’d like to be your opera critic,” the 17-year-old told the editor of a local magazine. For the next few years, he got his tickets for free, writing occasional freelance reviews. He also developed a passion for Bartok, Stravinsky and Hindemith, whom he preferred to the 18th and 19th century composers.

Movies, however, were Beresford’s first love. He started shooting short narrative 8-millimeter films when he was 12--moving up to the 16-millimeter variety three years later. Beresford was accepted into a USC film course but, lacking the money to enter the U.S., turned the offer down. Instead, he became a philosophy major at the University of Sydney and a trainee at the Australian Broadcasting System. Hoping to break into the British film industry, he sailed for England in 1962--on the very day he graduated.

After struggling to get his foot in the door, he took on a job overseeing the production of low-budget movies by the likes of Tony Scott and Mike Leigh at the British Film Institute. In 1972, Australia offered grants to filmmakers, luring Beresford back home. His proposal: a comedy adapted from the comic strip “Barry McKenzie.” The film became a hit--a mixed blessing, Beresford now says. Until “Don’s Party,” an adaptation of a successful stage play, took off in 1976, he was identified with lowbrow fare.

“Breaker Morant” (1980) was his international breakthrough--Australia’s biggest box-office success at that time. The director won his country’s top prize for best film and an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. Beresford, along with Fred Schepisi and Peter Weir, became identified with Australia’s New Wave.

Suddenly, scripts were channeled his way--among them “Tender Mercies,” a character drama by Horton Foote. Although the 1982 movie did only so-so commercially, it was the darling of the critics. Robert Duvall won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of an alcoholic country singer.

Is there a common thread to the movies Beresford has made? “I favor straightforward, uncluttered stories with complicated emotions,” he says. “All reality-based.”

In the mid-1980s, Beresford got his start in opera. Attending the Spoleto Arts Festival in Italy, he ran into its founder, Gian Carlo Menotti. Why aren’t you directing opera for us? the maestro asked the film guy. In 1985, Beresford staged Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West” at the festival’s Italian and South Carolina venues. Beresford went on to direct Strauss’ “Elektra” for the State Opera Company of Southern Australia in 1991, a production voted best opera of the year. Then came Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” for the Portland Opera in 1996 and Ward’s “The Crucible.”

With his 1989 adaptation of Alfred Uhry’s Pulitzer-winning play “Driving Miss Daisy,” the director struck it big. The tale of a cantankerous Southern Jewish matron (Jessica Tandy) and her wise black driver (Morgan Freeman), the movie won a best actress Oscar for Tandy, a best adapted screenplay award for Uhry and a best picture statuette. When it came to the best director category, however, Beresford wasn’t even nominated.

“I was so glad to be doing films that I like, it seemed childish to be carping about not getting pats on the back,” he says.

Critical and commercial reaction to Beresford’s last decade of work has been mixed. Although 1991’s “Black Robe” and “Mr. Johnson” had their fans, “Rich in Love” (1993) was a disappointment and “Paradise Road” (1997) was soundly panned. Last year’s psychological thriller “Double Jeopardy” wasn’t his best-reviewed film. Still, it gave him commercial clout, taking in $116 million in North America alone.

To those who wonder if Beresford has gone Hollywood, his wish list of movies should set them straight. He is interested in moving ahead on projects about English illustrator-author Beatrix Potter, biographer James Boswell and Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk after beginning another, equally arcane, piece in May.

“It’s an independent movie about Alma Mahler, wife of the composer--and lover of everyone,” the director says, flashing a smile. “With two operas and that film coming up, I guess you could say this is my ‘classical’ stretch.”

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Beresford, of course, isn’t the first movie director to delve into opera. Ken Russell, William Friedkin and Robert Altman have flexed their operatic muscles. At Los Angeles Opera, Franco Zeffirelli’s “Pagliacci” was presented in 1996 and Herb Ross’ “La Boheme” (1993) is being revived next year. Hemmings has also scheduled John Schlesinger’s new production of “Peter Grimes” for the 2000-01 season.

Still, movies and opera are two different animals, Beresford maintains. While films are a director’s medium, opera belongs to the composer.

“Pacing is dictated by the score, so there’s no way to shorten a scene,” Beresford says. “And, since you’re dealing with a fixed frame, you can’t use close-ups and camera angles to draw in viewers. Casting, too--it’s often out of your hands. I had to rely on the clout of Peter Hemmings to attract first-rate stars.”

With no power to edit stage movements, Beresford says, he tries to control them--through sets, groupings of people and patterns of lighting.

“Bruce is very strong on the visual,” says John Stoddart, set designer on “Rigoletto,” “The Crucible,” 'Elektra” and a host of Beresford films dating to the early 1970s. “Though he’s not flamboyant like Zeffirelli, he storyboards everything with little stick figures and knows where to place the singers for maximum contrast.”

Still, it’s hard to identify a Bruce Beresford work, Stoddart adds. “Bruce is unusually collaborative for such an egomaniacal business--and gets out of the way of the material,” he says.

Performances, his colleagues say, are another of Beresford’s strengths. The director treats his singers like actors, striving for as much naturalism as possible. Supertitles, the director notes, have upped the ante since the audience understands the nuances of what is happening.

Lopardo, who shares the role of the Duke, was impressed after the first few rehearsals. “I didn’t know if a film director would have all the building blocks in place--but Beresford was far more prepared than most,” he says. “And his approach is non-operatic. Though I don’t stretch out my arms when singing a high note, it’s hard to completely eliminate that from my arsenal. Pavarotti would have a tough time.”

Though he reads music “laboriously,” Beresford says, he can tell after a couple of notes where in the score he is. Whatever insecurities the director may have about his musical abilities, “Rigoletto” conductor Richard Hickox gives him high marks.

“I can sniff out in five minutes if a director can feel the music,” he says. “It became clear that everything Bruce asked the singers to do worked with the music, not against it. He’s not a natural musician, it’s true. But you can’t be as charming as Bruce is and not be musical, in a way.”

Though “The Girl of the Golden West” was well-reviewed at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, it was savaged by critics abroad. Turning the character of Minnie, the owner of a Western saloon, into the madam of a brothel proved particularly irksome: “This is something that could only come to the mind of a film director ignorant of music,” wrote a critic for Rome’s Il Messaggero.

The director wasn’t surprised: “The Italians hate any changes to their opera,” he says.

Beresford’s 1996 staging of “Sweeney Todd” however, captured the hearts of critics. “Bruce Beresford . . . gives the production swaggering confidence and grimy reality,” said the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Three years later, the Washington Post waxed equally ecstatic about “The Crucible”: “Far and away the smartest and most valuable production the company has given this season.”

Beresford says it doesn’t get easier--no matter how many times he tries: “The mountain still seems as high. What I’ve learned is to love opera even more.”

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Hemmings, former general manager of the Australian Opera, has been following Beresford’s work for years. Although the two were interested in collaborating, the latter’s movie schedule interfered. About a year ago, Beresford agreed to direct “La Cenerentola,” Rossini’s “Cinderella.” Shortly thereafter, Hemmings changed his mind: Would Beresford stage “Rigoletto” instead?

The director lined up Stoddart as his set designer, and the two discussed the material. It was Stoddart who suggested transporting the opera to modern-day Hollywood--a notion Beresford cautiously embraced. Hemmings had his doubts initially and asked the director to make his case.

“The parallels became evident,” Beresford recalls. “Hollywood producers, after all, are like medieval barons with massive entourages and yes-men. They also live in extraordinary luxury. Some of those homes in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air leave you gasping. . . . One had a Rouault in the loo!”

It would be tempting to regard the production as a poke at Hollywood, Beresford acknowledges. Tempting, but wrong. It’s always tricky dealing with studios or government film entities, he says, but overall he’s been treated well.

“Australians expect me to go on about how ghastly it is in Hollywood,” Beresford says. “But I don’t think that’s the case. I have great friends here and have worked with people I respect. I also have a career I dreamed about as a child--how ludicrous to mock the people without whom i’d be nowhere.”

Beresford, an acknowledged obsessive when it comes to research, took dozens of photographs of homes and hotels in the area--including the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Los Feliz and Hollywood. He also marked up an issue of Architectural Digest devoted to Hollywood design that he brought to Stoddart in Sydney.

Two moving towers will create various locations in the production, which has four sets--the mogul’s house and his office, Rigoletto’s home, and a hotel in Venice. And because Beresford views “Rigoletto” as a “dark, bitter” opera, there’s a disproportionate amount of black and gray.

“ ‘Rigoletto’ is often done as a happy-go-lucky story with a sad ending,” Beresford says. “In fact, the whole opera is a moody piece, despite the buoyant music.”

Beresford admits to a case of the jitters--but that’s nothing new, he says.

“I always doubt my ability to carry something off,” he says. “But by the time they realize you don’t have any talent, you’re famous and getting work all over the place. Still, whether I keep doing opera, I suspect, may depend on the reaction to L.A. and Houston.

“If I don’t do well,” he says, drawing a diagonal line in the air, “they may draw a line through ‘Bruce.’ ”

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* “Rigoletto,” Los Angeles Opera, Wednesday and March 7, 9, 12 and 15, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and March 18, 1 p.m. Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. $27-$146. (213) 365-3500.


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