New sounds of silents

Special to The Times

Kevin Saunders Hayes stumbled onto his future in a bin at a discount surplus store. He was haunting temples to serendipitous thrift because he was moonlighting as a music writer for humble productions in 99-seat theaters in New York. Unlike composing commercials for deep-pocketed clients by day, mounting off-off-off-Broadway shows called for resourcefulness and rock-bottom prices -- such as the one-buck sign he saw on a bin of silent movies.

Hayes took home several box office smashes from 80 years ago, such as “Metropolis,” “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He popped “Metropolis” into the VCR and, to his surprise, his brain went pop too. “I was blown away by this movie,” Hayes recalls 10 years later. “The first three songs were pounding in my head as I watched it, and I started writing.”

Hayes went on to write a pop score for the 1927 Fritz Lang classic, which has been performed in New York and Paris. And now Hayes’ first fully staged production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” his second silent-movie-goes-pop musical, opens tonight at the Coronet Theatre in West Hollywood.

Hayes calls his new hybrid entertainment Vox Lumiere, a linguistic blend that means “Voice of Light” in Latin and French. The show created for the 1923 film starring Lon Chaney Sr. as the tragic hunchback features a live ensemble of eight singers (including Hayes’ wife, Victoria Levy, as Esmeralda) and a four-piece rock band performing against an orchestral track punctuated with lute and electronic music. Singers in leather and bustiers move through a multilevel stage and, as they interact with the characters on three screens, they belt out the pounding score in three languages -- English, Latin and French -- and widely divergent musical styles, from rock to sacred, madrigals to opera.


Clearly, Hayes is a guy who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.

“I’m a film composer, I’m a TV composer, I’m a songwriter, and I love theater,” says Hayes, 47. “It’s a strange skill set. You never get to do those things at the same time. The initial idea was I wanted to do all that.”

In 1995 Hayes moved to Los Angeles, where he quickly picked up film and TV work. After a year he finished the score for “Metropolis.” When singer friends performed the work on a demo, a friend involved with a French-American film festival in New York insisted they perform the work live there.

“I thought, ‘How am I going to do this live?’ ” recalls the voluble composer. “Other musical groups had improvised the film, but I wasn’t interested in that. If something happened on a beat, I wanted it to happen on a beat every time.”

Hayes polished the score using the computer technology he employed to write perfectly timed movie soundtracks, and the group performed “Metropolis” at the 6th Avignon/New York Film Festival in 2000. The performance was staged as a concert, with the vocalists standing under the screen as they sang with two guitars, a bass and drums. “My concern was, can we pull this off for 90 minutes ... and the answer was yes.”

Vox Lumiere, which Hayes formed that year, was well enough received that the sister festival invited the group to perform “Metropolis” in Avignon, France, that summer, even though the production had nothing to do with the event’s cross-cultural purpose. “We had no reason being there,” Hayes observes. “They were so enthralled with this idea [of Vox Lumiere] that they had a German film in a French-American film festival. Which was what led to ‘Hunchback.’ ”

The group sang “Metropolis” at the Avignon Opera House with its resident choir, amping up the sound with 24 additional voices. And when the festival organizers asked what Vox would be doing the following year, Hayes immediately came up with “The Hunchback,” which he’d only begun to score.

“The French love the bossu de Notre Dame,” Hayes says. “They love the hunchback. He’s a national icon. I couldn’t have said a better thing. So I thought, ‘I’d better go home and finish that.’ ”


While Hayes finished writing “The Hunchback,” Vox continued performing “Metropolis,” including a brief sold-out run at the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue. When “Cousin, Cousine” director Jean Charles Tacchella heard Vox Lumiere’s performance of “Hunchback” in Avignon during the summer of 2001, he invited the company to perform it at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. La Provence newspaper called it “wild and soft at the same time, an opera for modern times.”

“I thought, ‘This has taken on a life of its own,’ ” Hayes says. “Unknowingly, I’d stumbled onto something.”

Hayes decided that sticking with a concert format would limit Vox to “an artsy, film-festival kind of thing,” and he wanted to broaden the appeal beyond audiences who were already sold on silent films. So Hayes recruited Vox vocalist Gabriel Previtera to direct the cast and dancer Lala Ghahreman to choreograph the movement, which sometimes has the performers interacting with their two-dimensional counterparts.

“We want to three-dimensionalize these movies. We don’t want to take away from the movie. There are times you need to watch it, and there are times, because of the pacing, you don’t.


“It’s the 21st century, and people are used to having the TV on, having the stereo on, being on the Internet, being on the phone and not breathing hard. So the pacing of the movie is like going to a concert or the theater. Not everybody has the same theater experience even though you’re going to the same performance because you’re drawn to different things.”

If Hayes sounds passionate about Vox, so are the company’s cast and musicians, who’ve been working without pay until the Coronet run.

“People have stuck around because we love the music,” says Previtera. “And everyone’s interested in the novelty factor. I use that word hesitantly, but people are intrigued by the fact that it’s something new. It certainly hasn’t been about the money.”

Not yet, anyway. In a perfect world, Vox Lumiere would follow Cirque du Soleil’s example by meshing art with commercial appeal. There could even be different productions touring concurrently while others are anchored in Las Vegas, Hayes says.


The classically trained musician who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music is fascinated by the idea of creating opera that hews to its original identity as popular culture. He calls Vox “popular, contemporary opera and -- I hope I don’t sound too pretentious -- I think what I’m writing is the direction opera needs to go in to stay alive, because opera has always been about popular music....

“And I think people want to hear popular music in a theatrical, operatic setting. Huge distortion guitars are part of that palette. Background singers and a pop melodic line are part of that palette as well as classically trained voices. It’s a contemporary art form, and it needs contemporary writers to make it come alive.”