Beastly Computer Glitch Delays ‘Grendel’ Opera

Times Staff Writers

Saturday night’s hotly anticipated first performance of composer Elliot Goldenthal’s new opera, “Grendel” -- directed by his life partner and frequent artistic collaborator, Julie Taymor of “The Lion King” fame -- has been canceled because of computer-related troubles with a massive mechanical set piece central to the action, Los Angeles Opera said Thursday.

The $2.8-million show, a co-production with New York’s Lincoln Center and an undertaking that L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo has called the company’s most ambitious to date, will still go on. But the official premiere has been pushed back to June 8, at a cost to the company of more than $300,000.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 28, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Opera opening: An article in Friday’s California section about Los Angeles Opera’s “Grendel” incorrectly said director Julie Taymor and set designer George Tsypin had collaborated on “The Lion King.” They did not.

Two previously scheduled intervening performances, Thursday and June 3, will be designated “previews.” But the price of tickets will remain the same.

“Grendel” has been plagued by delays throughout its approximately six weeks of rehearsals at the Music Center, in part because of an accident. Last December, Goldenthal fell in his and Taymor’s New York home, suffering a head injury that impaired his speech and caused him to lose more than a month of his composing schedule.


Yet as the opening approached, “Grendel” was undone not by the composer’s last-minute musical revisions but by a 21st century wrinkle in operatic production: the demands of its sophisticated special effects.

“Grendel” tells the story of a man-eating monster from the monster’s point of view. But from a staging standpoint, said set designer George Tsypin, theater’s new “monster” is the computer.

“The performers, costumes and music were ready, but we have been in computer hell,” Taymor said. “There’s nothing you can do about it, because you can’t yell at it.”

In this case, the production ran, quite literally, up against “the wall” -- an imposing 48-foot-long, 28-foot-tall, 20-ton set piece run by 26 motors. About 80% of the opera’s action takes place on this “ice-earth unit,” as it is more formally known.

The $900,000 set piece is designed to move back and forth and to rotate to show two seasons in the opera’s version of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf”: one representing frosty winter and the other an earthy spring.

All these movements are computer-controlled, but because of computer malfunctions, two motors and a piston broke down.

“This scared us beyond belief,” said L.A. Opera artistic director Edgar Baitzel. “Until then, this central unit was working properly all the time. But after this, our security concerns were tremendous.”

The motors and piston were repaired, but the computer software programs driving the movements were still being revised Thursday.


The show contains other spectacular effects, including a massacre scene, in which dancers “fly” above the stage, and a giant dragon puppet that has moving mechanical jaws and nostrils that spew carbon dioxide smoke. But none of those effects is computer-dependent, said L.A. Opera technical director Jeff Kleeman.

“Theater is unthinkable without computers these days, and unfortunately we are hostages to this mysterious beast,” set designer Tsypin, who was also Taymor’s collaborator on “The Lion King,” said at a Thursday news conference at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

“I’ve done a lot of operas, and usually they have a kind of static, stodgy feel,” he said. “But this is conceived as a very dynamic show.”

Baitzel said the short rehearsal schedule common to opera raises special problems when it comes to such elaborate stage effects.


“In an ideal world, we would have it onstage and run it for three weeks or four weeks or five weeks,” he said of the giant wall. “You can do this in Vegas, and you can do this on Broadway.”

Director Taymor has complained that, in opera, the creative personnel don’t have the out-of-town tryouts and weeks of previews that typically precede Broadway openings.

However, in the case of “Grendel,” the company is bringing a theater tradition to opera by calling the two scheduled performances after the canceled opening night “previews.” The opera will receive six performances in all, the last June 17.

Baitzel said that preview tickets would remain full-price and that refunds would not be offered but that preview ticket-holders might be able to exchange their seats for a later performance.


On Thursday, members of the cast expressed disappointment but also resignation.

“Even though we’re going to disappoint a lot of people who had tickets for Saturday, we owe it to the opera public to put our best foot forward and make sure all the computers are online, so we don’t have to bring down the curtain and stop the show,” said Eric Owens, who will sing the title role.

“At certain times, computer problems ate away at our rehearsal time,” he said. “And it’s live theater -- it’s not like a movie, where you have all this postproduction stuff. We have to be in the moment.”

L.A. Opera Chairman and Chief Executive Marc I. Stern was philosophical about the postponement. The only time anything similar has happened at the company occurred when it canceled the first night of a production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.


“We jointly own the [‘Grendel’] production with Lincoln Center. We can mount it again any time we want to,” Stern said.

Speaking by phone Thursday, Lincoln Center Festival director Nigel Redden said: “It’s very brave on the part of Los Angeles Opera -- which is going to incur some real losses -- to postpone the premiere.

“This is the first performance of a major new opera by a major figure in the theater world,” he said. “It’s essential that this performance goes well. This piece of mechanical equipment doesn’t quite work at the moment -- and it will.”

“Grendel” is scheduled to receive four performances at Lincoln Center, the first July 11.


“Frankly speaking, we would not have gone ahead without the Los Angeles Opera producing ‘Grendel,’ ” Redden said. “Los Angeles Opera is one of the major opera companies in the country. We’re very proud that it’s happening.”