IN DIRECTOR David Cronenberg's 1986 movie "The Fly" -- remember "Be afraid. Be very afraid"? -- scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) commits a fatal error when he combines his own genes with those of a common housefly. At Los Angeles Opera these days, another dicey blending of species is taking place: Film directors are mutating into opera directors -- with, it's hoped, less alarming results.
The Cuisinart that mistakenly mixes Brundle's DNA with that of an insect in "The Fly" is a "telepod," designed to teleport objects and, occasionally, living beings. At L.A. Opera, the experimental crucible is the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where three prominent auteurs -- Cronenberg, William Friedkin and Woody Allen -- have been at work on the productions that next weekend will kick off the company's 2008-09 season.
Friedkin and Allen share duties for "Il Trittico," a trio of one-act operas by Puccini opening Saturday in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Italian composer's birth. Friedkin, an L.A. Opera veteran, is directing "Il Tabarro" (The Cloak), the story of a tragic love triangle, and "Suor Angelica" (Sister Angelica), about a nun with a secret. Allen, staging an opera for the first time, is at the helm of "Gianni Schicchi," a romantic comedy he describes as "funny compared to 'Tosca,' not funny compared to 'Duck Soup.' "
Allen is convinced that Puccini must be celebrating his birthday by turning over in his grave. "I'm the average philistine at the opera who by the third act of Wagner's 'Siegfried' is asleep," he confessed recently. "I'm not the greatest choice in the world for this, but I'm doing my best, and hopefully nobody will get hurt."
As for Cronenberg, also an opera neophyte, the master of the macabre is directing “The Fly,” a new opera based on his 1986 picture, the 1957 short story by George Langelaan that inspired it and the 1958 film starring Vincent Price A co-production of L.A. Opera and the Théâtre du Chatelet — Paris, the new work was composed by Howard Shore, who has written the music for a raft of Cronenberg movies, including "The Fly," and whose other credits include the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." The opera had its world premiere in Paris in July and opens here next Sunday.
More film connections: Designer Santo Loquasto, who's often worked with Allen, is responsible for the look of "Il Trittico." Playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") wrote the libretto for "The Fly" -- Shore collaborated with Cronenberg and Hwang on the film version of "M. Butterfly." Filmdom's Dante Ferretti is the "Fly" set designer, and Cronenberg's sister and frequent collaborator, Denise, designed the costumes.
But don't expect "The Fly" to pay literal homage to the silver screen in the form of onstage projections. "I really wanted a theatrical experience. If I was going to do stage -- and I've never done stage, never mind opera -- I want that experience," Cronenberg says. "I don't want to muddy it with half-baked film-video stuff.
"In theory, there are many ways you can do close-ups onstage. You can do it with lighting, but I wasn't even thinking about that. I found that I could direct the singers just as I would direct actors on film."
Well, maybe not quite. Says Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, 32, who's essaying the very athletic role of Brundle: "He was always asking, 'What do you need? Can you do that and still sing?' And we'd say, 'Absolutely not!' And Howard would say, 'This is an opera. Why is he upside down on wires?' "
Cronenberg, Okulitch recalls, responded with words to the effect that, although the position is not ideal for singing, from a staging standpoint that's the only way a human fly can crawl across the ceiling.
Not a gimmick
BECAUSE of its location in an industry town, Los Angeles Opera has frequently brought in film directors during its 21-year history, including Herb Ross, Bruce Beresford, John Schlesinger, Maximilian Schell, Gary Marshall and Julie Taymor. Right now, company General Manager Placido Domingo is wooing Tim Robbins and John Malkovich for future productions.
But Domingo says the fact that the company is enjoying "a very big Hollywood/L.A. Opera weekend" is somewhat coincidental: "The Fly" was originally slated to have its world premiere in L.A., not Paris, during the 2007-08 season, but plans were changed as the Southern California company dealt with creative delays and the illness of its chief operating officer, Edgar Baitzel, who died of cancer in spring 2007. Domingo, who will conduct the opera here, says he first became enamored of recruiting people from the movie world early in his performing career, when he worked both in film and onstage with Franco Zeffirelli, who moved fluidly among theater, opera and film directing.
And unlike the unhappy melding that led to Seth Brundle's mutation into the doomed "Brundlefly," Domingo says that so far, L.A. Opera's collaborations between film and opera have been good ones. He recalls one of the company's first experiments with a movie director, when Ross did a new staging of "La Boheme" for the 1993-94 season. "That production was such a success that we are still doing it."
Bringing in movie talent, Domingo insists, is not just a gimmick: "Movie directors see things in a different dimension -- they bring some beautiful, wonderful, refreshing ideas."
Domingo acknowledges that critics have not always warmed to the film directors' visions: Beresford's updated 2000 staging of Verdi's "Rigoletto," for one, drew mixed reviews for reinventing Verdi's Duke of Mantua as Duke Mantua, film producer. But for the most part, Domingo says, L.A. audiences have been receptive. "If it hadn't worked, we would stop -- but it has worked, so we are enthusiastic."
"The Fly," Domingo allows, is riskier than most of the company's previous collaborations with movie talent. To begin with, it's a new work -- always chancier than a classic. One is reminded of 2006's "Grendel," the trouble-plagued new opera directed by Taymor and composed by her life partner and frequent professional collaborator, Elliot Goldenthal, most noted for his composing for 1995's "Batman Forever" and 1997's "Batman and Robin," among other films. But Taymor, best known for mounting Broadway's "The Lion King," was no stranger to either the theater or the opera stage.
Even Domingo admits to some early trepidation about "The Fly" -- not about the moviemakers involved, but their choice of story. "We approached David Cronenberg and Howard Shore because Howard had said he'd like to do an opera, and I said, 'Let's do it -- now, let's discuss the subject,' " Domingo recalls. "And he said, 'No, I don't think we have to discuss the subject. I've already been working on a project: 'The Fly.'
"I said, 'Oh, God, of all things, "The Fly"? ' "
That's what some critics in Paris said too. In what pundits have gleefully referred to as "bad buzz," Christian Merlin of Le Figaro wrote that at the intermission of the two-hour show, "one is already so bored as to strongly suspect the presence of the parasitical tsetse fly." Another critic carped that Cronenberg should have used video, and Le Monde reviewer Renaud Machart called Shore's music "dutiful, unimaginatively orchestrated" and expressed regret that the production failed to reproduce the various bodily fluids so graphically depicted as part of Brundle's on-screen meltdown.
That last observation baffled Cronenberg. "He missed the gooeyness -- he thought the effects were too dry, too baked. So how seriously can I take this guy?" the director exclaims.
But, Cronenberg adds charitably, any contemporary opera, especially one bearing a Hollywood stamp, is a lot for classical music critics to handle.
"They're not only absorbing a score they've never heard before, but they're also having to deal with the movie," he says. "For me, it would be fine if they never mentioned it, but they feel they have to deal with me as a film director directing opera onstage for the first time."
He cracks a wicked smile before continuing, "I can feel them straining. They are working very hard to have an attitude and to come off as superior, because, after all, they are French."
It takes teamwork
ALL three film directors say the most difficult thing about transitioning from film to the opera stage is letting go of the ability to make changes. The director can cut, but not rewrite, the music -- in that sense, directing opera is more like directing Shakespeare than creating "The Exorcist" or "Annie Hall." "Film is a director's medium, TV is more of a writer-producer's medium, and opera is a much more collaborative medium," Friedkin says.
Composer Shore observes that he has some freedom for last-minute musical tinkering on "The Fly" because, unlike Puccini, he's not dead. But Cronenberg, Allen and Friedkin agree that if a movie director really wants to direct opera, he or she must be willing to give up the power of the auteur.
For the movie version of "The Fly," Cronenberg says, he filmed the screenplay, then Shore added the music. In the case of the opera, the music and the libretto came first.
Says singer Okulitch: "The process was reversed. Howard has created a piece of music, then David comes in at the end and puts his stamp on it. I remember David saying, 'It's like there's more than one director on this show.' "
L.A. Opera music director James Conlon, who is conducting "Il Trittico," puts it this way: "When they are making a movie, they can do anything they want with that creation. An opera is not our creation -- we are there to realize a work that preexists, sometimes at a distance of 100 years, or 200 years.
"The greatest dramatist is the composer. That cannot be said too often: The key to understanding opera is to be found in the music."
"Il Trittico," Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 6 p.m. Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11; 2 p.m. Sept. 14; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 17; 2 p.m. Sept. 21; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 26. $20 to $250. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com.
"The Fly," 2 p.m. next Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10, 13, 16 and 20; 2 p.m. Sept. 27.