L.A. Opera sings for film composers

Could film composers be preparing their arias?

L.A. Opera artistic director Edgar Baitzel seems to think so. He admits to noticing a strong, growing link between film and the opera stage — and he’s encouraging it.

Two productions commissioned by the L.A. Opera and slotted for future openings there are the creative brainchildren of Academy Award-winning composers: Elliot Goldenthal’s “Grendel,” a darkly comic retelling of the “Beowulf” epic told from the monster’s point of view, slated for 2006, and Howard Shore’s “The Fly,” to be presented in 2007.

“In choosing film composers for the L.A. Opera, we’re trying to tap into audiences that are used to listening to their music,” Baitzel says.

“Of course, our industry is totally different from theirs, especially when it comes to salaries,” he says. “We can pay only a fraction of what a movie studio pays.”

The org’s first plan, Baitzel recalls, was to approach multiple Oscar winner John Williams; they couldn’t find a suitable property.

Baitzel and L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo knew Goldenthal and director Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”) had the idea of doing “Grendel” as an opera but lacked the support of an opera house. “So, Placido started pushing, and very soon we had the content in place,” Baitzel says.

“It felt like an opera to them,” Goldenthal says. “It has to do with Julie’s success in the theater, trusting that she has a good feel for material. She’s worked there before, with ‘The Flying Dutchman.’ And they had faith in me.”

Due to the enormous expense of creating new works, however, L.A. Opera asked the Lincoln Center Festival to join as co-producer, marking the Gotham org’s first and largest collaboration.

“At the same time, we learned that Howard Shore had an idea to do an operatic version of ‘The Fly,’ with Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist David Henry Hwang and the movie’s director, David Cronenberg,” says Baitzel. And while both projects are horror stories, he quickly points out the subject matter is only a coincidence, and he has no intention of starting a horror story department.

Cronenberg, who directed the 1986 remake of “The Fly,” sees material from that film as ideal for opera. “It’s a very emotional tale,” he points out. “Very tragic — the characters fall in love, and he contracts a wasting disease. She helps him die. That’s the operatic, emotional part of it.”

Cronenberg, who admits he’ll be depending on Shore and Domingo for guidance, has his own musical background to draw from. The son of an accompanist to opera singers, Cronenberg is himself a classical guitarist.

Three-time Oscar-winning composer Shore (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) has already assembled themes and ideas and recorded a first act on synthesizer to give Cronenberg an idea of orchestration.

Although Shore has never written an opera, he’s “passionate” about the project and feels comfortable with the vocal demands of the form because his 12 hours of “Rings” music was a choral piece for soloists and choir.

Hwang, who likes Cronenberg’s Kafkaesque concepts, is author of the opera-based Tony-winning play “M. Butterfly” (the 1993 movie of which was directed by Cronenberg) and co-librettist for “Aida”; he is currently developing “Tarzan” for Disney as a theater musical. He is a veteran of opera and other works that meld classical music and drama.

Goldenthal — 2003 Oscar-winning composer for “Frida” and composer of music for the movies “Drugstore Cowboy,” “Batman and Robin” and “Alien 3″ — modestly claims that if co-librettist Taymor hadn’t agreed to direct “Grendel,” the L.A. Opera might not have commissioned it. But Goldenthal, like Shore, “loves working with the voice,” and he has vast classical experience, notably his ballet “Othello,” which enjoyed a 1997 world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

As for considering movies as source material for future L.A. Opera productions, Baitzel admits he’d consider it.

“You know, why not?,” he says. “Adapting films is wonderful. They are the modern theater stories. Sometimes it’s tough. The rights are not easy to obtain. You have to consider paying fortunes, which we cannot do.”

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