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L.A. Opera does the monster mash

Goldenthal's 'Grendel' to be helmed by Taymor

HOLLYWOOD — Puppets, monsters, kings, queens — trademarks of Julie Taymor’s best-known works — return in “Grendel,” film composer Elliot Goldenthal opera she is directing for L.A. Opera, bowing May 27 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion before heading to the Lincoln Center Festival.

Goldenthal had the option of several formats — A Broadway tuner? A rock opera? A film? An opera? — but went with his gut and chose the latter.

“Seiji Ozawa,” Goldenthal says, quickly assigning credit to the conductor for ensuring “Grendel” would be an operatic work. “More than anyone, he encouraged me to write ‘Grendel.’ I did 15 minutes of sketches and had the opportunity to move it into a musical theater event. Seiji listened and implored me to (make it) an opera.”

After years of bringing in film directors to helm shows, the downtown L.A. Opera has finally extended its reach deep into the Hollywood creative community with the first of three planned collaborations with film music composers.

Getting “Grendel” onstage this season required patience — production was delayed a year — and firmness — a second request for postponement was rejected. While Goldenthal says it was something of a miracle that funding for the $2.8 million production came together, L.A. Opera artistic director Edgar Baitzel says the fact that it was a now-or-never situation helped pull the pieces together.

“The worst thing you can do is give constraints to artists, and without the partnership we could not have afforded it,” Baitzel says. If the production was not mounted this season — “Grendel” plays seven performances in L.A. and four perfs at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater July 11-13 and 15 — it never would have been staged, Baitzel notes.

Grendel is the monster in the 9th-century poem “Beowulf.” Librettists Taymor and J.D. McClatchy, the poet, based their tale on John Gardner’s darkly comic novel “Grendel,” which tells the tale from the point of view of the monster, played by bass Eric Owens, who will be singing opposite Denyce Graves as the Dragon.

That the lead is a bass is almost always a tell-tale sign that the work will venture into dark territory. (Think “Faust” and Verdi’s “Don Carlos.”) Goldenthal says his music runs the gamut stylistically — “Some of it goes back to Monteverdi, some feels contemporary” — and includes instruments such as electric guitars, hand drums and the bass clarinet. “In general,” he notes, “opera gives you a larger palette to get across more philosophically.”

The piece will require a cast of nearly 80 and an orchestra of 74.

During a rehearsal of the final scene, in which Beowulf is stripped before the king and queen, the Taymor touch is unmistakable: A crew of a dozen warriors accelerates their marching moves into a dazzling, fast-paced ensemble piece, stopping only when Beowulf goes into a feral free-form dance. The music, however, stays within its solemn borders.

Husband-and-wife Goldenthal and Taymor, whose collaboration on the film “Frida” led to a film score Oscar for Goldenthal, first collaborated on a puppet-and-mask spectacle in 1988 with “Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass.” The idea of a “Grendel” work originated in 1998 and was brought to the attention of Baitzel and L.A. Opera’s Placido Domingo in 2000.

The creatives and the potential producers met, and Baitzel determined the work fit perfectly with L.A. Opera’s plan to present collaborations with composers in the movie world. (Howard Shore’s “The Fly” is set for 2007-08; a new opera by Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” composer Tan Dun is booked for September 2009).

“I always refer to our core audience as cinematically trained,” Baitzel says, before noting film composers “have something important to say for the modern opera audience.”

Goldenthal says the opera is the result of a 10-year plan in which “Grendel” is the third work. He wrote an oratorio and a three-act ballet before starting on “Grendel,” the completion of which was delayed after the composer suffered a head injury early this year that affected his speech but not his motor skills.

Timing, because of events in the world, he says, couldn’t be better for “Grendel.”

“He lives like an outsider. Ideas like heroism, religion, love, philosophy — each time he finds them, underneath there’s disillusionment,” Goldenthal notes of the monster. “Considering this (contemporary) disillusionment regarding government and religion — throwing bombs on other countries in the name of Allah or Jesus — Grendel starts to make sense.

“Myth is the proper forum to explore charlatanism — even more so than social plays. It doesn’t point the finger to a specific person. Instead it explores mankind’s dilemma.”

The only regret Goldenthal has regarding the mounting of “Grendel” is the lack of a record company to put the opera on disc. Union rules have made a recording cost-prohibitive, and right now the only chance for it to be recorded would be if it were presented in certain European cities.

“I’m not an anti-union person, but when it comes to anything that interferes with artistic creation, it upsets me,” says Goldenthal, who worked with Taymor on her upcoming film “Across the Universe,” writing new arrangements for about 10 Beatles songs while orchestrating “Grendel.”

“I wish there was a union situation that could be handled like an artistic venture: If it sells, everybody makes money; if not, it’s done for the art. Possibly, in the future, we’ll work in a more art-friendly environment.”

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