Opera, long seen as the sole preserve of the fuddy-duddy, black-tie and furs brigade, has been getting a Hollywood makeover of late and looks set to impress a whole new chorus of admirers.
In September, New York’s Metropolitan Opera launched its 2006-07 season with Oscar winner Anthony Minghella’s production of “Madame Butterfly,” and this month turns directing duties on “The First Emperor” over to Chinese wire-fu master Zhang Yimou.
The Met’s new general manager, Peter Gelb, says using movie directors is just one of a bunch of strategies he’s employing to reconnect opera “to a broader public.”
“The Met, and grand opera in general, will not survive unless a new audience is brought in,” says Gelb, who also has inked deals with British film and theater directors Nicholas Hytner (“The History Boys”) and Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) for his upcoming sked.
As well as the buzz of having movie A-list directors associated with an opera — the “Butterfly” bow had a Hollywood-style, red-carpet premiere with Susan Sarandon, Jude Law and David Bowie — Gelb hopes to harness the focus they bring to acting and other dramatic elements that make for a true operatic experience.
“Some directors, who only direct opera, have almost given up,” explains Gelb. “They move singers around, but the idea that opera has to be great theater is something that is not necessarily at the forefront of their minds. Opera lovers may be content if an opera is great musically. But that’s not enough for the broader audience we need to bring to the Met.”
The combination of buzz and an unexpected perspective is also the reason Los Angeles Opera has been at the forefront of using movie directors — such as William Friedkin, Garry Marshall and Herb Ross — since its debut in 1986. The newest director for the company will be David Cronenberg, who will helm an opera based on his sci-fi pic “The Fly” next year.
“It’s a no-brainer for L.A. Opera since it allows us to make use of a natural resource of artists in Los Angeles,” says Christopher Koelsch, director of artistic planning. “Film directors are, by the nature of their art form, populists, and they can bring an acceptability and a new appeal for audiences to opera pieces that often appear to have been caught in an ivory tower.”
For directors, the move from film set to stage is a welcome challenge, says Friedkin, who has directed many operas worldwide, including “Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Ariadne auf Naxos” for L.A. Opera.
What attracts Friedkin is working with great music, which in opera tells the story as much as the dialogue, and finding ways to subtly focus an audience’s attention with the available stage technology.
“You don’t have a camera, so there are no close-ups,” he says, “but you can still make your vision clear and every bit as powerful as it is on film.”
Friedkin adds that while directing opera isn’t easy — he spent three years studying the score and learned German for his first opera gig, “‘Wozzeck” in 1999 — he believes there’s one fundamental that unites film and opera for a director.
“A great actor needs and wants the same things a great singer wants,” he says: “a psychological underpinning for their characters and a staging that works. That’s what a director can give them.”
While film versions of operas have rarely, if ever, caught on with auds, Gelb also hopes to widen the Met’s reach by telecasting productions live, in high-definition format, to multiplexes.
“Opera is the closest thing in the performing arts to the spectacle of a sports event,” he says. “Using new technologies, in conjunction with movie theaters’ owners who want to provide different experiences for their audiences, we can make a compelling experience.”
But, despite the great need to bring in a new demo, and some basic similarities for a director, don’t expect a helmer free-for-all at the opera, with Quentin Tarantino bringing bloodbaths and Jeri curls to “The Barber of Seville,” and Michael Bay adding flash and bang to “Tosca” anytime soon.
“Just because someone is a great movie director doesn’t make him a good opera director,” Gelb cautions. “They have to understand the theatrical language involved, and some movie directors have never had any experience of that at all. They may have the aptitude or they may not. It’s not a foregone conclusion.”