L.A. Opera Turns ‘The Fly’ Into an Opera of Cinematic Proportions
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – David Cronenberg’s 1986 version of The Fly with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis turned the 1958 film into a sci-fi and horror spectacle, full of grisly makeup and creature effects. Gone was the innocence of Kurt Neumann’s black-and-white movie, in which a fly with David Hedison’s head famously pleaded “Help me” to Vincent Price.
Writer and director Cronenberg, who most recently directed Eastern Promises, put his characteristically gory spin on the story of Seth Brundle, a scientist who recklessly uses himself as a subject in his teleportation experiments, unaware that a housefly has entered the telepod with him. This week, The Fly gets another unexpected twist when it opens as an opera in Downtown Los Angeles. It plays at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for six performances Sept. 7-27.
Though Brundle does not survive his ambitious experiment in the film, L.A. Opera is hoping for a Hollywood ending for its production. There is certainly that possibility since some of the film crew have reunited, including Cronenberg, costume designer (and sister) Denise Cronenberg, makeup and creature designer Stephan L. Dupuis, who won an Oscar for his work on the film, and composer Howard Shore.
Shore, an Academy Award-winning composer, said he thought The Fly would make a good opera when he composed the music for the 1986 film.
”The Fly has a classic structure for the stage [in terms of] the relationship between the characters and the drama,” Shore said after a recent press event at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
In addition to the dramatic transformation of Brundle, “it has a great love story; there’s a lot of dramatic tension,” said Shore. “The role of Stathis, Veronica’s ex-boyfriend, is really a key role; that is really the classic triangle of the ex-boyfriend, the new interest [Brundle] and Veronica caught in the middle.”
Shore and Cronenberg had discussed The Fly‘s operatic qualities at the time they were making it. “We had our own idea of what operatic was, which was that it was very heightened, very emotional, very intense,” Cronenberg said recently by phone. “That led to our approach to the music he composed, which was also more theatrical or operatic than the music that we normally do for movies that we do together.”
When Shore finished his symphonic and choral work for the Lord of the Ringsfilms and was ready to do his first opera, he brought the idea up again with Cronenberg. The two have collaborated over the past 30 years on a dozen films.
Cronenberg agreed to direct, but he didn’t want to write the libretto. Shore suggested David Henry Hwang, the Tony Award-winning playwright of M Butterfly, who also wrote the screenplay for Cronenberg’s 1993 film version.
Shore presented the proposal to L.A. Opera’s late Chief Operating Officer Edgar Baitzel and General Director Plicido Domingo, who commissioned the piece. Domingo admitted he was “skeptical about the subject” at first.
But “when I knew Cronenberg was on board, I couldn’t resist,” he said from the Dorothy Chandler stage. Domingo, who will conduct The Fly, added that it has been his dream to borrow L.A.’s vast reserves of cinematic talent and merge the two creative disciplines of film and opera. (He also brought in William Friedkin and Woody Allen to direct Il Trittico, a trio of one-acts by Puccini that opens the same weekend as The Fly.)
Be the Bug
Despite all the Hollywood connections – Dante Ferretti, who won Oscars most recently for his art direction on Sweeney Todd and The Aviator, also did the set design – Cronenberg insists that he never intended to re-make the film.
“I wanted it to be different. I wanted not to think about the movie at all,” he said. “My assumption was that I was directing something for an audience that knew nothing of my movie.”
He added, “I really wanted to have the full theatrical experience, just working within the parameters of stage and not trying to make it a hybrid kind of mixed-media event or anything like that.”
While not a hybrid in that sense, the things that the production borrows from the film world, especially the makeup and creature effects, recall the gruesome original but also heighten the drama in what Cronenberg described as a “naturalistic” way. The audiences at its world premiere in Paris last July, he said, thought the baboon puppet, which essentially gets turned inside-out when an early trial with teleportation fails, was real.
The high-tech special effects pose some unique challenges for Daniel Okulitch, who wears various stages of prosthetics as Brundle’s body mutates. At first, it’s a head covering, then a full head with sleeves and shoulders and finally a head-to-toe latex creature bodysuit. It might be hard enough just to act with all that gear on, but Okulitch has to sing – and that’s not a stunt double crawling on the scaffolding high above the stage.
“From the time I get in the big suit until the end, it feels like a marathon. I liken it to running the 200 meter dash while trying to sing,” said the bass-baritone.
“But I anticipated that. When I read the libretto and it said, ‘Brundle repels down the stage,’ I went, ‘Oh, thank you. That’s so cool.’”
Cronenberg said that while he usually casts everyone, including the extras, in his films, he had less input in casting on this project. But he did have certain requests. First of all, the performers had to be the appropriate age and be athletically fit.
“‘And please,’ I said, ‘please let them be actors.’ I’ve seen enough operas to know that sometimes you get wonderful voices with singers who can’t act,” Cronenberg said.
The transition to opera has been a learning experience for Cronenberg. One of the few times he had actually been in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was for the Academy Awards when The Fly was nominated and won for Best Makeup.
Cronenberg grew up with classical and opera music. His mother was a pianist, and his uncle was first violinist for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. But he had seen very few productions.
He had studied Madama Butterfly for his M Butterfly movie. “But that’s about it,” Cronenberg said. “It was kind of a very naive, innocent approach.
“I’d never directed any stage before at all, which is one of the reasons I was intrigued, which was to try something that I’d not tried before,” he added. “It’s a little bit terrifying because everybody that you’re working with has had more experience than you have.”
Shore, on the other hand, has been following opera since the 1970s. “I am an opera buff,” he said. “I actually had the same seat at the Met for 25 years.” In writing The Fly, he said he wanted to use the elements and form of traditional opera and pretty much started from scratch with the score.
Domingo and Cronenberg said the audience reaction in Paris was enthusiastic. Yet reviews were mixed.
“Howard and I completely expected that,” Cronenberg said. “I think they were kind of overwhelmed. Especially when they tried to connect it with the movie, which frankly I think there was no need to do. One of them was writing about how he missed the close-ups, and I’m thinking, ‘Why even bother with that? It’s so irrelevant.’
“It is its own creature. It’s not the movie.”