Event Report: The Fly: The Opera!
I don’t think opera-goers are usually warned about sex and violence before the start of a show, but such is the case with The Fly Opera which reunites director David Cronenberg and composer Howard Shore for this unique stage adaptation of their classic horror film. As the pre-lecture stated, this is the first time in history that a cinematic work has been turned into a classical opera - and what a movie to start with! I’ll admit that my knowledge of this particular artform is limited to Wagner CDs and Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! so I felt a little odd being the only horror geek in a gala of snooty theatre critics (a feeling which passed after taking a seat next to Stuart Gordon). Once we were settled, the lights dimmed, the curtain lifted and what transpired was the single most bizarre and elaborate thing I have ever seen put to stage.
The Fly Opera opens with the title theme from the 1986 movie and then proceeds into a full two and a half hours of original music by Shore. Every word is sung in traditional opera style with English dialogue which, admittedly, takes some getting used to. But the moment lead actress Ruxandra Donose (standing in for Gina Davis) screams “All hail the new flesh!” in full soprano, it’s clear that we’re on Cronenberg’s turf.
Every horror fan knows the plot to the film: Seth Brundle (Daniel Okulitch), a reclusive scientist, invents a pair of teleportation pods and is the first human test subject. But when a household fly gets into one of the pods, Seth’s DNA gets scrambled, and he slowly morphs into a grotesque human-fly. The opera version is divided into two acts: Act One concentrates on the relationship between Seth and reporter Veronica during the experiment and ends with Seth transporting himself naked through the telepods. The prosthetics come out for Act Two, which sees the transformation of Seth from a cocky born-again scientist into the full-bodied Brundlefly. For the most part the stage version is extremely faithful to Cronenberg’s film and even repeats whole lines from the script. The major difference comes in the setting, which has been shifted back to the 1950's period of the original Vincent Price film, resulting in some character changes (for instance, Seth arm-wrestles a Fonzie-like greaser in the infamous bar scene).
The laboratory set design by Dante Ferretti is nothing short of incredible and very different from the film’s industrial look, while Stephan Dupuis delivers cinema-quality make-up for the various incarnations of Brundlefly. There is also some impressive stunt work, particularly towards the end when a transformed Brundle sings an entire musical piece while crawling upside down across the ceiling. Cronenberg orchestrates all the effects brilliantly and, not surprisingly, amps up the sexual content with several drawn-out, steamy love scenes (where the audience made the most use of their binoculars).
As expected with Howard Shore, the music is so impressive it could easily stand on its own without the opera voices. The score conjures up both the pulsating chords and quiet melodies of past Cronenberg collaborations while drawing on soundtracks from the old monster movies of the Fifties. One particular stroke of genius is how Shore uses a full choir as the voice of Seth’s computer. Eerie voices ominously repeat the data analysis and overall tech-babble of the telepods, making them characters unto themselves while delivering some of the opera’s best music (you can hear a sample of it here).
The Fly Opera also seems to have its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, and Cronenberg is clearly having a ball with the theatricality of it all. There are even bits that seem to parody opera and stage theatrics where characters burst into self-deprecating lyrics. Particularly hysterical is when the show makes light of its own stage tricks by having lead actor Okulitch enter stage-right after his stunt double departs.
The opera is not without its flaws. A few scenes far outstay their welcome, and the entire production feels a bit long in the tooth for a basic three-character story. There are also moments where the voices seem to clash with Shore’s music as well as bits when I couldn’t help but chuckle at the novelty of hearing the film’s dialogue delivered in operatic song (almost as if it were a goofball spoof a la The Simpson’s “Planet of the Apes” musical).
Quibbles aside, this is a fascinating experiment and a rarity that no Cronenberg/Shore fan should pass up. Hopefully we’ll see a soundtrack release and/or DVD of the performance for all the countless fans who don’t get the chance to catch it on stage. Better that than another remake.
The Fly Opera is playing through the month of September at the LA Opera. For tickets and dates, check the official website.
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