Marie-Noelle Robert/Paris Opera
A 'port and a storm: Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch sings the part of The Fly's slightly mad scientist, Seth Brundle.
A 'port and a storm: Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch sings the part of The Fly's slightly mad scientist, Seth Brundle. Marie-Noelle Robert/Paris Opera
Marie-Noelle Robert/Paris Opera
After-accident report: Brundle-Fly (Okulitch) in his lair.
After-accident report: Brundle-Fly (Okulitch) in his lair. Marie-Noelle Robert/Paris Opera
Beth Accomando for NPR
Creative liberties: Placido Domingo, Howard Shore and David Cronenberg take questions at a press conference on the set of the opera.
Creative liberties: Placido Domingo, Howard Shore and David Cronenberg take questions at a press conference on the set of the opera. Beth Accomando for NPR
A man who accidentally recombines his DNA with an insect during an experiment? Exactly what you'd expect from science fiction. It's not what you'd expect from opera.
But composer Howard Shore and director David Cronenberg, who worked on the 1986 film version of The Fly, have created an opera from the amazing story. With a libretto by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang and with Placido Domingo at the podium, The Fly makes its American debut at the Los Angeles Opera on Sept. 7.
For decades, Cronenberg and Shore have worked together on films including Scanners, Naked Lunch and Eastern Promises. And when they worked on their big-screen version of The Fly, Cronenberg says, they decided they didn't want a typical film score.
"We said no, the music should be operatic — because in a way the story is what we called operatic," Cronenberg says. "Meaning very intimate, very intense, very heightened emotions."
Although Shore is best known as the Oscar-winning composer of the score for the film Lord of the Rings, he's always loved opera — and he's long dreamed of composing one.
"As a newcomer to opera I didn't want to create something ... that had to break new ground in terms of its form," Shore says. "I think what I was interested in doing was writing a personal piece about these characters, but using the great tradition of opera as the structure."
The structure may be traditional, but the subject certainly isn't. At a press conference last week, Domingo recalled his surprise when Shore first came to him with this idea.
"Of course at the beginning it was a little bit of shocking news because I knew the film," said the tenor and conductor, who serves as the L.A. Opera's general director.
But the shock wore off, and Shore quickly convinced Domingo that the story lent itself to opera. For the composer, the tale turns on "great themes of identity, of transformation."
"There's a great love story in The Fly," Shore says. "Insect politics is a wonderful, interesting theme; genetics. All are quite relevant themes to contemporary life."
Cronenberg says Shore had more of a hand in developing themes and mood in an opera than he would in a film.
"If the music is angry and the singers are singing angrily, there's big angry music," he says. "I couldn't say, as I could in film, 'OK, let's try this once not angry, let's see what happens if you try it with gentle sarcasm or something else instead of anger.' ... I couldn't do that, because the music .... You've got a 77-piece orchestra saying 'angry;' I can't say 'Not angry.'"
But being an opera neophyte had its advantages for Cronenberg. Because he didn't know the rules, Cronenberg could dare to ask bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who sings lead character Seth Brundle, if he could rappel down a three-story pillar.
"Certainly that was one of the first questions I asked him," Cronenberg says. "'Can you sing while you are hanging upside down from a ceiling?' And he said, 'I don't know.' It was very naïve of me to ask, but ... it all ends up with the question of do we use a stunt person crawling along the ceiling and coming down upside-down, or can Daniel do it himself?"
Okulitch had a mixed reaction, he remembers.
"It's not the most conducive environment for completely optimum singing," he says. "On the other hand, it looks great."
And Okulitch says the rappelling scene wasn't the only time he had to balance his singing with stage effects. He had to become The Fly.
"For the final transformation, it's a head-to-toe suit — very thick latex, with very bulbous lesions and masses of flesh on it and large hairs sticking out of it and mandibles," he says. "And again, it's completely covering everything except my eyes, mouth and ears."
The transformation Okulitch undergoes, from Brundle to Brundle-Fly, is straight out of the film. But Cronenberg says he didn't want to merely redo his film on stage. He wanted to reinvent it.
And he deliberately set it back in the 1950s, like the original short story by George Langelaan.
"I was really thinking of how it feels like the '50s to me right now," Cronenberg says. "[That] there's a growing fear of Russia, that there's a fear of nuclear weapons that had gone away for a while, that there's a fear of new fields of science opening up. ... It's not a retro-cute kitsch thing I'm going to do. I'm really going back to connect with what was relevant then, and what seems relevant again now."
In the story, the Fly warns, "Be afraid, be very afraid." But Okulitch thinks audiences need not be afraid of this particular opera.
"Maybe that's the draw of having new commissions like this that draw on source material from the world of film or novels that people are familiar with," he says. "It immediately puts aside the fear factor."