Performing Arts

MICHELE NORRIS, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. Monsters and humans share the stage in Grendel, a new opera that opens in New York tonight. It's based on the novel by John Gardner, and features music by academy award winner Elliot Goldenthal. Tony award winner Julie Taymor is the opera's director. Grendel tells the medieval tale of Beowulf, but from the monster's perspective. Jeff Lunden reports.

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (In "Grendel") The season is upon us, and so begins the 12th year of my (unintelligible) war.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Julie Taymor says Grendel asks some fundamental questions. Why is someone a monster? What makes someone an outsider? To bring these points across in the opera, she and co-librettist J.D. McClatchy decided to have the monster, Grendel, singing contemporary English, while the humans sing in the old English of Beowulf.

Ms. JULIE TAYMOR (Stage and Film Director): We identify with the monster, absolutely. He speaks your language, and he's isolated from the others, and therefore, you're forced to identify with him.

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

Unidentified Man #1: (In "Grendel") (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LUNDEN: Julie Taymor and composer Elliot Goldenthal have collaborated, artistically and romantically, for over a quarter of a century. Even before they met, both were intrigued with bringing John Gardner's novel, Grendel, to the stage. They've been working on and off on the opera for 20 years. Goldenthal says Grendel has the epic scope of traditional opera filtered through a contemporary lens.

Mr. ELLIOT GOLDENTHAL (Composer): It takes from the same world that we know on the opera stage - those Vagnarian dragons and dragon slayers, etc., etc., but with a twist, as if possibly Siegfried walked into a cynical New York bar and grill or something and said here I am, the hero. You know, sure Charlie, you know.

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

Unidentified Man #1 and Woman: (In "Grendel") (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LUNDEN: The novel focuses on the monster's brooding loneliness as he observes the world of humans from the outside. He muses on the power of myth, the nature of love, the idea of the hero. To help dramatize his isolation, Taymor and her collaborators created three shadow Grendels, figures from the monsters imagination who appear from time to time.

Ms. TAYMOR: Grendel the monster has no one to talk to. He's an outsider. He's on the edge. He walks on the outside as the earth, wind roamer, walker of the world's weird wall. And all he has is his shadows to talk to. That was just such a visually and musically interesting concept - talking, talking, spinning a web of words, pale walls of dreams between myself and all that I see.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (In "Grendel") (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LUNDEN: Co-librettist J.D. McClatchy says one major challenge in adapting Gardner's book was to take what is essentially a philosophical interior monologue and turn it into something dramatic.

Mr. J.D. MCCLATCHY: The opera house is character driven, block driven, melodrama, visceral kind of thing. Opera's not a particularly subtle art form. It's not going to stand for philosophical analysis. That's fine, and that part of Grendel, the novel, was dropped in favor of an absolutely fascinating situation and driving emotional arc to this character's fate.

LUNDEN: Bass baritone Eric Owens is the singer who brings Grendel's emotional arc to life.

Mr. ERIC OWENS: Grendel comes to realizations like okay, well, if you guys think I'm this monster then dammit, I'm going to be the monster and I'm going to terrorize you.

(Soundbite of laughter

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

Unidentified Man #1: (In "Grendel") (Singing) I am (unintelligible). I am my own...

LUNDEN: Grendel is spurred on to find his inner monster by the dragon, played by opera star Denyce Graves, as a glamorous diva who comes out of the fire-breathing mouth of a large Chinese puppet. In the book, the dragon sounds like an old man, but Graves said Julie Taymor had a different conception.

Ms. DENYCE GRAVES (Opera Singer): She always felt that even though it's written for a male, that this dragon was a woman, and I like it. I like all the things about it. I love that she's old and that she's young and that she's glamorous and that she is unglamorous.

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

Unidentified Man #1: (In "Grendel") (Singing) No, don't ask her.

Ms. GRAVES: (In "Grendel") (Singing) I know what's in your mind. I know everything. Haven't you...(unintelligible) That's what makes me so old.

Unidentified Man #1: (In "Grendel") (Singing) So tired.

Unidentified Man #2: (In "Grendel") I'm sorry.

LUNDEN: Bringing Grendel to life has been an epic story in itself. Getting the physical production to work has been tricky. The opera is filled with arresting visual images, from the battle scene where actors fly to a large moving-unit set which can look like a field of ice, or the dummy monster's lair. When that set broke down in rehearsal, the premiere in Los Angeles had to be postponed, at a $300,000 loss to the L.A. opera. On a human level, the creation of Grendel has been difficult as well. One night, while working last December, composer Elliot Goldenthal fell asleep at his kitchen table and his chair tipped over, sending him crashing to the floor. He suffered a serious brain injury.

Mr. GOLDENTHAL: Apparently, I just fell over backwards and cracked my head and wiped out my complete ability to speak language. It's coming back bit by bit. Hopefully, in a year, I'll get my sense of humor back, my obnoxiousness will return.

LUNDEN: Goldenthal says he regained his power of speech by singing every note of Grendel, and amazingly, despite the injury, he pressed on with composing the opera to meet his deadline.

Mr. GOLDENTHAL: That's the time when putting off the inevitable of finishing the opera came impossible to ignore, so I had to press on, brains or no brains.

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

CHORUS: (In "Grendel") (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LUNDEN: Julie Taymor says she thinks Grendel has even more relevance now than when she and Elliot Goldenthal started writing it 20 years ago.

Ms. TAYMOR: Gardner wrote the monster as us. It's us looking at ourselves as monsters, really. How we make wars, how we destroy the environment, how we fall and are duped by art and politics and religion.

LUNDEN: Grendel opens at the Lincoln Center Festival tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

CHORUS: (In "Grendel") (Singing) (Unintelligible)

BLOCK: You can hear more about the behind-the-scenes preparations for Grendel at our Web site,

(Soundbite of "Grendel")

CHORUS: (In "Grendel") (Singing) (Unintelligible)


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