DeFlip Side #159: Geek Chorus

DeFlip Side #159: Geek Chorus.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

I just spent a month in Los Angeles working on a film, and whenever I visit a new city, I like to check out its opera scene, and, if possible, take in a show.

My seat for a sparsly-attended Sunday matinee of Herc vs. Vamps in L.A.'s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Much roomier than The Met!

A sparsly-attended Sunday matinee of Hercules vs. Vampires in L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
It’s a much roomier house than The Met!

I was in luck. The LA Opera was winding up its season with a production tailor-made for opera buffs, who, like me, also happen to be SF&F geeks. The show by Composer Patrick Morganelli was called Hercules vs. Vampires, an unconventional, new English-language opera/Mystery Science Theater 3000 mash-up.

Anyway, that’s what came to my mind as the singers filed onto stage and took a row of seats beneath a large movie screen, to perform the opera in conjunction with a screening of the ultra low-budget, sword-and-sandals cult classic Hercules in the Haunted World, by legendary Italian director Mario Bava—as reimagined and rescored by Morganelli.

Bava’s film has Hercules embarking on a quest into Hades to save his love, and it features lots of Gods and monsters and garish lighting and cheap sets. And as the cast sung the new plot in time to the performances of Reg Park as Hercules and a young Christopher Lee as the villain, the opera house resounded with laughter.

I can hear some of you scratching your heads right about now. Fun? At the opera? Well, newsflash: opera isn’t only about a stentorious fat chick with blonde braids in a Viking helmet screaming her head off. Modern operas are composed and staged all the time, and LA Opera mounted this production as part of its Off Grand initiative, which is geared toward bringing a younger, hipper audience to opera.

But it also brought harsh reactions from Los Angeles’ community of film purists. Critic Amy Nicholson’s review in LA Weekly had this headline: “Stop Laughing at Old Movies, You $@%&ing Hipsters!” As her article said:

“The audience… thought the styrofoam boulders were hilarious. [A] third of the house continued to treat Bava’s heartbreaking fantasy epic like a comedy. Guy gets boiled in lava? Hysterical! Lady gets her throat slashed? Priceless! No one seemed to care if composer Patrick Morganelli and his singers had their own feelings hurt.”

She then chastises the types of hipster douches who go to old movies specifically to laugh at them. And were I more of a film buff, I’d probably share her outrage.

But while her criticisms are 100 percent valid, Nicholson is missing the bigger picture: Hercules vs. Vampires was composed and staged specifically to draw laughing hipsters. It was originally commissioned by an opera company in Portland, if that tells you anything. LA Opera general director Placido Domingo mounted the Los Angeles production in some misguided hope to broaden the audience for opera. And as an opera fan, this is where I take issue.

Hercules vs. Vampires doesn’t just gleefully crap all over the work of Mario Bava; it fundamentally misrepresents opera as well. Composer Patrick Morganelli’s score is very much in the tradition of modern, English language opera pioneered by composers like John Adams—a minor key, minimalist dirge featuring mainly baritones with nary a melody in sight. Forget the soaring music of Bizet or the heartbreaking passages of Gounod. In modern opera, a somber style of discordant repetition rules the day, which makes it doubly ironic that Morganelli would use it to stage a comedy. The Portland crowd must have imploded.

Which is why I doubt very much that Morganelli got his feelings hurt by all the audience laughter. Based on a chat that he gave before the show, he saw the composition of Hercules vs. Vampires as something of a creative lark, and comedy was an integral element from the get go. And that’s awesome. Broad laughs have a long and wonderful tradition in opera, and the show made me laugh out loud many times, despite my personal dislike for its depressing musical style, and with no malicious intent toward the legacy of Mr. Bava.

The problem is that I can’t imagine that Hercules vs. Vampires will do anything to inspire non-opera fans to see, as Morganelli said in the course of his talk, “a real opera.” Morganelli made the distinction in a very off-handed way, but that he makes it at all is very telling. Instead of facilitating entry onto broader operatic avenues, Hercules vs. Vampires steers audiences into an odd little musical cul-de-sac that isn’t really representative of a true opera-going experience. Even its composer says so. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point?

If you want new audiences to come to opera, start with more musically accessible shows like Carmen, or broad comedies like Barber of Seville or The Marriage of Figaro which also happen to feature soaring, enjoyable and very recognizable music.

There’s a reason that opera has endured for centuries. And the Carmens and Figaros and Brunhildes will still be treading the boards long after Hercules vs. Vampires has become an obscure footnote in the annals of the art form. Which may not be a tragedy of operatic proportions, but it’s still a fail if you’re trying to approach it as a serious opera or film fan.

Still, one positive thing has come out of my seeing Hercules vs. Vampires: I’m now actively seeking out the films of Mario Bava. How’s that for irony?