It had to look better on paper than it did on stage. The trio of director David Cronenberg, film composer Howard Shore and librettist David Henry Hwang attempted to re-imagine George Langelaan's June 1957 Playboy magazine short story, The Fly, as an opera. Sadly, the result paralleled Seth Brundle's experiment -- an amalgam of disparate parts that evolved into something creepy. Shore, most famous for his sensuous scoring of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, took an unusually atonal, virtually a-melodic path that was so severe, it could have been mistaken as a misfired attempt to please sci-fi fans. Opening September 7th at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion for its LA Opera/US premiere, this production's random "songspiel" expositions and no arias to speak of -- unless you count an unmoving treatise on insect rights and an inconceivable ode to mutant abortion -- seemed more focused on experimentation and sustained dissonance than opera. The production contained some pre-requisites for the medium -- a tragic storyline that centered around love, sex and three principles, making it a theoretical candidate for an operatic treatment. But the story might have been more appropriately framed as a Broadway-style Phantom Of The Opera extravaganza, the closest it should have gotten to actual opera. Despite the endorsement and fine conducting by the opera company's general director, Placido Domingo, this incarnation just wasn't musically entertaining. It appeared to have ignored the charm of opera, especially when contrasted with the company's recent production of Il Trittico, a wonderfully celebrated Puccini melange by directors William Friedkin and Woody Allen.
However, this project should have worked since it had the right players. In 1986, Cronenberg and Shore teamed for The Fly movie remake, and they sculpted it perfectly. Their first reinterpretation explored and balanced its sci-fi and humanity, barely utilizing anything but the title from the 1958 original horror film that starred Vincent Price. But with this production, that approach unfortunately ignored the best part of the Jeff Goldblum/Geena Davis-driven flick -- its heart value -- although the initial drunken flirtations between mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose (Veronica Quaife) and baritone Daniel Okulitch (Seth Brundle) were endearing. Dante Ferretti's clever, minimalist set designs featured Lost In Space-style consoles and two transport cubes seemingly liberated from a retro laundromat. Denise Cronenberg's costumes, Brundle's acrobatics and even his brief nudity all played well, though the redundant "All Hail The New Flesh" mantra, the "Little Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly" shoutouts, and the discoing transport chimp were all kind of silly.
Domingo & Co. did have a little forewarning that this opera had its problems after the bad buzz (sorry) following its world premiere on July 2nd at Paris' Theatre du Chatelet. But always looking at the bigger picture and regardless of the risky nature of a contemporary opera's astronomical production costs and years of development, Domingo bravely championed this as well as all of the LA Opera's recent modern productions as he is committed thoroughly to the future of the art form. He also wisely has befriended the institution's neighbors by commissioning new works from Hollywood's film and stage talent pool, playing matchmaker to those mediums and his musical charge. The Fly is the obvious progeny of that relationship, as was last year's disaster-ridden Grendel. That was an opera staged by Julie Tamor (The Lion King, Across The Universe), loosely based on John Gardner's 1971 novel of the Beowulf mythology. Grendel suffered an initial $300,000 loss, the result of a malfunctioning 45,000 pound, 48' long by 28' high rotating, monolithic wall that postponed its June 2006 debut. This production was so cursed that it was rumored composer Elliot Goldenthal (Michael Collins, Batman Forever, Heat, Frida) actually suffered a head injury before the score's completion. There were other commissioned contemporary operas that experienced less drama but only marginal success such as the Ann Bogart-directed/Deborah Drattell-scored Nicholas & Alexandra (in which Domingo played Rasputin).
Considering this track record, "modern" operas have yet to inject a new enthusiasm or critical and financial success into the mix, partly due to the traditional opera fan still wanting those classics or something reminiscent of them. Each "new" opera is competing with timeless works like Verdi's Aida, Berlioz's Carmen, Mozart's The Magic Flute, and Puccini's Madame Butterfly and La Boehme -- guaranteed, successful perennials for obvious reasons. But with a 60 million dollar per year operating budget, it's practically the company's ethical responsibility to accompany their superb classic revivals with at least one modern opera per year. Some attempts will be better than others, and no matter how many reviews swat The Fly (again, sorry), opera has to keep reinventing itself for its own good, unafraid of failure. Remember, Verdi's La Traviata was panned after its first performances. And Beethoven told concert musicians, as they were berating him over a piece they thought was daft, that it wasn't written for them, but for a future generation. So despite everyone's favorite quote from Cronenberg's '86 film version that we be afraid, when it comes to the future of modern opera, we probably shouldn't be. After all, Placido Domingo certainly isn't, and he's the one writing the checks...sort of. On the other hand, considering The Fly's inferred pending birth of Seth's & Ronnie's offspring and all of its sequel implications (there WAS Return Of The Fly in '59 and The Fly II in '89), yeah, we absolutely should be very, very afraid.