Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Why of the Fly

If the primary element is The Fly and the secondary element is opera, but the result is not FlyOpera, what is the tertiary element? Probably a whole heap of bullshit! The best thing about FlyOperaShit is that at least it's not an operatic adaptation of David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers. An aria about a trifurcate hoo-ha would've been a fridge too far, especially if it were entitled "Do you have the key to my three doorways?" But back to FlyOperaShit -- oddly, if the secondary element (i.e. opera) had been taken out of the creative telepod system that mushed the three together, the tertiary element might have been different after all, because as a piece of stagecraft, The Fly is actually well-done... if you take away the wallpaper music provided by Howard Shore, the often ridiculous libretto by David Henry Hwang, and all the singing. Which basically just leaves you with David Cronenberg's film The Fly, only in a more slapdash, retro version.

The most confusing thing is that Cronenberg, Hwang, and the composer Howard Shore have all taken part in the making of films, often to acclaim, and yet here they failed to realize that, like film, opera is a visual art. Yes, the aural part of it is more important, but still, stuff happens onstage, stuff that the audience can, you know, see. So why does Hwang feel it necessary to have the characters describe what's happening rather than showing it and having them tell the audience how what's happening makes them feel. That's pretty much the whole function of an aria -- to give insight into the character's state of mind because the audience can't break out their home-trephination kits and peek inside. If BrundleFly is dropping body parts all over the place, don't have the computer chorus tell us, show the body parts falling off and then have Brundle tell us how he feels about oozing gunk from his fingertips. I've never personally oozed gunk from my fingertips, so I'd like to know what it's like. If Veronica is having a dream about giving birth to a flybaby and you take the trouble of putting poor Ruxandra Donose in stirrups, don't tell us that the dream maggot-spawn is "new flesh shooting like a bullet" across the floor, show it. It might be gross, but I doubt it could be any more nauseating than the image of something shooting like a bullet from a woman's snatch.

Part of what made The Fly so info-dumpy was the framing device that Hwang used -- the opera starts at the end, after the BrundleFly has been swatted and Veronica is being questioned by an improbably understanding policewoman. Because of this narrative device, Hwang was able to have the characters come on, stand stationary in the spotlight, and describe events that were happening. Sometimes these events were acted out, which made the info-dumping pointless, and sometimes they weren't, which was just boring. The solos rarely offered insight into the characters, and by the time they did, it felt like too little, too late. If I had known a little more about Brundle before he turned into a fly, maybe his "Insect Politics" aria would've been a little more telling. The part about wishing to get past the limits of the flesh was kind of interesting, since many's the time I've wished to become a ball of pure energy, but that's not really what Brundle's telepods did -- well, what their original intention was, anyway. They theoretically would've set man free from the limits of physical travel, but they weren't intended to fundamentally change mankind, so why all the "New Flesh" blather (as an aside, is there any word more disgusting than "flesh"? Maybe "moist"?). My car gets me from place to place faster than my legs can, but I don't get out of it every morning and proclaim that it has given me new flesh, allowing me to be born unto new worlds, using the flesh as my key. I felt more for the Milking Machine at the end of The Joke: The Musical than I did for BrundleFly. At least the Milking Machine was telling me how he was feeling, as well as making an apt commentary on the state of mankind. Why can't people keep their willies out of holes?

The framing device was also inconsistent -- if the libretto is Veronica recounting events to the policewoman, then why do we get into the heads of Stathis, her boss and ex, or Marky the bar-yokel? I can understand a little breakage of the point of view to include Brundle's thoughts, because he's the title character and all, but having Stathis's desk wheeled out on stage every once in a while so he could sing the equivalent of "And now I must be off to have my doctor check this cough!" was pointless, interrupted the narrative flow, and was a lot of fanny-dangle. Maybe Stathis was supposed to represent Veronica's conscience? If so, her conscience is faintly slimy and looks like if Rip Torn circa The Man Who Fell to Earth and James Lipton from Inside the Actors Studio were shoved into some telepods and fused at a molecular-genetic level.

Also disconcerting was the libretto, which couldn't decide if it was serious or not. The music would say yes, it wuz seriuz bizness, super-super-serial, but then there'd be something goofy like the scientists singing about their "smarty party" (I got that the geek jokes were funny, but "smarty party" just made me think of "Marty Farty threw a party" from Mr. Show. Incidentally for your edification, that's a good way of making it through a painful operatic experience -- sitting back and thinking of Mr. Show.) or Seth Brundle playing the random keyboard on his computer's control panel like he was the star of the world's geekiest production of Phantom of the Opera. And did we really need to know about Seth horking in Veronica's car on the way back from the smarty party? Not really, plus it was delivered in a spoken aside to the audience, which is awfully jokey. There's nothing wrong with a combination of humor and seriousness, but when the audience isn't sure which is which, it's a problem. My brain was telling me to laugh at such drivel as "drink not from the plasma spring", but the unrelenting dourness of the music said I should put on some new, more grown-up flesh.

The worst failure of the libretto, in my opinion, was in the bar scene. First, there was an incredibly silly chorus of bar-flies (hur hur hur) singing about their dead-end jobs and how all of their dreams ended in high school. Not only was it unintentionally funny, it also didn't really suit the mood of the music at all. Plus, who are these people and why should we care what they think? It was very Stephen Kingish of Hwang to tell us the histories of people who have little to no importance to the story, and in an opera where words are at a premium, it was a waste. Then Marky, Lord of the Barflies, took over and described his pathetic, stereotypically blue-collar life and how one day some geek came into the bar, challenged him to an arm wrestle for the poontang privileges to Marky's girlfriend Tawny, and then snapped his arm in half. When the arm snapped, Marky didn't scream in pain or have any reaction toward Brundle; he just sang some nonsensical and out-of-character crap about bones bleaching in the winds of time or something and hobbled away, never to be seen again until the curtain calls. Good thing all of his backstory was dull and clichéd, otherwise I might've been invested in his character *cough*.

The singers were all decent acting-wise, but were more problematic vocally. Part of the blame lies with the vocal writing -- there seemed to be no melodic line to the vocal parts, so everything was very declarative and all on one level. Ruxandra Donose's voice seemed under-powered and often got lost in the dull strains of Shore's music, and her diction was terrible, especially when she had to hit higher notes. This isn't because she's a non-native English speaker, though, because her spoken lines were fairly understandable. Her Veronica is a fairly likable, quick-witted character, though I question both her willingness to screw a guy who's just turned a baboon inside out and her seeming inability to remove her black stiletto heels during said screwing.

Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle was physically well-suited to the role (no, not because he's an actual fly), and I got the feeling that he was cast because he would look good naked and simulating sex vigorously and often. Any comparisons (and they do bafflingly exist) to Simon Keenlyside are apt only in that they've both gone nude onstage and sung while hanging from the ceiling. That's where the comparison ends. Okulitch has a pleasant but generic voice, but he didn't even try to polish the turd of the libretto with any vocal coloring. Because of this, Brundle's decision to transport himelf wasn't very convincing; he just seemed kind of butt-hurt that Veronica wasn't around to celebrate with him. Brundle's motivation is the same in the film, and yet Jeff Goldblum managed to sell it. Maybe one of those invisible things he always seems to be plucking out of the air turned out to be a helpful acting note? With Okulitch, I wondered why he didn't just cut a hole in the fresh mozzarella he was so proud of finding and have some "romance" with that.

Gary Lehman as Stathis Borans was audible. That's really all I have to say. I was kind of disappointed that Stathis in the opera didn't get partially digested by BrundleFly hork, but that's only because it would've been interesting. Nothing will break a boring music-induced coma like some pre-digestive vomit! The rest of the cast was all adequate, though it's not like they were given much to work with. The off-stage chorus that served as the voice of the Exposition Device computer sounded like if Stephen Hawking got bored and reprogrammed his speech computer to sing, so I guess they did a good job. It gave me flashbacks to the "icosahedron"-spouting chorus in Dr. Atomic, though.

The less said of Howard Shore's music, the better. The only thing to recommend it is that he didn't fall into the usual modern composer's trap of ripping off Stravinsky. Other than that, it was very dull and didn't seem to have anything to do with what was happening on the stage or to the characters, which is odd considering Shore's experience in writing film soundtracks. At least Shore is certain to have a job composing the score for The Hobbit movie.

While the music was probably the worst part of The Fly, the sets and staging were probably the best. Since the story was set in the 1950s, the telepods and computer equipment that dominated the set were all very '50s sci-fi movie retro. The telepods themselves looked kind of like Awesome-O versions of a futuristic refrigerator, i.e. they looked like the cardboard box a refrigerator would come in with an Apple IIe monitor glued to the top of it. The effects were also quite good, especially the little magic trick of getting naked Daniel Okulitch from one telepod into another. I know he just crept out the back and ran backstage and climbed into the other pod, but the image of a naked guy hauling ass while a Stephen Hawking chorus sings is pretty hilarious. The progression of Brundle's monstritis was also very well done. In fact, the only bad piece of set/special effects were the horrifically bad "baboon" puppets that looked like the snow monsters in Disneyland's Matterhorn ride put through some sort of Debigulator. Or, since they were kind of rhythmically twitching, if the snow monsters escaped from the Matterhorn and mated with the creepy child puppets from It's A Small World.

Hiring Hollywood directors to direct operas has worked for LA Opera in the past (and seems to be working in Il Trittico right now), but I fear they're leaning too heavily on the town's main industry. Remaking a 22 year-old movie as an opera isn't going to attract any more young people than rehashing La Bohème every year (not that I recommend doing La Bohème every year, though LAO seems determined to do it), especially if said operatic rehash has sleep-inducing music, a silly libretto, and irregular pacing. Throwing a naked guy into the mix might help a bit, but those are a dime a dozen on the Internet. There seems to be little point in adapting one visual medium from another, especially when no new insight is added in the adaptation. Back to the drawing board and not the screening room, LA Opera.

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At September 19, 2009 at 11:57 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the most hysterically funny opera review I have ever read! It almost makes me wish I'd been there (well, not really) so that I could appreciate the jokes from direct, personal experience.
The way you described it, though, I could imagine it all, much too vividly for my own good. It's great to have a good belly laugh from reading about opera. ;)


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