(an update from a post originally published last Halloween)
I’m what you’d call a lifelong horror geek, and this time of the year my DVR and Blu-ray deck overheat with the likes of The Abominable Dr. Phibes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Drive-in fare like I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, The Killer Shrews and War of the Colossal Beast are personal faves from a childhood reared on WLVI Boston’s Creature Double Feature, and I’ve literally worn out a VHS of the long out-of-print The Incredible Melting Man.
But let me tell you something… the video collection can’t compete with some of the LIVE eerie effects, creepy costumes and monster moments this company has put on stage in the past decade. Here are a few highlights:
LAO's most recent example of (literal) stage fright was in The Two Foscari, wherein this dream-haunting skull-clown jauntily danced its way into my psyche. A close-up of this creepy headgear was the desktop wallpaper on my computer for a month. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr....
The rest of the carnivale scene was loaded with outre costuming and creatures, too.
From steampunk torture chamber manipulators to...
...this floating gas-masked angel. Just amazing.
This wasn't, by any means, the first airborne otherworldly menace seen haunting the DCP stage though.
Denyce Graves is haunted by puppets and projections in DUKE BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE (2002)
From La Damnation de Faust in 2002 to The Turn of the Screw just last season, I’ve been treated to all sorts of ghostly images and visitors from the underworld, all in grand operatic scale. I’m not all that into ghost movies, but huge skull-headed spectral puppets live and in-person on stage are absolutely breathtaking.
The massive reaper from DON CARLO (2006), which looked like it stood over eight feet, was way more intimidating in person than anything portrayed on screen in LORD OF THE RINGS.
The statue-come-to-life in DON GIOVANNI (03 and 07) is downright zombie-like, as are the lost souls who drag him to the Underworld soon after.
2010's THE TURN OF THE SCREW featured both classic-style specters and nightmares right out of modern Japanese cinema.
The scares don’t stop at haunting spirits, we’ve put some pretty astounding MONSTERS on the stage, too.
In my opinion, LAO's 1990 production of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE had better practical costumes than the expensive digital creations of the recent film.
The Douglas Fitch-designed woodland creatures from HANSEL AND GRETEL (2006) were either whimsical or downright creepy, depending on how you felt about the electronic 'screen' eyes.
Despite their colorful execution, fairytale creations can be as scary as circus clowns are to some of us (and isn’t Pagliacci just a step away from being a slasher movie anyway?), but the nightmarish creatures of Julie Taymor’s Grendel left no room for interpretation. They were unnervingly inhuman and grotesquely asymmetrical.
These primitive abominations spawn the more man-like Grendel. The monster-as-protagonist was not only more humanoid, he was the most human character in the opera. It’s a widely popular theme in monster movies, going back to King Kong and Boris Karloff’s child-like monster in Frankenstein in the 1930s. We’re the creature. The marginalized, misfits and misunderstood of the world relate to the lagoon monsters and transformed un-men spurned by damsels in distress and hostile villagers alike.
Of course, the more singing a creature has to do, the more free the face has to be. Denyce Graves’ dragon, with three supporting vocalists as the tail, was actually more of a traditional opera costume.
But no one… and I mean NO ONE… did more heroic above-and-beyond singing in a monster suit than Daniel Okulitch in 2008's The Fly!
David Cronenberg’s first foray into opera was technically a reinterpretation of his landmark 1986 film, but it had a firm foot in the 1958 original as well. The Fly is an evolution of the familiar mad scientist theme, but with a more sympathetic lead. Seth Brundle isn’t a hand-gnashing madman cackling like a lunatic in his ominous lab. He’s brilliant, he’s onto something big, and in a very human moment of weakness and impatience makes a small mistake with unimaginably profound consequences. (Hmm, sounds like opera, doesn’t it?) All he tries to do from there is get back to being human, but the paths he takes go more and more wrong until the ultimate tragic conclusion.
Two latex-based creature suits, created by Mark Rappaport/Creature Effects, turned baritone into beast in The Fly. The first being simple lab clothes with lumpy semi-insectoid arms and head attached. This half-way creature look (lovingly referred to as “pants monsters” by the fan community) evoked the classic dirt-cheap B-movies of the 50s and 60s – The Hideous Sun Demon coming immediately to mind.
The stage-two transformation was a full-body suit. Now as any monster movie buff knows, all full-body suits harken back to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the opera’s costume did its pedigree proud. But this suit had some special needs no movie gear ever had to deal with: the wearer had to sing in it. And sing suspended upside down from a scaffolding!
The Fly ended with a cinema-quality puppet/suit emerging from a smoking piece of retro lab tech. The man succumbed to monster, and the monster met its end, returning the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage to the relative tranquility of crazed knife-wielding lovers and bloody political intrigue.
And while I fully realize it is not The Fly, but Butterfly that keeps us open, as a monster movie buff I’m honored to have been here to see some amazing live stuff on stage.
Keith J. Rainville
LA Opera Brand Manager and graphic designer
(Creature from the Black Lagoon figure on desk)