David Cronenberg's "The Fly" - LA Opera, The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, September 27, 2008, 2 p.m.

I should mention this from the start, so you can determine the level of my bias in regard to David Cronenberg's The Fly:

The first cat that I owned, outside of living at the home in which I grew up, was a sweet-natured seal point Siamese beauty named Brundlefly.

The cat probably deserved a name more befitting her gorgeous looks, but I was deeply in thrall with Cronenberg’s brand new version of The Fly at that time, and after seeing it more than a half dozen times in its first couple of weeks of release, there was no other choice as regards a name for a new kitten in my home than Brundlefly. I hated people who just named their cats Ms. Boots or Whiskers or Puss-Puss, and wanted to name her something that would start conversations. Unsurprisingly, this one started many a discussion, and gave me the opportunity to expound for several years on my love for this film.

Twenty-two years later after that naming, I found myself telling Jen, who never actually met sweet Brundlefly, that I would rather skip out on our trip to Disney World than miss out on seeing David Cronenberg's own mounting of The Fly as an actual operatic event with the Los Angeles Opera in September. Honestly, I thought I would never get the opportunity, thinking that the tickets would be snatched up straight off by every horror movie fan in LA County. Combine that with the usually earnest opera crowd, who tend to think of these things in terms of season tickets, and I thought there was no way I would see this outside of selling my soul to the devil in the guise of a ticketscalper. Two things worked in our favor, though: on the whole, horror and science fiction fans seem to be put off by having to attend an actual opera, and likewise, opera fans, on the average, probably do not like people tampering with the stolid tradition of their beloved art form.

I can back this last statement up by reporting how many possible walk-outs I perceived following the first act on Saturday, when we did actually attend the final performance of The Fly at the LA Opera. With none other than Placido Domingo himself wielding the conductor's baton, bass baritone Daniel Okulitch (portraying scientist Seth Brundle) strips down to absolutely nothing right square in the middle of the stage and then crawls into one of two telepod devices that bookend the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This resulted in a handful of shocked gasps around us, and while I can’t be sure if those particular gasps were connected to the numerous people (not all of them elderly) who were voicing their discontent with the activities on stage and proceeded to vacate the balcony area come intermission -- after Brundle’s emergence from the telepod on the opposite side of the stage, still fully naked -- I am certain they engaged in a similar form of gasping wherever they were seated. I must state that I did not actually follow these naysayers fully out of the building, so I can’t really say if they actually walked out of the show for good. I did, however, see many people leaving through the front doors in a determined fashion during the break between acts.

I can't speak for opera people in general, not knowing the general makeup of the audience these days, nor am I aware of modern developments in the form that might have the traditional audience more accepting of new concepts or sensibilities as outré as Cronenberg's. But however they may have advanced in recent years, I don't know how prepared they may be for the director's unique form of bodily and often vagina-based horror (check out his early oeuvre from Shivers up through Dead Ringers for the truth: every single film save The Dead Zone, which is a Stephen King adaptation, contains some form of vaginal surrogate). And I am fairly certain that some of those walkouts may have been season ticket holders who were just checking out the show because they didn't want to waste those tickets, and then ended up getting something of which they were completely unsuspecting: gore, sex and talk of the birth of a writhing maggot baby. Lastly, I doubt a good chunk of the audience, if they did know the movie or had seen it, even knew David Cronenberg by either name or reputation. Well, surprise, surprise, surprise!

Myself? Despite a handful of critiques I was saving up for after the show, I was having a fine, giddy time seeing a personal favorite film of mine being transcribed to the operatic stage, especially by its original director and music composer (Oscar-winner Howard Shore). Add to this a set design by two-time Oscar winner Dante Ferretti, costumes by Denise Cronenberg, and a libretto by Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), and I was in heaven. Mostly, I was so astounded that I actually had been given the chance to see such a production, that I really wasn't the most clear-headed of patrons at the moment, and Jen would back this up with her opinion as to how much of my remaining mind I lost in the car on the way to downtown L.A. waiting for the traffic patterns to enable us to reach the show on time. (We sat down in our seats at 2:01 pm. So, four minutes to spare, technically…) Not being an actual fan of opera, but merely enjoying a show once in a while (though I am huge on operas starring Bugs Bunny), I would be the one there who would not hesitate to throw down the gauntlet in defense of the sci-fi and horror fans in the audience. I was there mostly to see the translation from screen to stage, and the quality of the music was really beside the point for me. My questions were “Would it hold true to the vision of the film and director?” and “Would it still be crazy, gory and/or scary?” And I was also hoping that perhaps I might end up in the same room as Cronenberg or Shore merely by dint of sitting in the same opera house (though, as far I know, this was not to be).

I can understand the consternation of longtime opera fans when confronted with such raw and far more modern sensibilities than those normally encountered on such a stage. Despite the fact that Cronenberg and Hwang set the show in the ‘50s – a conceit that squarely does not work for me at all – and despite the ponderous framing role of a policewoman investigating the possible homicide scene that is now Brundle’s demolished lab, the remainder of the show hews remarkably true to its remade movie source (The Fly was originally lensed in 1958, though that similar story is not represented by the ‘50s setting of this show). Large, mostly unaltered chunks of the original, incredible Brundle dialogue, once mouthed by an at-his-peak and superlative Jeff Goldblum, have been incorporated into the libretto, and for this Cronenberg nut, it was worth the traffic pains alone to be able to hear Okulitch warble prophetic on the finer points of “insect politics.” The storyline remains true as well, though Stathis, the shady jerk of a science magazine editor comes off as far less of a chauvinistic jerk, and manages to keep all of his limbs intact and unspewed upon with digestive fluids, than in the film version. And the show also manages to sneak in a nod to the prime directive of the overall Cronenberg vision, included as the mantra repeated throughout the show (and in various other permutations) by the chorus in the guise of the ghost within the machine, i.e. the computer's voice, "Long Live the New Flesh!"

The oddball romance born of scientific obsession is still here, and so too is the baboon whose body gets turned ickily inside out through the course of teaching the telepod computer about the ways of the flesh. Also recreated on stage are the sex scenes between Brundle and his writer lover Veronica, and some even more shocking scenes later on when he practically kidnaps the “I’m no hooker” hooker Tawny from the bar after he breaks the wrist of her burly paramour in a poolroom arm-wrestling match (the most unsuccessfully sequence, both in terms of music and staging). I was expecting one, maybe two positions on stage, tops. But four or five? It almost seemed for a couple of sections to turn into Kama Sutra: The Opera. Not that I am complaining, but some people in my row were negatively vocal about such things. Where my pal Raw Meat was sitting (and I will partially tell the amazing tale of his ticket search at another time), he said the old ladies were grabbing for the binoculars in the dirty parts, especially when Okulitch (or a body double; we are still not sure which, since he doesn't sing at that point and the lights quickly go out for intermission) crawls out naked from the telepod.

I am absolutely no judge of operatic ability, and were I to attempt it, I am sure brother Leif would chide me straight off. But I will say that I believe lead actor Okulitch was probably chosen for the part because he was the one who looked best naked. His voice just doesn't seem strong enough at many points, and he often gets lost in the music. He also gets outmatched by the singers playing Veronica and Stathis, which slightly takes away from his ability to command the show like his character should. I can only offer a comparison to Jeff Goldblum as a direct parallel with the original film. As good as Geena Davis and John Getz are in their supporting roles, we are carried through what could have easily been just another gorefest chiefly by an incredibly winning and endearing performance by Goldblum. Even when Goldblum's version of Brundle turns into what is recognizably a monster by societal standards, and serves as a being of great menace to all involved, we are still rooting for him to figure a way out of his tragedy, or at least for him to be able to embrace that tragedy on the way to further scientific discovery, which he basically does until it completely overtakes his ability to function as a human anymore. Okulitch, though this might be an error on the part of the creators instead of an acting one, never wins over the crowd to any great extent, and he eventually just becomes an opera singer playing dress up (or dress down, as it were) in a monster suit. It also doesn't help that the music, while always menacing and swirling throughout the piece, doesn't allow him to play longer in the role of the just transformed, quick-thinking, early version of Brundlefly, giving him only a short couple of minutes to expound manically on a thousand ideas in that time while downing massive amounts of sugar. He is most effective, though, in Brundle's further decline, when he starts to take on the appearance of an old man though really his body is just slowly eating away via the transformation.

Whatever small demerits I have given the show, however, do not reduce my enjoyment of the show overall, as it is very clear that, despite my relative inexperience with opera (I have only been to a dozen or so in my life, though I do enjoy them), I have to live with the belief that this particular show was made for me. For my own sake, I have to believe that my every experience with the tale of the mad scientist who accidentally gets transmuted into a human-fly mash-up has led to this point, from my teenage afternoons after school watching the Vincent Price original and its pair of sequels, to my discovery of the original short story years later, to the glory of my Cronenberg faith derived from several early films paying off with the still amazing remake version and demands for a Goldblum Oscar nod, to the weaving of the film into my own personal mythology through the naming of a new pet, and to the instant purchase of several VHS and DVD copies of the films in the series over that span. All of this surely led to my near-fanatical desire to see this show at any costs, even resulting in a willingness to destroy a long planned for family vacation to see a genius scientist accidentally get turned into a giant insect. (I, for one, refuse to believe that Brundle is actually mad until after the transformation.)

Would I have gone so far to threaten such devastation to the household if chance hadn't presented a pair of convenient shows to me after I returned from that vacation? Who knows? Who can predict such a chain of events as that outlined above, and who else besides myself needs to chronicle or even consider them? And if there is anyone who wishes to argue against my own mad vision of these circumstances, who wishes to deny my cravings for resolution, then that person is certainly someone who doesn't understand the way I operate. They can't understand the impulse of the true fan, of the mad genre disciple, of my "junk" movie-inspired, mutated soul. I needed to be there, no matter the cost, no matter how it tormented by physical or mental being, no matter how it twisted me into a ravenous, slathering monster undeserving to trudge forward on this now alien planet.

Long live the new flesh, baby...


EggOfTheDead said…
OMG!! I am so jealous that you got to see this! I heard about the London production on NPR and was thrilled no end that someone actually put some $ behind a concept so silly, yet so perfect for the material. Anyway, Still not enough to get me to live in California :-P
I, too, am not ready to live in California, but I swear to god your making a good case. I will never get to see this, and that makes me incomparably sad.

And I disagree with Egg, the concept isn't silly at all. Cronenberg's films have all struck me as operatic tragedies. The Fly isn't the first Cronenberg film I would imagine as an opera(that would probably be Dead Ringers), but it isn't the last, either(that would probably be Shivers).

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