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Jewish Journal

Master of horror Cronenberg ‘Flies’ into opera

By Pat Sierchio and Naomi Pfefferman

August 27, 2008 | 10:59 pm

David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg

Director David Cronenberg has created some of the most viscerally repulsive and disturbing images ever on film -- the most famous of them "marked by shocking images of the body made fantastic," The New York Times says.

In his 1979 film, "The Brood," a psychotic woman gives birth to mutant children; in "Scanners," humans with mind-controlling powers make peoples' heads explode; in "Videodrome," a VCR gapes like a vaginal slit in a character's stomach; and in 2007's "Eastern Promises," linoleum knives slash Viggo Mortensen's nude body.

This month, from Sept. 7-27, the modern master of celluloid horror will bring his cringe-worthy visions to a new and perhaps unexpected venue: the Los Angeles Opera and the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Cronenberg will direct the United States premiere of the opera based on what is perhaps his best-known work: his 1986 remake of the 1958 film, "The Fly," which in turn was based on a 1957 George Langelaan short story.

Like Cronenberg's film, the opera should be both gut churning and heartbreaking -- the saga of a scientist, Seth Brundle (Daniel Okulitch), who accidentally splices his own DNA with that of an insect and morphs into the vomit-spewing "Brundle-Fly."

The opera reunites Cronenberg with three-time Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore ("The Lord of the Rings") and playwright-screenwriter David Henry Hwang ("Yellow Face"), who all collaborated on the film version of Hwang's Tony Award-winning play, "M. Butterfly," in 1993.

Shore's composition, performed by a 75-piece orchestra and conducted by the opera's general director, Placido Domingo, echoes the late romantic qualities of Shore's cited influences, Richard Wagner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann. As the doomed scientist Brundle descends into an arthropodan hell, the lush elements of the music give way to a harsher orchestration.

If the music and libretto reflect the predilections of Shore and Hwang, respectively, the Brundle-Fly costume, designed by the director's sister Denise, is pure Cronenberg -- which means possibly the most hideous, slimy creature ever to appear (and sing) in an opera house. The production design -- including Brundle's teleportation pods -- is by Oscar-winner Dante Ferretti ("Sweeny Todd"), who is also making his opera debut.

"The Fly: The Opera" -- which was commissioned by Los Angeles Opera -- received a standing ovation in March at its debut at the Theatre du Châtelet in Paris; audiences reportedly loved the production, though reviews proved mixed. French critics were particularly harsh, calling the opera "boring" and "unimaginative," according to New York magazine -- which nevertheless ran a photograph of the hairy antihero and queried, "Wouldn't you go see that?"

Cronenberg is part of an ongoing trend of movie directors to work with the Los Angeles Opera; also on the program this season, William Friedkin and Woody Allen will direct one-acts of Puccini's trio, "Il Trittico" (Sept. 6-26). (Allen said a relative nagged him into the endeavor: "I was very reluctant, because I don't want to disappoint everybody, which I'm sure I will," he told the Village Voice.)

As Cronenberg transformed "The Fly" into an opera, he drew, as he often does, on his preoccupation with the Jewish existentialist author Franz Kafka -- especially Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," in which a man morphs into "a monstrous vermin" and thereafter finds himself reviled and ostracized.

While hardly reviled nor ostracized himself, Cronenberg said he has felt himself to be a kind of "double-outsider" as an atheist and existentialist. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto, but in a home where there was no religious upbringing or content; he did not attend Hebrew school, and he did not become bar mitzvah; his parents were staunchly secular, and, he added, he did not believe in a deity from an early age.

"The school that I went to in Toronto was about 95 percent Jewish," he recalled. "And my Jewish friends would talk to me about their experiences in Hebrew school, and that was interesting but foreign to me."

As for the iconic grotesquerie that would become a hallmark of his work, he said: "Some of the things that are horrific are quite beautiful to me. It's the entomologist in me that finds insects and the alien life forms that we find on earth, that many people find disgusting and repulsive, I find are incredibly fascinating and beautiful. That's one of the reasons that those things are disturbing, because they're attractive at the same time. I think that's why people are freaked out by my movies, like 'Crash' and 'Dead Ringers,' because there's attractiveness to things that are considered dangerous or politically incorrect. The [horror] genre itself deals with primordial things and its view of death tends to be extremely physical, and as an atheist existentialist that seems like the truth."

Cronenberg has known Shore, who is also Jewish, since the two were teenagers in Toronto; they have collaborated as director and composer more than a dozen times, starting with "The Brood" in 1979, "The Fly" and as recently as "Eastern Promises." It was Shore who initially suggested Cronenberg turn "The Fly" into an opera, which, Shore has said, "seemed like a classic story for opera" with its tangled relationships involving Brundle, his girlfriend, Veronica, and her ex-lover.

Cronenberg said the idea of a "Fly" opera had never previously occurred to him: "I had mixed feelings at first ... I was not interested in remaking a movie of mine -- or rewriting it. But Howard said, 'Let's get David Henry Hwang to write it -- it'll be different.'"

The story, Cronenberg added, is "an interesting combination of science fiction and emotional intensity. It's a love triangle, basically, and when I made the movie I thought it had a power that would have made it difficult to make as a straight drama. You have two attractive, eccentric people who fall in love -- one of them, Brundle, [essentially] contracts a horrible wasting disease and gradually deteriorates until his lover helps him commit suicide -- and that's the story.

"If you did it as a straight drama it would be very depressing and hard to take. The fact that it was protected by the genre of horror and sci-fi suddenly made it quite possible to make that movie and have it be very popular and yet not lose any of the emotional impact or resonances."

The opera version reflects the film in terms of its structure, but the libretto is original. At one point, Brundle sings to Veronica: "I see myself, I see something new, something hideous, unspeakable. A fly in the pod, confused the computer. Two genetic patterns it spliced us together, mated us, me and the fly."

Cronenberg created the character of Brundle when he wrote the screenplay for "The Fly"; the chance to rework the story was his condition for agreeing to direct the film. Although Cronenberg said it was not a conscious decision to make the film's scientist Jewish, the casting of actor Jeff Goldblum in the role did give the character a definite ethnicity. "Brundle became quite Jewish without it being pushed in any particular way," Cronenberg recalled.

The Jewish sensibility (and the Kafkaesque paranoia) is far more blatant in Cronenberg's four-minute film, "At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World," which premiered last year at Cannes (along with "Eastern Promises"). He envisioned the movie when the Cannes Film Festival asked him, along with some 30 other directors, to create a short on the occasion of the festival's 60th anniversary.

"At the Suicide of the Last Jew" is a satire, with Cronenberg sitting in the bathroom of the last remaining cinema, pointing a revolver at different parts of his head as a cable news network covers the event live. As the last Jew ponders the best angle for his fatal gunshot, newscasters comment casually to each other about the demise of the man and the medium: "It's been a long time coming. You know, they say the Jews invented the movies, and we know the horrific cost of that little creation."

The short, which Nextbook.com calls "a raised third finger," is described by the director as a response to worldwide anti-Semitism and, in particular, political parties and cultures that advocate the annihilation of Jews.

"When you're hearing calls from the leader of Hezbollah saying that 'it's our goal to kill every Jew in the world,' of course I take that personally," Cronenberg said. "Then it makes me think, 'What if that was happening, what if we were down to the last Jew in the world? Here he is, about to kill himself, so that will be it. What is the attitude of the world as reported by the international media?'"

The movie isn't specifically about French anti-Semitism, he insists. "You could just as well say it's a slap at America or, in fact, my suggestion that the world might be quite indifferent to the disappearance of the Jews," he says.

Even with this short film, Cronenberg admitted to having lived up to his reputation as a master of the disturbing: "A critic who saw it at a screening said she never expected a four-minute film could shock a Cannes audience, which is certainly one of the most jaded in the world."

The U.S premiere of "The Fly: The Opera" will run for six performances only at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion from Sept. 7 - Sept. 27.

Cronenberg's 1986 film of "The Fly" will be shown at the Arclight Hollywood Cinerama Dome on Wednesday, Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. A question-and-answer session with David Cronenberg and Howard Shore will follow the screening.

Cronenberg's short film, "At the Suicide of the Last Jew," is viewable at www.nextbook.com.

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