NOSFERATU, A SYMPHONY OF HORROR Opera Review
In Bram Stoker’s classic 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula, the undead count exclaims: “Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” While the vampire was referring to the cries and howls of animals in the darkness, the same could be said of the LA Opera Off Grand’s Halloween presentations of the 1922 film Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror, accompanied by live music performed by members of the LA Opera Orchestra at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, an ornate 1920s movie palace located in Downtown Los Angeles.
Nosferatu, the first major motion picture adaptation of Dracula, was directed by the German Expressionist master F.W. Murnau. Because it was an unauthorized version of Stoker’s book, Henrik Galeen’s screenplay changes the names of the dramatic personae, as well as other details. The vampire, here called Count Orlok, was portrayed by the tall, gaunt Max Schreck and he is arguably creepier than Bela Lugosi was nine years later in Todd Browning’s authorized adaptation of the Irish novelist’s tale of the Transylvanian Prince of Darkness. (Rather appropriately, the word “shrek” means terror in German.)
Long before CGI, Murnau and his cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner skillfully deployed special effects to amp up the horror quotient. For example, as a carriage (perhaps a hearse) races through the Carpathian Woods, negative film is used for a reverse exposure experience that accentuates the unearthly quality of the hellish dimension we are entering. In another scene, as Orlok sails across a body of water on a ship bearing coffins filled with earth which the no account count sleeps in during the daytime, swarms of rats emerge, carrying with them pestilence and plague.
A misnomer for films made prior to the Warner Bros.’ technical innovation of film strips wedded to synchronized soundtracks in 1927’s The Jazz Singer is to dub preceding pictures “silent cinema.” While they did not contain spoken dialogue and soundtracks were not synchronized onto celluloid, I beg your pardon, but in fact there was lots of sound. Sometimes it came in the form of live orchestras performing compositions created for specific films, such as some D.W. Griffith epics. But more often than not, pianists or organ players would accompany the flickers as they flicked across the silver screen, usually improvising to render music that matched in mood and pace the larger than life action unfolding above them.
In this tradition, Matthew Aucoin, Artist in Residence at LA Opera, conducted about 14 members of the LA Opera Orchestra plus soprano soloist Liv Redpath, who performed excerpts from works by Wagner, Schubert, Schoenberg, etc., live on a stage below the screen Nosferatu was projected upon. Aucoin also composed original music for the screening and from time to time relieved Milena Gligić at the piano to tickle the ivory as he let his “inner jazz pianist loose” – as he put it in program notes – to riff along with Murnau’s masterpiece.
The accompaniment of live music greatly enhanced the ambiance of the motion picture screening with atmospheric sound. I have heard scores performed live by orchestras to accompany screenings of pre-talkie movies – such as Harold Lloyd’s 1924 Girl Shy at the Egyptian Theatre during the Turner Classic Movie filmfest – but never along with an oratorio sonorously song by an opera singer.
Members of the audience also enhanced Halloween night by coming dressed in costumes, including one as Max Schreck’s Hollywood counterpart, Bela Lugosi, in full Count Dracula array. The 1,600 seats at the Theatre at Ace Hotel were sold out during the Oct. 29 and Oct. 31 screenings. BTW, here are the review’s Fun Film Facts:
Fun Film Fact #1: In the 2000 feature Shadow of the Vampire Willem Dafoe depicts a rather troublesome Schreck, while John Malkovich portrays F.W. Murnau as they shoot Nosferatu under trying conditions.
Fun Film Fact #2: Nosferatu has been remade several times (including as recently as this year), but most notably by Werner Herzog with 1979’s Nosferatu, the Vampyre, starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz (who went on to play Hitler in 2004’s Downfall). The kinky Kinski reprised the role in a 1988 Italian version, Vampire in Venice, opposite Christopher Plummer.
The very first Academy Award for Cinematography went to Floyd Crosby for his on location, shot at Bora Bora camerawork of 1931’s Tabu, co-directed by Murnau and Robert Flaherty. Floyd is the father of David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash renown.
Fun Film Fact #3: During the 1990s I presented “the First Floating French Polynesia Film Festival” aboard the Aranui, a passenger/ freighter that sails from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. Each night, I screened films shot or set at the isle or atoll we’d make landfall at the following day. At the end of the filmfest, viewers voted for the best movie, and beating out the Technicolor talkies, et al, was 1931’s black and white, silent Tabu. (See my travel story about Aranui 5 in the October/November issue of DestinAsian magazine.)
And here’s a not so fun fact: In the chapter “Procession of Tyrants” in his 1947 landmark film analysis book From Caligari to Hitler, German critic Siegfried Kracauer theorized that Nosferatu was an emanation from the collective unconscious of Weimar Republic audiences, a motion picture premonition of the dictator to befall Germany. (Hmm, wonder what that says about the two screenings of Nosferatu just before the U.S. election as a proto-fascist runs for president? Inquiring minds want to know… In any case, Nosferatu ends as love trumps evil – let’s hope that’s true Nov. 8, too.)
Be that as it may, this Halloween screening of Nosferatu with live instrumental and voice accompaniment is part of LA Opera’s crusade to keep opera relevant to contemporary audiences. Like the recent production of the Chelsea Manning/WikiLeaks opera The Source, Nosferatu was presented as part of the LA Opera Off Grand project.
According to program notes: “In 2012, the LA Opera Off Grand initiative was created to help support the company’s mission to embody the diversity, pioneering spirit and artistic sensibility unique to Los Angeles. Complementing the company’s existing mainstage opera and educational programming, LA Opera Off Grand encompasses a wide variety of artistic exploration. Its objectives are to serve a broader geographical area, to increase audience diversity and to expand the range of experiences available to existing audiences. To learn more, visit LAOpera.org/OffGrand.”
This reviewer can add that experiencing this show made for the most enjoyable Halloween I’ve experienced in many moons.
L.A. Opera Off Grand’s Nosferatu was performed at Theatre at Ace Hotel DTLA, 929 South Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90015.
Philip Glass’ Akhnaten runs Nov. 5, 10, 13, 17, 19, 27 at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. See: http://www.laopera.org/season/16-17-season/akhnaten/.