Thursday, November 22, 2007

Monster Meat

Those with a passion for terror know that horror films do not glorify the kinds of vanilla experiences that form the basis of nuclear family sit-coms. Instead, they zero in on terrifying mutations from the norm in which anti-heroes are not necessarily evil creatures. Sometimes they are larger than life characters whose ugliness is so unique (and strength so horrific) that, in the monster's innocence and desperate need for love, he unwittingly goes on a destructive rampage.

While the wounded innocence of King Kong and the soft-heartedness of Rafaello in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are a far cry from the cruel cynicism of Batman's Joker or the grotesque malevolence of Elm Street's Freddy Kruger, each of these characters shares the curse of a physical deformity which threatens other humans.

In May, the ever-daring Minnesota Opera presented the world premiere of Libby Larsen's Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. While there are many ways in which Larsen's opera broke new ground, getting Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus onto the stage proved to be a technical nightmare for the Minnesota Opera (one cast member got zapped by an electrical charge during rehearsals and had to be treated by paramedics).


Based on Mary Shelley's classic novel, the opera not only deals with the arrogance of man, but with the vulnerability of a ghoulish monster who, like Rodney Dangerfield, just wants some respect. When its creator, Victor Frankenstein, refuses to embrace the monster and offer it his affection, the monster sets about slowly but methodically destroying all those close to the inventor's heart in order to rob the callous mortal of his own sources of love.

Last year, when I interviewed Libby Larsen, she explained that she was modeling her Frankenstein opera on a Pink Floyd concert. The sound would be totally mixed (all of the singers wore microphones) and video would be one of the most important production elements. "I don't think contemporary opera is being served very well by the current way of conceiving and producing new operas. The intake of video, especially television editing, has enabled a broad contemporary audience to experience dramatic emotion very quickly. That's why I want to work in the new proscenium -- the framework of the television or film screen -- where you can frame an eye or a jaw in such a way that it carries emotional content to a contemporary audience," stressed Larsen who, along with Stephen Paulus, founded the Minnesota Composers Forum.

"The monster's music moves in a very compact and concentrated way (one and two-second edits) which makes sense because it's like a car chase with lots of edits. Since the video element of Frankenstein is what the monster sees, it is absolutely necessary and integral to the piece. And yet, the fast rate of perception that you find with a 20-second commercial is the antithesis of traditional operatic timing!"

As experienced in St. Paul's World Theater (where Garrison Keillor used to do his radio broadcasts) Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus was radically different from any opera I've encountered in the past twenty-five years. Yet it seems like another link in an emerging genre of one-act, 90-minute mixed media operas (The Stone Man, Lucy's Lapses, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus) that have received their world premieres this season. This is the kind of integrated music/theater experience where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. Director Nicholas Muni did a splendid job of merging the stage picture with the film images shown on screens positioned throughout the auditorium while Terry Simpson's videos (which intentionally move in and out of focus to stress the distorted images within the monster's mind) offer a devastatingly effective contrast between man's perceptions of beauty and ugliness. I was especially impressed with Duane Schuler's lighting, Jack Barkla's scenic design and have nothing but admiration for the heroic work done by conductor Dale Johnson and his musicians with Larsen's exceedingly difficult score.

Kudos go to Gordon Holleman (Walton), Tom Schumacher (Victor) and especially Steven Tharp (as the young Victor Frankenstein) for their performances in key roles. Christian Swenson's ghostly portrayal of the monster brought a wonderful element of surrealism to the production. Strong dramatic support came from Andrew Ashcroft as William Frankenstein, Bradley Greenwald as Henry Clerval, Elisabeth Comeaux as Frankenstein's fiancee and Mary Laymon as Justine.

So what's the big irony behind this premiere?

With so much going for it, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus doesn't score a direct bull's-eye. Larsen's music sounds like an upscale soundtrack to Nightmare on Elm Street even though it neatly underscores the grotesque theatricality inherent in the monster's loneliness. And Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus contains so much strongly-crafted writing that one would urge Hollywood's film producers to seek out Larsen's talents.

I responded to Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus in much the same way I did to Cy Coleman and Larry Gelbart's award-winning Broadway sensation: City of Angels. I cannot embrace the work wholeheartedly. But there is so much inventiveness, original thinking and creativity in this piece that one has to respect the efforts of the creative team behind it. Those hoping for some reheated Puccini may be grossly offended by a work as radically different as Libby Larsen's latest creation for, no matter how one chooses to approach Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, this is by no means a traditional opera.

Because Larsen's piece breaks so much new ground with an eye toward tomorrow's format for opera/music theater, audiences should judge it purely on the basis of its own merits. Which are many.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 12, 1990.

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