The wren goes to ’t, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive . . . .
-- King Lear, Act IV, Scene vi.
In the early '90s I had a hand in some of the marketing and management aspects of the mid-sized law firm where I was a junior partner, and thus the opportunity to meet and work with a number of marketing and management consultants. From that experience I learned an important lesson:
There are some decisions so misguided that only really clever and expensive professionals can talk you in to them.
This business principle also has a place in the creative arts, as all too vividly demonstrated by Los Angeles Opera's presentation of The Fly.
Howard Shore is a talented and well-regarded composer of film music. David Cronenberg is a talented and well-regarded film director. David Henry Hwang is a talented and well-regarded playwright and librettist. And yet, for all their collective talent and regard, these really clever and expensive professionals have labored and brought forth a thoroughgoing misbegotten mess of an opera.
To recap the plot: striving science journalist Veronica Quaife meets brilliant scientist Seth Brundle. Brundle introduces Veronica to his fabulous invention: telepods through which matter can be transmitted from place to place. Initially, living things are grotesquely and fatally distorted in the process, but Brundle seems at last to overcome that obstacle. When Veronica stays out trying to sever a former relationship (with her erstwhile professor turned lover turned editor) on the night of celebrating this success, Brundle in a drunken fit of pique disregards all the warnings about alcohol and heavy machinery and transmits himself from Pod 1 to Pod 2. Unfortunately, he does not transmit himself alone: a common housefly slips in and Brundle's genetic makeup is fused with that of the fly. You just know it will end in tears.
At first, Brundle displays a fly's vigor, strength and appetite -- among other things, he becomes sexually insatiable and libidinally unstoppable -- but in short order he begins to deteriorate, mutate and transform to be more fly and less man. Convinced that he can save himself, or create some suprahuman ultrabeing, Brundle tries to transmit himself, Veronica and their unborn child simultaneously. Veronica is retrieved from the Pod by her editor/former lover. Brundle (now BrundleFly) is retransmitted rather less than successfully. Veronica shoots and kills the resulting horror, then resolves to bring their child in to the world. Curtain.
These sorts of things happen all the time.
I have been debating with myself which is more deserving of critique and more worthy of blame, the score or the libretto. "Both" may be the most accurate answer, because the two pieces never seem to gel. On those rare occasions when the libretto hits its stride, the music plods or loiters about wondering when it will all be over. The score manages to produce maybe three memorable minutes of music out of a total of 150, and none of the memorable bits have dialogue to accompany them.
Howard Shore's score suffers from being entirely capable and at the same time utterly forgettable. There are no melodies or recurring themes to orient the listener, but there is also no active attempt to be "difficult" for difficulty's sake, nor any attempts to be willfully ugly. When all's said, it is a slurry of well wrought rumbling sludge. The sounds the orchestra makes are all within the spectrum of accepted contemporary practice, and none of them reach either the mind or the heart in a way that lasts beyond the moment.
- On the challenge of contemporary opera generally and on the difficulty composers seem to have in fitting music to text to emotion, see Anne Midgette's smart recent piece in the Washington Post, here. [Via Sounds & Fury.]
Most damningly, as others have already remarked, the score does nothing to actually tell the story that Shore has chosen to tell. Sequences of horror sound exactly like sequences of lust, which sound exactly like sequences of playful banter, which are indistinguishable from sequences of triumph and discovery. If one is going to compose an opera, a drama based in music, then one really must provide music that actually supports the drama and provides it with a motive force. The score of The Fly falls flat on almost every occasion.
- What does it say that in an operatic adaptation of The Fly the fly itself has no musical representation? Obviously, the fly that slips in to Brundle's telepod is too small for us to see in the cavernous spaces of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but shouldn't it be given some acknowledgment in the orchestra? A kazoo cadenza, perhaps? Not here. The fly is simply a buzzy prerecorded noise. Not unlike the opera in which it appears. . . .
The musical problems may be traceable to David Henry Hwang's libretto which -- all right, now I know who I am going to savage most fiercely here -- is deeply awful. Shore's sludge and drudge music is a major obstacle to a successful opera, but I doubt that any composer could bring real life to the text that Hwang has provided.
An opera, as drama, must operate as any other drama does: it needs to be moved along, it needs to present us with characters whose behavior and motivations make sense, it needs to retain some internal consistency with the world in which the story is set, and it needs to avoid when possible making the audience laugh at its obvious lapses. The Fly libretto fails on each of these counts, and then some.
- Set in the 1950s -- when the original story and first movie were set -- The Fly is filled with anachronisms: characters talk about "carbs," worry about smoking when pregnant, discuss "gene-splicing" as if Watson and Crick had figured out the structural workings of DNA less recently than 1953. The story is full of female scientists and female police officers, as if such things were common in that period. A hand held video camera is used to document experiments: even if it's meant to be a film camera, it is much too small to be credible. And a central conceit of the entire text is that the unfortunate scientist Seth Brundle has invented not only a teleportation device -- on which he could have gotten rich even if it only transmitted inanimate matter, so why is he so obsessed with teleporting living creatures as well? -- but a sophisticated voice interface with his computer.
- The old saw that one should "show, not tell" is violated again and again. The entire story is told in flashback, with multiple narrators, and the characters are only occasionally seen actually interacting with one another. Since none of those interactions is particularly credible, this is just as well. The entire second act is structured with brief scenes from the actual plot interspersed with long narrations of other events that are ultimately justified only because they kill time so that the lead baritone can apply the next layer of his increasingly elaborate fly-man makeup.
- The tone and language of the text veers wildly about. When writing for an opera, the language should have some reason to be sung rather than spoken. Operatic speech is heightened speech, through its own phrasing and expression or through its bond to the score -- and optimally both. In The Fly, the text is predominately as bland and stupid as the most mundane contemporary movie dialogue. In operas with any aspirations to seriousness, characters do not ask one another to "pinky swear." In The Fly, they do. At random intervals, and for no apparent reason, lines actually are spoken rather than sung. It is as if the text fell so far below expectations that the composer just moved on to something else.
- When Hwang does seek to heighten the rhetorical tone, it comes out badly. He slips in some actual verse early on, in a sorry chorus of dreary scientists at a reception that rhymes "parties" with "smarties" and passes it off as clever. That, unfortunately, sets the tone for the few scenes with large groups of characters: they are consistently viewed with contempt. A scene in a bar in Act II is the worst offender: the chorus wails and moans about the shattering of their high school dreams, as if the complete works of Bruce Springsteen had been rewritten by Eugene O'Neill at his most purply self-pitying: The Iceman Cometh meets Grease out on Thunder Road. In a very few passages, Hwang's rhetoric rises above the ordinary and workmanlike, but you can be certain that the accompanying music lets him down every time.
- Flesh. Sex. Good grief. Throughout the opera we are treated to recurring invocations of "The New Flesh," which anyone can tell you is the same as The Old Flesh only more self-important. Brundle and Victoria paw breathily at one another on the floor in Act I; by Act II, all that heavy breathing focuses inexplicably around the rolling desk chair near Brundle's computer console. Veronica complains that she and Brundle have been At It for fourteen hours [the house erupts in guffaws] and the jokes begin to write themselves:
- "Viva Fly-agra!" [Caution: Do not confuse with fly agaric.]
- "Oh, I suppose it was one of those Spanish flies that slipped in to the telepod."
It moves beyond embarrassing when Brundle brings poor Tawny from the local dive bar -- "Do I look like a hooker?' Well, if you have to ask, my dear . . . -- back to the lab and goes at her from every direction while Veronica stands at the front the stage narrating Something Else. Please: if you haven't understood by this point that virtually every possible commentary on Sex and on The Body has been old news for between two and twelve centuries, there's no hope for you as an artist. Move along, there's nothing but sniggering to add here.
- No really, I can't go on. The additional effort is more than the subject deserves.
Those reviewers who have Tried to Say Something Nice have focused on the skills of the performers, and that is only fair. The principals, the orchestra, and the long-suffering chorus -- which is mostly relegated to serving as the voice of Brundle's computer, and thus limited to a range of no more than two or three monotonal notes -- do acquit themselves very well, especially given the little that they have to work with. I am assuming that last night's enthusiastic applause was for them, and not for the work in which they were entrapped -- as if in Fly paper.