10 top directors tackle opera

By VERNON SCOTT, UPI Hollywood Reporter

HOLLYWOOD -- It takes guts to make a movie based on opera, a notoriously unpopular film genre, but England's Don Boyd has done just that.

Actually, Boyd took arias from 10 operas and assigned them to 10 top directors with surprising and innovative results in 'Aria,' a movie due for release this month.


In the 1980s age of rock, country, heavy metal and a plethora of pop styles, long-haired music is usually anathema on screen, especially where young people are concerned -- and demographics insist they are the ones who most often attend movies.

But Boyd is a visionary who says opera is in need of a fresh image, a jolt of creativity. He has set out to destroy the preconceptions held by those who know or care little or nothing about opera.

Just the word 'opera' paints an unpleasant picture in the minds of many Americans: a stuffy, nasal tenor in cape and tights screeching out undying devotion to an obese soprano.

Because the average moviegoer doesn't know the story line, he might just as well be watching a company of carnival performers from the galaxy Altair.

Most kids are unfamiliar with even the names of the great composers, mistaking Puccini, Verdi and Rossini for entrees at a pasta joint.


Where are the car chases, special effects, the gratutitous and obligatory nude scenes?

Add to all this the language barrier, be it Italian or German, and the average moviegoing young American would probably prefer to be in summer school.

Boyd is not out to educate the rock generation or their parents. But he has discovered a means to make opera electrically entertaining and contemporary for the unknowing without changing one magnificent note of the music of the master composers.

To make the libretto more comprehensible to space-age audiences, he selected 10 outstanding directors to direct the 10 arias, each running from four to 12 minutes in length.

'I wanted this project to provide strong melodramatic music and to be viewed as a movie, not as a visualization of opera as it is customarily staged,' said Boyd.

'Then I chose my directors with care -- Robert Altman, Bruce Beresford, Bill Bryden, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Franc Roddam, Nicolas Roeg, Ken Russell, Charles Sturridge and Julien Temple.

'First I sent them each a short version of the RCA catalogue and asked their opinions of which operas would be most interesting to them to put on film.

'I was surprised when no two of them chose the same opera, much less the same aria. By the time Ken Russell got the list he complained, 'All the good ones have been taken.' Yet he ended up with the most popular, Puccini's 'Nessun Dorma' from 'Turandot.''


Directors Altman, Beresford, Bryden, Jarman and Russell had already directed opera on the stage.

'I discussed each project with my directors individually,' Boyd said, 'then I allowed them all the freedom they wanted. The only restriction was that they were not to change in any way the recorded versions of the music. And each of them meticulously stayed with the music.

'I must add that while the music is unchanged, several segments are constituted of bits and pieces of several arias within the same opera, which made for some fascinating choices.

'From the beginning I wanted genuinely idiosyncratic directors to provide their own interpretations and I wasn't disappointed. Each of the 10 came up with singularly different ideas.'

'Aria' took three years to complete but cost a modest $1.6 million.

The budget did not allow for major stars, operatic or otherwise, but Theresa Russell, Buck Henry, Beverly D'Angelo, John Hurt and Anita Morris did take part.

The recorded music includes the magnificent voices of Leontyne Price, Robert Merrill, Anna Moffo, Enrico Caruso and other operatic legends.

Each director went his own way, came up with his own concept and filmed wherever he chose. Boyd traveled from England to the United States, France, Italy, Austria, Belgium and Scotland. He was on each set but mainly as an observer.


'Each man deliberately attempted to break the stereoptyes of opera in movies,' Boyd said. 'They were all interested in stretching their own experiences and every one of them has a great love of fine music.

'Although I gave them total freedom within budget restrictions, I found they wanted and needed some form of discipline when it was relevant. It was a unique experience for me to see all of them in action on the set.

'Julien Temple's segment is the most outrageous. He took a tragic opera and came up with a comic Hollywood satire.'

Boyd was not disappointed in the imaginative settings in which his directors placed their cameras.

Nicolas Roeg, director of 'Walkabout' and 'The Man Who Fell to Earth,' chose 'Un Ballo in Maschera' by Verdi, which he based on the true story of King Zog of Albania and the assassination attempt in 1931.

Charles Sturridge, who directed 'Brideshead Revisited,' selected Verdi's aria 'La Vergine Degli Angeli' (The Virgin of the Angels) from 'La Forza del Destino' about the explosive consequences of children living in a violent society.

'One of the most amazing things occurred with Jean Luc-Godard,' Boyd said. 'He completed his segment and told me it was a disaster. I saw it in Paris and liked it, but Godard said the acting was bad and he wanted to do it over. I told him I had no money for that and he re-shot the aria, all at his own personal expense.'


Godard, who directed 'Breathless' and 'Hail Mary,' contributed Jean-Baptiste Lully's 'Armide,' setting the action in a contemporary Parisian body builder's gym.

Julian Temple, director of 'The Great Rock and Roll Swindle,' concocted a farce of 'La Donna e Mobile' in his segment of Verdi's 'Rigoletto,' set in the gaudy Madonna Inn, a California motel.

Australia's Bruce Beresford, who gave the world 'Breaker Morant' and 'Tender Mercies,' set his version of Erick Korngold's 'Die Tote Stadt' in Bruges, Belgium, where Korngold set his opera.

Robert Altman, whose offbeat films include 'Nashville' and 'M-A-S-H,' presented 'Les Boreades,' by Jean-Phillippe Rameau, and filled his operatic audience with lunatics, focusing on a yearly tradition in an 18th century Parisian theater.

Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde' was chosen by Franc Roddam, whose credits include 'African Dreams' and 'The Bride.' His segment involves the aria 'Liebstod' of two young lovers set against the floodlights of a Las Vegas night.

Russell, whose eerie films include 'Altered States' and 'Tommy,' interpreted Puccini's 'Turandot' in the life-and-death battle of a woman to survive a devastating car crash.

Derek Jarman, director of 'Carvaggio' and 'The Last of England,' contributed the aria 'Depuis le Jour' from Gustave Charpentier's 'Louise,' centered on an aged opera singer taking her final curtain call.


Bill Bryden directed the linking sequences of 'Aria' and a segment of 'Pagliacci' as sung by Caruso on a 1907 wax recording of 'Vesti La Giubba.'

Producer Boyd believes he has made the most unusual film of 1988, and he may be right.

Who knows, perhaps even the younger generation will stop by if 'Nightmare on Elm Street VI' isn't showing across the street.

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