Ah, the thrill of horror season. Blood-curdling screams. Ghosts. The screech of dissonant violins. This weekend really is the perfect time for opera.
Yup. You heard that right. Cue the soprano. Opera is getting spooky.
It starts Friday night at the Ebell Club. A creaky 90-year-old building in Highland Park where suffragettes once organized, and ghosts surely roam. That’s where, this weekend and on Halloween night, Pacific Opera Project (POP) is presenting a double bill of horror (the show moves to the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica the following weekend).
Anchoring the production is Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1946 hourlong opera The Medium. Sung in English across two efficient acts, The Medium tells an evocative, murderous tale. In this version, ghosts are conjured in a set filled with antique furniture and beautifully wrapped in a heavily patterned, dark floral wallpaper.
It’s a design that works equally well for the evening’s opening act. In The Monkey’s Paw a family of three in period costumes play chess and knit idly until a knock on the door introduces a visitor bearing a gift that will, in predictably horrific fashion, change the course of their lives.
The Monkey’s Paw is a first in many ways. An adaptation of W.W. Jacobs’ short story, the piece is a new opera by first-time opera composer Brooke deRosa. It is also the first new opera that POP –– a company known for its quirky, original takes on the classics –– has commissioned and produced.
Josh Shaw, POP’s artistic and executive director, says the production is part of the company’s five-year plan, which included the goal of producing a new work before 2021.
Shaw knew a year ago that he wanted to produce The Medium this Halloween. He was searching for the perfect pairing for it when he came across a post on Facebook.
Brooke deRosa and Josh Shaw were Facebook friends because they’d worked together before. The soprano, who also scores TV shows and movies, had sung in two of POP’s past productions (Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos and Mozart’s The Impresario). In January, she made a New Year's resolution: it was time to finish a horror opera she had started, then shelved, a few years back.
A New York native, deRosa describes herself as a film-score and classical-music nerd who didn’t know Nirvana until her mid-20s. “I was a weird kid,” she says. “I was just never interested in anything popular.”
As a film and TV composer, deRosa has scored Westerns and dramas and a film noir, but her favorite projects are horror movies. Which is why, when she decided to write and submit a piece for a micro-opera competition in 2013, she was drawn to W.W. Jacobs' creepy tale.
That was the piece she determined to finish in 2017. “Almost done writing my opera and I had to kill off someone. And now it’s really bumming me out. He was a good guy [sad emoji]” she posted to Facebook in mid-January, mentioning in the comments that her piece was an adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw.
Shaw’s memory was triggered. He saw a school play of The Monkey’s Paw when he was a kid, and it stuck with him. He sent deRosa a Facebook message, and this weekend’s double bill was born. Like The Medium, deRosa’s opera is scored for piano and a small cast, making it perfect for the Ebell Club’s intimate setting. The composer describes the music she wrote as “very tonal” and “kind of minimalistic.”
“The main theme has a lot of dissonance,” she says. “Coincidentally, as if this couldn’t get creepier, Menotti’s The Medium is what I was listening to when I decided to write this.”
DeRosa is certainly not the first or last opera composer to evoke dark sounds onstage. And while POP’s production is the only traditionally sung, live horror opera in town, it is one of several opportunities to consume horror with a side of classical music this weekend.
In Orange County Saturday night, the Philharmonic Society and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts are co-presenting a classic: a screening of the 1931 Bela Lugosi film Dracula accompanied live by composer Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet.
L.A. Opera presented Dracula last October at the Ace Hotel, so this year it's bringing a different sort of monster to that stage. La Belle et la Bête is Jean Cocteau’s cinematic take on the classic tale. Like Menotti’s The Medium, it premiered in 1946. And like Dracula, the film is presented with a live performance of a soundtrack composed by Philip Glass.
Offstage, and in an entirely new and experimental way, another contemporary composer is dabbling in horror opera this year. Kamala Sankaram, whose opera Thumbprint received its West Coast premiere at L.A. Opera over the summer, just released the first episode of her latest effort via Samsungvr.com –– an episodic, 360 VR surrealist horror opera called The Parksville Murders.
The Parksville Murders, which is presented by Opera on Tap, was created in collaboration with two L.A. tech companies (LightSail VR and Hear 360). The music was composed specifically for the 360 environment using specially designed microphones that capture the sounds of singers as they move around the VR environment. The trailer is riveting: A TV screen flickers eerily to the sound of a ticking clock. Beneath a single, bare lightbulb, a soprano lies motionless in a clawfoot bathtub. “Help me,” she cries. Two words sung on two notes that make an immediate impact.
As it turns out, sopranos –– and baritones and basses for that matter –– are the perfect vehicles for horror. After all, who better to give voice to our deepest, darkest fears than an experienced stage actor in perfect control of their breath and diaphragm? So this Halloween, let opera give you the creeps. When things get scary, the screams you hear on these stages will hit all the right high notes.
The Medium and The Monkey’s Paw, Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Highland Park; Oct. 27, 28 and 31, and Nov. 3, 4 and 5. All shows at 8 p.m. except Sunday, Nov. 5 (2 p.m.); $20-$120. (323) 739-6122, pacificoperaproject.com.