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Fright Night

LA Opera celebrates Halloween with a new score for Vampyr.
By Steven Jude Tietjen 

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A scene from Vampyr, 1932, with Nicolas de Gunzburg as Allan Gray
Moviestore collection Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo
“I wanted to give Vampyr the score I feel it deserves.” 
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Vampyr’s new composer Joby Talbot
© Johan Person
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An original poster for the film
Everett Collection, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

THIS MONTH, LA OPERA CONTINUES ITS TRADITION of melding live performance, new music and its hometown’s obsession with all things cinematic in the world premiere of Joby Talbot’s new score for Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s unsettling 1932 German Expressionist masterpiece. Los Angelenos will be invited to don their grandest and most ghoulish costumes for a screening of Vampyr with a live performance of the Talbot score, the fourth annual presentation in LA Opera’s Halloween film series. 

Equal parts movie night, Halloween party and night at the opera, the series began in 2015, with a screening of Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, accompanied by the score Philip Glass had composed for Universal’s 1998 digital remastering of this quintessential horror film. “There were two strategic reasons behind Dracula and the inauguration of our annual Halloween film series,” says Christopher Koelsch, president and CEO of LA Opera. “The first was to create a connective tissue between [our] productions of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and Akhnaten. The second was to create work that feels idiomatic to Los Angeles and reasserts our connection to the natural creative capital of the city.”

Although the first installment in the series was not a commission, the series became one of the many opportunities LA Opera has found to commission and encourage contemporary composers. This mission is one of the core tenets of the company’s Off Grand initiative, introduced in LA Opera’s 2012 season. Off Grand’s innovative programming challenges long-held beliefs about opera, creates fresh opportunities for contemporary composers and expands the company’s relationship with its audience and community. Though the programming shifts each season, the initiative is anchored in its commitment to present new work and engage new audiences.

“Off Grand allows us to expand the canon. I feel that it is part of our responsibility to create an opportunity for artists to express their work to willing audience members,” says Koelsch. “One of the main goals of Off Grand is to complicate the narrative of what opera is and whom it’s for, while allowing us to collaborate with contemporary composers. Glass’s Dracula hit all these aims simultaneously. It was a big success.”

LA Opera repeated that success the following year, commissioning composer/conductor Matthew Aucoin, LA Opera’s artist in residence, to write a new score for F. W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu,which Aucoin conducted himself. In 2017, the company again turned to Glass, using his “opera for ensemble and film” to accompany Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et la Bête.

For the fourth installment of the Halloween film series, Koelsch has enlisted British composer Joby Talbot, who is known for his extraordinary orchestrations. “I had seen Joby’s ballet Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Covent Garden in 2011 and was deeply struck by his ability to tell stories through orchestration,” says Koelsch. “Having Joby on this project was the quickest way to bring him into the LA Opera family and introduce him to our audience.”

It was Talbot who suggested Dreyer’s Vampyr, an eerie Expressionist film little known outside film-buff circles. “Vampyr is not your typical early horror film. It has a dreamy, disquieting feeling,” says Talbot. “And the characters aren’t typical horror-film stereotypes. Some are realistic, some are very Grand Guignol, while others seem to be half-asleep. And the way Dreyer tells the story through inventive, disorienting camera angles makes Vampyr feel incredibly modern.”

Though Talbot admired the film, he found the original score, by German film composer Wolfgang Zeller, to be counterintuitive to Dreyer’s vision. “I thought I would try to imagine taking direction from Dreyer and do what I thought he had originally intended,” says Talbot. “I wanted to give Vampyr the score I feel it deserves.” 

Talbot has scored Vampyr for chamber orchestra and contralto, the latter representing the voice of Marguerite Chopin, the matronly vampire of the film’s title, weaving in and out of the score like an apparition. The score also draws on powerful moments of silence in the film, such as a climactic scene in which Marguerite attacks her teenage victim Léone.

Because Vampyr isn’t entirely a silent film—it contains roughly eighty lines of spoken dialogue—Talbot has taken into account that his score will be playing over the original track, including the crackle of the old film, some of which he has incorporated into his score. There are also primitive sound effects, such as dogs barking and children crying, that he has attempted to recreate. In other instances, he has added music and sound effects that he believes bring the score closer to Dreyer’s original vision. Aucoin will conduct during the two scheduled screenings on October 27 and Halloween night in the Theatre at Ace Hotel, a restored 1920s Spanish Gothic-style movie palace that provides the perfect atmosphere for the Halloween film series. Both screenings will be followed, appropriately, by Halloween parties hosted by LA Opera and Ace Hotel.

“They’re truly exhilarating events, with people dressing up in ridiculous, fabulous costumes. There’s so much natural atmosphere in the Theatre at Ace Hotel, the whole event feels supercharged,” says Koelsch. “There’s an incredible sense of discovery, with people hearing a composer they’ve never heard or viewing a film they’ve never seen before. It encourages audiences to engage with the work, and our company, in a way that disrupts the idea of what opera companies can accomplish.” spacer 

Steven Jude Tietjen is a writer, translator and dramaturge living in New York City. 



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