Making Hercules Sing
Arizona Opera’s season opens with Hercules vs Vampires, promising all the fun of an iconic Italian B-movie adventure combined with fresh live music in a compact 74-minute package. Singers, orchestra and conductor synchronize a newly-composed score from Patrick Morganelli with the 1961 film Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra/Hercules in the Center of the Earth). The movie features Reg Park and Christopher Lee in a fine sword-and-sandal tribute to mythology.
Morganelli wrote the music for Hercules in 2010 for Opera Theater Oregon and updated it in 2015 for Los Angeles Opera. His score moves from French Impressionistic style during the film’s scenes in the physical world of ancient Greece to the 20th-century avant garde style of Penderecki and Ligeti when Hercules journeys to Hades. “I figured we need something with an amorphous, undulating sense to reflect this altered reality, that you’re in the underworld and things can go horribly wrong at any moment down here,” the composer says with a chuckle.
Working meticulously in sections, sometimes frame-by-frame, Morganelli rewrote and adapted the text with careful consideration of each syllable, matching as many as 40 different musical points per three-minute sequence of film. “It takes in the vicinity of six weeks to score a 90-minute feature film -- that’s a ballpark figure,” he says. “Hercules took me over six months.”
Love in the underworld
The singers will wear black concert dress onstage while the film is projected overhead. “Visually, the movie is still the centerpiece of the production,” says Morganelli. He explains, “As the audience is watching it’ll appear as though the voices of the singers are coming out of the characters on the screen.”
“It isn’t like a regular film score where you want the music to hit the action at a few places,” adds the composer. “Getting the vocal lines to match the mouth movements of the actors was really very complicated.”
On the other hand, Morganelli couldn’t allow himself to become too obsessed about exactly synchronizing the music with every on-screen lip curl and twitch. “If the tempo and the meter were changing in every measure, it would be technically so difficult that no one would ever perform it,” he points out.
“The importance of silence in music is very much misunderstood,” says Morganelli. “Silence can be enormously powerful if you use it correctly. There’s really only one measure in the opera where the singers and the orchestra are completely silent: when Theseus and Persephone kiss for the first time.”
He continues, “It’s crucially important, because that’s when Theseus goes from being Hercules’s best friend to his mortal enemy, all because of his love for Persephone. It’s such an important moment that I felt it should happen in complete silence.”
Clicks, punches and streamers
Although the singers will be able to rehearse with a video monitor displaying the film and have access to a click track -- a metronome sound often played through headphones in recording sessions to aid exact synchronization -- only the conductor, Shawn Galvin, will hear the clicks during performances. “An operatic voice is really about singing beautifully and expressively,” explains Morganelli, “and having a click track in your ear doesn’t really help with all of those things.” He adds, “It’ll become the job of the conductor to honor the click and keep things fairly tight.”
Galvin will also see a video monitor with punches and streamers -- visual cueing to augment the click track -- along with measure and beat counts. “Yeah, it’s very tough to get it to work,” admits the composer.
“I’m a percussionist by trade and training,” says Galvin, now in his 20th season with the Pittsburgh Symphony, “so the idea of working with fixed media is my usual vocabulary.” One of the orchestra’s greatest challenges is the score’s transitions. “There’s not a lot of room for error or nuance -- it’s on a razor’s edge, relying on the ensemble to remember a tempo,” Galvin explains. “My job is to make sure everybody’s ready for these quick switches...how you prepare for a beat, how you prepare for tempo changes, mood changes...making sure that everybody’s prepared to prioritize and react in the ways that make a great experience.”
“There are some beautiful melodic moments that I fall in love with every time I go back to the score,” he adds. “A couple of them make me laugh because the lyrics are just hilarious but they’re being delivered in this incredibly beautiful way.”
“It’s not a spoof”
Morganelli explains, “A lot of people assume that when I wrote this I was doing it in a way that was mocking the original, like MST3K [Mystery Science Theater 3000, a television comedy series featuring B movies augmented with a steady stream of wisecracking commentary].”
“I really didn’t feel that way at all,” he says, “because I’m a huge fan of the work of the director, Mario Bava.” Morganelli continues, “It’s not a spoof -- it’s not written tongue-in-cheek. I felt that I needed to approach writing the opera with the same sense of sincerity that Bava brought...he wanted to create a story with richness that had real emotional resonance, but he had to do it with essentially no assets, no budget and only a few days to shoot the thing. Bava’s legacy is having produced a lot of these visually spectacular movies on really a very low budget.”
“Now, having said that, there are things in the movie that the audience will consistently laugh at,” Morganelli concedes. “Like the ‘rock monster’ -- if this movie was made today they’d do it with motion capture and CGI [computer-generated imagery], but here it’s very obviously a guy in a foam-rubber suit, and he’s kind of lumbering around and he has this mechanical mouth. The audience will always laugh.”
However, “There’s a kind of unintentional charm to it that we can really only appreciate by seeing it this many decades later,” says Morganelli. “When you look at the things that actually happen, the story is definitely operatic in scope, with love, sacrifice, hatred, vengeance, jealousy, incest...it really runs the gamut.”
Hercules vs Vampires opened on October 15 in Tucson, and October 21 & 22 in Phoenix.