‘Nosferatu’ Arises From Silence In Opera Fright Night

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Newly scary, 'Nosferatu' was given a live soundtrack assembled by LA Opera's artist-in-residence Matthew Aucoin.
Newly scary, ‘Nosferatu’ was given a live soundtrack assembled by LA Opera’s artist-in-residence Matthew Aucoin.
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — Halloween is threatening to turn into a tradition at Los Angeles Opera — the Off Grand offshoot of Los Angeles Opera, that is.

Last year at this time, they announced a performance of Philip Glass’ pasted-on score for Dracula — with Glass and the Kronos Quartet playing in back of a screening of the 1931 Bela Lugosi horror classic — and they found that they had to schedule more performances to accommodate the demand.

The Theatre at Ace Hotel, scary venue of choice for LA Opera.
The Theatre at Ace Hotel, venue of choice for LA Opera at Halloween.

It took place at The Theatre at Ace Hotel, an old-fashioned 1927 Spanish Gothic 1,600-seat downtown movie palace once used by the late, hilarious televangelist Gene Scott (his neon “Jesus Saves” sign still lights up the top of the building).

So this year, on Oct. 29, acting in the spirit of the Christopher Lee film Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (You Just Can’t Keep A Good Man Down!), LA Opera resurrected yet another Dracula movie at the Ace — this time the 1922 F.W. Murnau German expressionist version entitled Nosferatu.

Made five years before the talkies came in, Nosferatu had a score by Hans Erdmann that could be played live, but most of it was lost, and there have been several attempts to write or adapt new ones. For this event, there would be another new score, a collage of this and that concocted by LA Opera’s new artist in residence, the 26-year-old, Harvard-educated, multitasking composer-conductor-pianist-writer Matthew Aucoin in his first appearance with the company.

It was quite a scene. The dimly lit, ornately detailed interior lobby was crowded with Halloween-costumed folk of all ages, anticipating a party after the screening. They applauded lustily after each “act” in the silent film, laughing at the captions and some of the scenes, even those originally meant to be serious, gloomy, or horrifying. Now that Halloween has became a holiday for adults in the last couple of decades, horror films like these have lost their horror and become camp instead. Not sure if that’s such a bad thing, but it is what it is.

LA Opera artist in residence Matthew Aucoin (Steven Laxton)
LA Opera artist in residence Matthew Aucoin (Steven Laxton)

In between the yuk-yuks, the audience received some first-class exposure to snatches of classical music, superbly played by a 14-piece chamber ensemble from the LA Opera Orchestra seated underneath and in front of the screen, with luminous singing and Sprechgesang from soprano Liv Redpath where needed. Aucoin intended to present German music from the era in which the film was made, but his selection more often than not strayed much further into the past, as far back as Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and Weber’s Der Freischütz Overture, Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” the Act III Prelude, and the “Liebestod” from Tristan. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Pierrot Lunaire brought things a little closer to Expressionistic home, and there were also a couple of songs by Schoenberg’s brother-in-law, Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Linking this together was a lot of filler music composed by Aucoin, whose pastiches were often good matches for the older material, with a few patches of mild avant-garde effects in the winds, strings, and percussion that were intended to convey horror (although they couldn’t, in this context, with an audience intent upon having fun). Aucoin also went to the piano to improvise certain sequences, following in the distinguished footsteps of ancestors like Shostakovich (that’s how he got started, playing for silent films). One of Aucoin’s improvs was a brave elaboration on Verklärte Nacht; another time, he stepped on the foot pedal of a hi-hat cymbal stand to punctuate an all-percussion segment.

In scoring 'Nosferatu,' Aucoin pulled snippets of Wagner Schoenberg and improv out of the box.
To score ‘Nosferatu,’ Aucoin pulled snatches of classical music out of the box.

Some of the music didn’t reflect what was happening on the screen — the “Siegfried Idyll” sequence, for example  — but it was the Schoenberg excerpts that predictably worked best. The part that fit most obviously, telegraphed instantly to any Wagnerians in the crowd, was the use of the “Liebestod” at the very end of the film, as Ellen dies, drained by the fangs of Count Orlok (Dracula), who vanishes forever after being exposed to sunlight.

This event was but a teaser for what Aucoin intends to bring to LA Opera in the next three years. The next Aucoin sighting comes up almost immediately when he takes the baton for a new co-production of Glass’ Akhnaten on the main stage of Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Nov. 5 27 (watch this space). He’ll conduct two more productions in the 2017-18 season, including one of his own operas, and he is commissioned to write a new opera for LA Opera, which he will conduct in the 2019-20 season.

In the meantime, with both performances of Nosferatu sold out, LA Opera Off Grand is probably busy trying to figure out what to do for next Halloween. The Wolf Man, anyone?

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.