News Column

Zombie opera debuts

October 27, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 27--PITTSBURGH -- At last, zombies get to tell their side of the story.

And who knew they had such operatic voices? Though the undead can only communicate as a group, not solo.

Hear for yourself Halloween night in Pittsburgh at the world premiere of "Night of the Living Dead: The Opera."

On that creepiest night of the calendar, and the three evenings that ensue, Pittsburgh's Microscopic Opera Company will stage a locally written adaptation of the classic 1968 zombie movie "Night of the Living Dead."

The opera, performed at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, mimics the dialogue, storyline, mood and setting of the movie.

"They follow the story to a T," assistant stage director Erica Olden said. "The big exception is that the zombies actually sing. They have a bit of a human persona."

Songs from composer Todd Goodman of Midland and librettist Stephen Catanzarite of Brighton Township give extra depth to the story's human characters holed up in a western Pennsylvania farmhouse, hiding from flesh-eating ghouls.

"We learn more about their relationships and how they act together in a time of crisis," Olden, a 1993 South Side Area High School graduate, said. "This show really focuses on that more than the movie."

Newly created video projections help solidify the feeling of dark, gothic horror.

"We were constantly on guard not to do anything campy," Catanzarite said. "It's pretty hardcore, serious and intense."

The opera searched for nearly a year to find the perfect male lead.

He needed the tenor voice required of Goodman's score, and the chiseled handsomeness of the film's Duane Jones. Like Jones, he had to be African-American to reflect underlying racial tensions in the story's 1968 setting.

Microscopic found its man in Oakland, Calif. He's Michael Dailey, whose voice was described by the Opera News as "blessed with freshness." Dailey has performed 12 leading roles with Opera San Jose and also starred in shows by the Knoxville Opera and Santa Fe Opera's Apprentice Program. As an added bonus, he's a big fan of "Night of the Living Dead."

The lead female role of Barbara is played by Shannon Kessler Dooley, who has performed two roles this year at the esteemed Metropolitan Opera. Her husband, John Dooley, plays Barbara's brother, Johnny. Hailed by the Wall Street Journal for his "warm, supple baritone," John's credits include the New York Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh CLO's "A Musical Christmas Carol."

He gets to say the film's iconic line -- "They are coming to get you, Barbara" -- uttered early in the cemetery scene as a enraged zombie lurks dangerously close.

In the black-and-white film that particular zombie was played by Bill Hinzman, a South Beaver Township resident whose imagination sparked the idea for "Night of the Living Dead: The Opera."

Hinzman had staged a theatrical version of the film years ago with local amateur actors at Beaver Area High School. He long wondered if a Broadway musical version could succeed. After all, "The Phantom of the Opera" had been a hit horror film 60 years before becoming a Broadway blockbuster.

In 2009, Hinzman cornered Catanzarite, the then-managing director for Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland. Hinzman had just seen Lincoln Park's "Ballet du Bond," a ballet composed by Catanzarite based on the James Bond movies.

"Bill said he wanted to stage a musical version of 'Night of the Living Dead', but I said it's not a musical -- it's a social commentary piece," Catanzarite said.

Broadway musicals lean toward comedy, said Catanzarite, who saw greater potential with an opera.

"Bill said, 'Well, I don't know much about operas,' and I said, 'I don't either, but I know a guy who does,'" Catanzarite said.

That guy was Goodman, resident composer for the Lincoln Park center, whose works have been performed by principal members of the Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Singapore, Florida, Iceland and Seattle symphonies.

Goodman was skeptical initially.

"The challenge was taking one-and-a-half hours of conversation from the movie, and making it musically interesting," Goodman said. "You're talking about a 15-minute argument and making it have this musical flow that's not only singable, but interesting to the audience."

But he accepted the challenge, and once composition began he recognized advantages an opera has over a film.

"A cool thing in an opera, and not necessarily a movie, is that you can take a minute to stop and look inside the head of a character," Goodman said. "This can really create more drama in an already dramatic situation."

Goodman and Catanzarite disagreed, at least initially, if the zombies should sing.

"It seemed pretty clear to me from the beginning that the undead should be given a voice," Catanzarite said.

They decided the zombies would form a chorus that could only communicate collectively, not solo.

"So there are a couple undead choruses in the opera," Catanzarite said. "I think what we learn is that zombies are people, too. While throughout the opera they are referred to as 'those things' or 'ghouls,' they are in fact people -- or the remains of people -- brothers, sisters, neighbors, sons, daughters -- who are also victims in what has occurred, and no more happy about their fate than the people in the house."

That might fit the beliefs of many Pittsburgh area people who portray the undead in "zombie walks" and similar events centered on this time of year.

"And I think what Todd and I hoped to convey is that throughout the ordeal, both the undead and the people in the house are really deteriorating and disintegrating. Losing their humanity," Catanzarite said. "And for me that's sort of a mirror or metaphor for what was going on in American society in 1968."

Catanzarite held his breath when the local production premiered a few scenes in July at the annual operas-in-progress workshop hosted by The Center for Contemporary Opera in New York.

"When we got to the part about the chorus of living dead singing I thought, well, people are either going to get it or not," he said.

An audience evenly mixed between zombie fans and opera buffs reacted quite favorably.

"Afterward, a lady told me, 'You're the first thing we've seen where zombies get to tell their story,'" Catanzarite said.

"New York was fantastic," added Goodman.

Workshop organizers had said a good way to tell if spectators liked what they saw was if a bunch of them stuck around afterwards to talk with the show's creators.

Many spectators did exactly that.

"They finally had to kick people out," Goodman said.

But now comes the first full-length staging at the 350-seat Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

"It's just a really neat space," Olden said.

The collaboration between Microscopic Opera and the show's Beaver County creators has gone smoothly.

"Our focus is on modern pieces. Everything we do is kind of edgy and avant garde, so everything has seemed like a good fit," Olden said.

Judging by Facebook chatter, many first-timers will attend these Microscopic shows.

"I hope so," Olden said. "Just knowing how Pittsburgh is so into zombie culture. We expect our usual crowd, but it'll also be great to tap into a new audience."

Sadly, Hinzman didn't live to see the debut of the zombie opera he inspired, dying from cancer in February 2012 at the age of 75. He would have enjoyed seeing the film's legacy carried on via an opera, Goodman said.

The show's creators hope their zombie opera lives on beyond next Sunday.

"My goal is that this becomes to Halloween what 'The Nutcracker' is to Christmas," Catanzarite said.

___

(c)2013 Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)

Visit the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.) at www.timesonline.com

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