Fans of Italian “sword-and-sandal” films of the 1960s normally expect a beefcake hero, a voluptuous heroine and an evil villain that must be destroyed. But they don’t expect singing.
However, that expectation may be permanently altered by the N. C. Opera’s presentation of “Hercules vs. Vampires” Sunday, Oct. 30. The 1961 Italian movie from director Mario Bava (formerly titled, “Hercules in the Haunted World”) will be projected silently on a big screen in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall. Nine singers and an orchestra will perform film composer Patrick Morganelli’s score live, syncing vocal lines to the actors’ dialog.
Opera Theater Oregon’s premiere in 2010 and last year’s Los Angeles Opera performances had great reviews and full houses. N.C. Opera’s general director, Eric Mitchko, hopes for the same here. “We felt our audiences would be ready for it,” Mitchko says, “because we’ve already done a number of things outside the mainstream, including a piece about Muhammad Ali, a Philip Glass score and a new, locally-composed piece performed in an art gallery.” Mitchko also thought scheduling the performance the day before Halloween would be a further draw.
While writing a vocal score was a first for Los Angeles-based composer Morganelli, his experience scoring sci-fi, horror and action films, along with his fondness for director Bava’s mythological epics, held him in good stead.
In a recent phone call from his studio, he talked about the project’s technical hurdles, his score’s musical influences, and audiences’ reactions. Here are edited excerpts:
Q: What challenges did you find in composing a live vocal score for a film?
A: First, you have to write a vocal line that’s actually performable. You have to allow the singers to breathe, so the lines can’t be too long. Also, the singing has to appear, as much as possible, to be coming out of the mouths of the actors on the screen.
Q: How did you decide on the style of the music?
A: The movie takes place in the physical world and in Hades. The harmonic language of French impressionism influenced my scoring of the physical world, whereas the music for Hades was more like the 1950s avant-garde works of Penderecki and Ligeti.
Q: As a fan of Mario Bava films, what did you like about this specific choice?
A: “Hercules” was a good choice because it’s in widescreen and in deeply saturated 1960s Technicolor, so everything looks a lot more vivid than real life. Many of Bava’s films have a surreal quality. This particular print has been digitally restored, so it looks fantastic.
Q: Today, the film can seem campy and humorous. How did you approach it?
A: Some people think I did this as a joke, that I was mocking it. But I believe that Bava, within the limits of his budget, was trying to tell an adventure story as best he could. I wanted to bring the same level of sincerity to my music that Bava brought to the film.
Q: But audiences in Portland and L.A. often laughed.
A: There are unquestionably scenes that cause laughter. One example is Hercules’ battle with the rock monster. Today it would be done with CGI but, in the Bava film, it’s clearly a man in a foam rubber suit. So it’s perfectly fine for the audience to enjoy the unintentional humor.
Q: What kind of feedback have you received about the project?
A: After the performances in L.A., I received a lot of email. One guy wrote that he went with his girlfriend and his two cousins and had a fantastic time. But he said he thought he would have enjoyed it even if he hadn’t been high on mushrooms!
What: “Hercules vs. Vampires” presented by N.C. Opera
Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
When: 3 p.m. Oct. 30
Info: 919-792-3853 or ncopera.org