If you think the weather this week was hellish, you should see what Hercules goes through in Hercules vs. Vampires. The upcoming performance at Nashville Opera combines sword-and-sandal cinema with live opera in a mashup of, well, mythic importance.
If you haven’t heard of Hercules vs. Vampires, the recipe is simple: take the classic Mario Bava film Ercole al Centro della Terra (Hercules in the Underworld) and show it with the volume turned off. Throw in a new opera score, a live orchestra, and a cast of singers for a new soundtrack, and there you have it. The side of good features divine levels of beefcake in the form of bodybuilder Reg Park, a multiple Mr. Universe winner. The forces of evil are headlined by Christopher Lee in one of the roles that made him a shoo-in for Star Wars’ Count Dooku.
So what does it sound like? Morganelli composed the opera to capture and heighten the essence of the action and drama, using the full realm of styles available in his craft. The result is highly expressive and direct; if you’ve been to the movies anytime in the last fifty years, you should be right at home. (You also don’t need to speak Italian, because the whole opera is in English.)
Composer Patrick Morganelli spoke with Basil Considine about writing this new opera and bringing it to the stage.
You've mentioned that you're a big fan of Mario Bava's films. Do you remember when you first saw Ercole al Centro della Terra?
Honestly, I don’t recall, but it wasn’t too long ago, maybe 15 years ago or so. I likely saw it on a DVD, though I know I did see it at least once in a theater at a revival/arthouse theater that was doing a Mario Bava retrospective. However, I do remember seeing several Mario Bava films as a small child and I recall them scaring the crap out of me. I think the first one I saw was CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER (originally titled CALTIKI IL MOSTRO IMMORTALE). Of course, I didn’t know what a director was and I didn’t care; I was just completely drawn in by the images on screen.
In an earlier interview, you noted that Opera Theater Oregon was considering several composers for what became Hercules vs. Vampires, and that you wrote a set of music for them to consider. Obviously, this portfolio was successful – they gave you the commission – but how much of this initial music (if any) made it into the final opera?
Actually, the music I wrote for the initial consideration by OTO made it into the finished opera almost intact. It’s the section between Dianara and Helena where Dianara cries out about hearing the beasts howl and she wonders how many (people) will die that night. There were some small orchestral changes before the LA Opera premier of the revised score (in 2015), but it’s otherwise intact.
What does your compositional studio look like? A living room with a grand piano, MIDI keyboards and computer, nothing but pen and paper, or…?
My studio is a smallish space within an audio postproduction company here in Hollywood. There are multiple computers, four large monitors, my studio speakers, an LED TV mounted on the wall above the computer screens, and a MIDI keyboard I use to control the various virtual instruments I use in my work. I have two rack-mounts that hold some audio hardware equipment like MIDI and Audio interfaces and power conditioners. Then there is also a couch and a couple of chairs, a coffee table, filing cabinets, printers, and various things like that. The ceiling is what’s known as an acoustic “cloud”, and the walls and corners of the room have large amounts of acoustic treatments to control echoes and reflections.
I do also have several pencil-and-paper notebooks that I use to jot down ideas very quickly, but most of the actual work is done on the computers.
You wrote your own libretto for Hercules vs. Vampires. Looking at your website, I don't see "librettist" listed – was this your first opera libretto? Do you write song lyrics as part of your film scoring?
I’m afraid you’re right – I don’t advertise myself as a librettist. And, as a clarification, I actually am credited with adapting the libretto for HVV, not writing an original libretto. The fact that I did so was really a matter of convenience, rather than some conviction that I knew best.
Operas often evolve significantly after their premieres, often in response to aspects of live theatre that are noticed and refined. In this case, however, the visual medium of the film remains unchanged, and will remain the same as when you started. Have you made any significant changes to the score since the premiere, and if so, where and why?
Yes, there have been changes, both minimal and quite substantial. As you mentioned earlier, the original version was premiered in 2010 by Opera Theater Oregon in Portland. The version that audiences will hear in Nashville is the heavily revised second version premiered by LA Opera in Los Angeles in 2015. The changes made in LA were mainly because I was going to have a much larger orchestra, but there were also some changes that I made to the vocal parts – mainly concerning range. Finally, since I was doing so much revision to begin with, I also tossed out roughly ten minutes of music that I never really loved and wrote completely new material to take its place.
You've mentioned some of the aural influences for this specific score (e.g., Ligeti for the Underworld, French Impressionist composers for the "regular" world). Are there any composers who you feel strongly influence your general compositional aesthetics?
There are composers whose work I greatly admire, and I’m sure this admiration I feel for their work finds a way to influence what I do. Among more traditional composers, I do love the music of Mahler, Bartok, and the orchestral works of Respighi and Ravel. Among living composers there are many whose work speaks to me, but I do particularly like the music of John Adams and Esa Pekka Salonen, who is both a great composer and an amazing conductor.
How does the instrumentation of Hercules vs. Vampires compare to your typical film and TV score work? Do you normally write your film scores for acoustic ensembles, or for virtual/synthesized instruments?
The decision to do a film score for live players or virtual/synth instruments is mostly driven by budget. If a film or television show has the funding I think most composers always prefer live recording. Often, the budget simply doesn’t allow live recording. There are times, however, when a virtual/synth sound might be more appropriate. It varies. I’m always drawn to live recording if possible, even if it’s only a few instruments mixed in with digital materials.
Regarding Hercules, the instrumentation could easily be used in a film score, but much of the music itself is more complex than it should be in that case. Most of the live recording you hear in film or television is recorded in one or two takes, so you generally want to avoid anything that requires much rehearsal time.
Some opera composers get very involved in productions of their work, while others prefer to sit back and see what others make of their score. What was your involvement in the previous Hercules vs. Vampires productions (aside from turning in the score), and what does it look like going forward?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been a part of each of the previous productions of Hercules, but I generally try to avoid expressing too many interpretive opinions. First, a work should stand on its own without the involvement of the composer. If it’s necessary for the composer to be there to explain things, he hasn’t done his job very well.
Second, I do love hearing what each production has brought to the score. Each has been a bit different, and there have been moments that – while not strictly speaking following what I wrote – still were a bit of a revelation to me and that I honestly enjoyed.
It’s really a tremendous honor and gift for a composer to be able to hear his work performed a number of times by professional players. I’m incredibly fortunate.
Will you be attending the Nashville performance of your opera?
Most definitely. Can’t wait!
What's up next for you as a composer?
I have two new operas in development, though these are traditionally staged operas, not “film-synchronous” works like Hercules. The first is based on the Lars Von Trier comedy The Boss of It Alland the second is a modern rendering of the Honore de Balzac novel The Marriage Contract, now titled PreNup. I’m also currently working on a violin concerto for Washington, DC-based violinist Xi Chen.
Hercules vs. Vampires plays Saturday, January 27, at 8 p.m. at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville. 75 minutes. Tickets are available online.
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Basil Considine can be reached at email@example.com