With a muscle-bound hero and damsel in distress, mythological storylines and an abundance of good vs. evil drama, Mario Bava’s 1961 Italian film Hercules in the Haunted World has all the trappings of a good opera. That’s why composer Patrick Morganelli, who had been a fan of the film for many years, jumped at the chance to turn the cult-fantasy flick into an operatic saga with Opera Theater Oregon in 2010. Morganelli’s Hercules vs. Vampires will get its Nashville premiere this Saturday with the Nashville Opera. We caught up with the composer to discuss his creative process, the challenges of combining film and opera, and how audiences respond to such a unique pairing.
Hercules vs. Vampires doesn’t look like your typical opera. Bava’s original film will be projected in silence on the big screen, scored live by Morganelli’s original music with performers singing the film characters' dialogue.
Composing within these parameters presented Morganelli with some unique challenges. “Syncing the singing with the actor’s mouth movements was harder than I expected,” he admits, adding that the speed of the dialogue in the film was also tricky to work with.
Typical opera fluctuates between recitative, or quicker, speech-like singing, and arias, which are the big, beautiful singing moments that operas are known for. “Unless the audience wanted 74 minutes of recitative, and I didn’t think they did,” Morganelli laughs, “I had to get creative about finding moments to sneak in some lyrical, musically satisfying moments.”
He points out scenes in which actors turn their faces away from the camera, and to a scene when Hercules visits the oracle Medea, who wears a porcelain mask. “I basically got to do whatever I wanted with her part,” Morganelli explains, “so I turned that scene into a duet with Hercules.” It was the creative challenge that made these scenes into some of Morganelli’s favorites to score.
Bava’s film has a certain undeniable charm. Modern audiences can enjoy the rich technicolor palette and larger-than-life plot, but the film’s vintage campiness—the budget special effects, the dramatic line delivery, monsters that are cornier than scary— is certainly part of its appeal.
Morganelli kept all this in mind when he composed his score. “When people first hear about the concept, the assumption is that [the opera] was done for laughs, or to mock the campiness of the movie, but that’s not what I did,” he explains. “I wanted to bring the same attitude to the music as Brava brought to the movie: to tell an adventure story with emotional dramatic nuances.”
“But, I was aware that I wasn’t composing Parsifal,” Morganelli laughs. He says that 2018 audiences will see some of the effects from the 60s and laugh at unintentionally funny moments. “There’s a scene where Hercules faces Procrustes,” he gives as an example. “Today, that would probably be some terrifying CGI creature. But in 1961 it was very clearly a man in a foam rubber suit with this sort of mechanical moving mouth.”
Morganelli says he wants audiences to be free to react how they want, whether that’s to laugh or to “enjoy it in other emotional ways, should they choose.” He’s been to every public performance of the work, and says that each audience has reacted very differently: “Some are stoic, just taking it all in. Others go berserk getting into it.” Nashville seems poised to get in on the fun, with a costume contest and photo booth scheduled prior to the show.
He says he is honored to be invited to be a part of the Nashville production and will be in attendance on Saturday, although he says likes to stay out of the way of the company’s creative force and enjoys different interpretations of his work. Ticketholders can attend a preconcert talk with Morganelli and director John Hoomes at 7pm.
As far as future film and opera projects go, Morganelli has some projects in development with film as a source material, but none that sync with the actual film, like Hercules vs. Vampires. He says the work to get copyright clearance is difficult, if not impossible. When asked which film he thinks would make an excellent opera, if copyright wasn’t an issue, he hardly hesitates before giving his answer: Pulp Fiction. “I don’t know Quintin Tarantino, and I doubt it could ever happen,” he says with a laugh, “but I’ll remain optimistic.”