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Flying saucers over Bayreuth! Unspeakable horrors descend on the Philharmonic! Ten words I never thought I’d write. But Plan 9 From Outer Space is being turned into an opera.
The legendary, and legendarily bad, cult film from 1957 — which Tim Burton paid tribute to in his Oscar-winning 1994 feature Ed Wood starring Johnny Depp as the Plan 9 director — will get the classical music treatment courtesy of Thai composer, and B-movie fanatic, Somtow Sucharitkul.
Plan 9 From Outer Space: A Really Grand Opera by Somtow Sucharitkul is currently in the libretto stage. Rehearsals will begin in earnest next year. Sucharitkul plans to release a teaser “suite from the opera” next fall and to premiere the full opera in 2024. Torsten Neumann, director of the Oldenburg Film Festival, Germany’s leading indie film fest, is producing.
“Plan 9 is, of course, celebrated as the worst picture ever made and a cultural icon,” Somtow said. “Movie buffs have all the lines memorized. I intend to compose the score in the spirit of Ed Wood — with utter seriousness and high moral intent, as befits the exalted subject matter about aliens saving humanity from itself — so timely in these, ah, times.”
“Of course, we’re not intending to produce the ‘worst opera’ in history,” says Neumann, “quite the opposite. The true spirit of Plan 9 comes from the utter sincerity of Ed Wood’s vision and the fact that no amount of ineptitude, or lack of money, or mishaps like the star dropping dead before shooting began [which happened to planned Plan 9 star Bela Lugosi] could dampen his optimism and faith. In a way it’s a metaphor for all filmmakers and their many-sided visions.”
Sucharitkul has proper classical credentials. One of Thailand’s foremost composers, his work includes Requiem: In Memoriam 9/11 — commissioned by the government of Thailand as a gift for the victims of 9/11 — and original operas, including Helena Citrónová, about a Holocaust survivor composed for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is currently playing in repertory at the Theater Hof in Germany; and The Silent Prince, a “Bollywood opera” on the past lives of the Buddha, the first in a planned series of 10 operas, which first opened in Houston and subsequently played in Bangkok, Brno,and Bayreuth.
You can check out the trailer for Sucharitkul’s Helena Citrónová below.
But Sucharitkul has a dirty secret: he loves bad movies. He spent the 1980s and ‘90s in Hollywood, where he reinvented himself as a science fiction novelist and occasional screenwriter for B-movie legends Roger Corman and Brian Yuzna. He even directed one: the 1989 straight-to-video horror title The Laughing Dead, recently rereleased in a 4K restoration Blu-Ray by Vinegar Syndrome.
“Funny how [my film] has gone from universally panned to a cult classic in a mere four decades,” Sucharitkul quips.
Last year, Sucharitkul wrote and starred in The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror, a Thai horror tribute in which a frustrated classical music conductor (Sucharitkul) goes insane and starts massacring his students. “It’s basically Mr. Holland’s Opus meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” says Sucharitkul.
The film had its world premiere at the Oldenburg Film Festival, Germany’s answer to Sundance, in 2021. Sucharitkul brought his youth orchestra, the Siam Sinfonietta, whose members play his unsuspecting victims in The Maestro, to Oldenburg, where they performed music for the film.
Sucharitkul’s students can also be seen in this year’s awards season contender Tár. The Siam Sinfonietta is the orchestra performing in the film’s final scene. Sucharitkul was a musical consultant on the movie.
“I have composed epic operas, written trilogies (often accidentally spilling into more than three volumes) and a novel that made the Horror Writer’s Association’s “All-time top forty” list [1974’s Vampire Junction]…but I honestly say that an operatic adaptation of Plan 9 will be the summation of my life’s work,” says Sucharitkul.
Plan 9 won’t be the first film to get the opera treatment. Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore adapted his score to David Cronenberg’s 1986 film The Fly into a two-act opera, with a libretto by David Henry Hwang, in 2008. It premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. American composer Jake Heggie turned Tim Robbins’ 1995 best picture winner Dead Man Walking into a 2010 opera, featuring a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally, which premiered at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
But given the source material, it is safe to say that Plan 9, the opera, will be unlike anything classical music has seen before.
“I won’t use a single word in the libretto that wasn’t straight from the pen of Ed Wood,” says Sucharitkul. “Whether the Bela Lugosi character will manage a plaintive, tragic aria, when he was silent (not to mention dead) during the entire production of the film…that will be a nice little Easter egg to come.”
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