William Friedkin's Latest Opera a Viennese Hit

William Friedkin The Tales of Hoffman - H 2012
Werner Kmetitsch

William Friedkin The Tales of Hoffman - H 2012

Oscar-winning director's staging of "The Tales of Hoffmann" sells out in Austria.

VIENNA-- Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi agreed on little but their unshakeable belief that opera is the expressive sum of all the dramatic arts. Perhaps that’s why, at a certain point in their careers, successful masters and mistresses of other creative endeavors -- stage, art, architecture, fashion and, more recently, film -- feel the irresistible pull of what Wagner called, “the total work of art.”

Oscar-winning director William Friedkin is one of the Hollywood artists who, in recent years, has devoted an increasing amount of his creative time to opera. His production of Richard Strauss’ Salome was a sensation during the Bayerische Staatsoper’s 2006 season in Munich and, this week, he made his Viennese debut with a magisterial version of Jacques Offenbach’s  The Tales of Hoffmann at the Theater an der Wien (The New Opera House.)

This spring, a particularly notable array of first water Hollywood and Los Angeles artists also will lend their talents to the local operatic scene. In May, sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy of the fashion house Rodarte will provide costume designs for a new Don Giovanni, the first production in Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s three-year Mozart/Da Ponte opera project.

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, who also designed the Walt Disney Concert Hall where the opera is being staged, is designing the sets -- a first in the operatic world. The Mulleavy sisters designed the ballet costumes for Black Swan and Gehry says that "Kate and Laura's work reminds me of my early days -- it is free and fearless and not precious."

Meanwhile, Friedkin’s much anticipated The Tales of Hoffmann was the talk of the European opera scene this week. The production -- based on newly discovered material -- will carry some of the dark underpinnings of Friedkin’s most famous work -- The Exorcist.

The director was aided by Portland-based set designer Michael Curry, known for his dramatic Cirque du Soleil stagings and his puppets used in The Lion King stage production. Projections and lighting effects, produced by renowned lighting director Mark Jonathan, will capture the grotesque nature of Hoffmann, showing that “the things that destroy us are within ourselves,” Friedkin told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview in Vienna.

Anticipating this week’s premiere, one European publication described Friedkin as “unsurpassed in his ability to depict the depths of the human psyche in striking images.”

Friedkin said he viewed Offenbach's work as "a precursor to Edgar Alan Poe," with his characters pulled between good and evil.

"The ultimate idea of this opera is the struggle of a man over his own nature," Friedkin told THR.

Offenbach died before he could publish a final score for The Tales of Hoffmann -- in fact, he still was working on the final scene just hours before his death -- but Michael Kaye, who is regarded as the most authoritative living scholar of the composer’s work, advised Friedkin on the current production.

The music displays the aspects of champagne with its magnificent French melodies, setting it apart from the opera's dark storyline, Friedkin said. It all works in conjunction with the production's cast of stars, including world-renowned opera singers Kurt Streit, Magdalena Anna Hoffmann, Aris Argiris, Juanita Lascarro and Southern California's own Angel Blue.

The director started work on the production in February, arriving in Vienna with his wife, former Paramount head Sherry Lansing. The two set up house in a large, luxury hotel suite, enjoying the winter in one of Europe's most historic cities.

Friends from Los Angeles took the opportunity to visit the couple during their weeks abroad. On Monday, Friedkin and Lansing were joined by many out-of-town visitors for the opening night of the opera.

This series of The Tales of Hoffmann will conclude in Vienna on April 2. But Friedken will return for a second series of shows -- with a new cast -- in July.

What continues to draw such in-demand creative professionals to the opera house? The answer is simple. Friedkin said: "Opera is the most collaborate of all the arts"