Buñuel's 'Exterminating Angel' Gets An Off-Kilter Screen-To-Stage Adaptation

Nov 5, 2017
Originally published on November 6, 2017 11:42 am

Imagine a dinner party that never ends. The guests can't leave. That's the premise for Luis Buñuel's classic 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel. It might seem an unlikely subject for an opera, but that's just what London-born composer Thomas Adès has brought to New York's Metropolitan Opera.

For Adès, the world of surrealism comes naturally. His mother is an art historian and a specialist in surrealism, and from the time he was a teenager Adès was a fan of Buñuel's films.

But when it came to adapting the story from screen to stage, Adès had to make some necessary tweaks. To conjure up the unseen force keeping the patrons at the party, Adès uses an early electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot. It features a keyboard, a sliding metal ring and vacuum tubes to produce eerie sounds.

To help translate the claustrophobic vibe of the original, Adès enlisted Irish director Tom Cairns. Unlike in film, Cairns says, where you can shift the audience's focus by using different camera angles, a stage production is essentially one continuous wide shot. He mounted the opera's set on a turntable that revolves during much of the evening to achieve an unsettling effect.

"While one scene is being played right downstage, everything's on the move very gently," Cairns explains. "By the time that has gone away, a whole new part of the design has come into focus." Adès' music — for example, an off-kilter waltz — heightens the anxiety.

"You can tell all is not as it should be in the music," Adès adds. "The waltz is always slithering around in its tonal center. It's almost as though the actual floor of the building is just tilting a little bit."

Buñuel expert Breixo Viejo, who teaches film at Columbia University, was a guest at the dress rehearsal of The Exterminating Angel. He enjoyed the opera but questioned the medium, with its over-the-top emotions.

"Buñuel is the anti-emotional filmmaker," Viejo explains. "So you cannot translate a Buñuel film to opera. If you want to do an opera of The Exterminating Angel, maybe [the] singers cannot sing," Viejo says. "That would be the perfect opera of The Exterminating Angel: you have 20 singers who are unable to sing."

That would indeed be surreal. But so is opera, argues Adès.

"Everything about it is not realistic," he says. "I mean, they're singing, you know? That's not real. You don't go around singing."

You don't have live sheep at a dinner party, either. But the opera does, just like the movie.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Imagine a dinner party that never ends - the guests cannot leave. That is the nightmarish premise of Luis Bunuel's 1962 surrealist film, "The Exterminating Angel." Sounds odd enough, but you can watch it now also in the form of an opera, as Naomi Lewin reports.

NAOMI LEWIN, BYLINE: For composer and conductor Thomas Ades, surrealism is all in the family.

THOMAS ADES: My mother is a historian of art and an expert in surrealism. So that was, actually, paradoxically the norm for me when I was growing up (laughter).

LEWIN: Ades grew up in London and saw Bunuel's films as a teenager when the BBC ran a whole season of them. He wanted to adapt "The Exterminating Angel" even before he composed his last opera, based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest." For him, Bunuel's characters are in a similar situation - trapped by something beyond their control.

ADES: But instead of Prospero banishing them to the island with a magic storm, there's an unseen, possibly non-existent psychological force to which they're all subject as if it was a real evil angel of some kind which doesn't let them leave - it isn't. It's just a collective absence of will.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LEWIN: To conjure the unseen force, Ades uses an early electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot, which uses a keyboard, a sliding metal ring and vacuum tubes that produce otherworldly sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Why is nobody leaving? It's almost 4 in the morning.

LEWIN: To capture the bizarre, claustrophobic vibe of Bunuel's original, Ades enlisted Irish director Tom Cairns, who's worked in film as well as onstage, to write the libretto and to direct the opera. In a film, you can shift the audience's focus by using different camera angles, but Cairns says a stage production is essentially a continuous wide shot. So he mounted the opera's set, which includes a gigantic doorframe on a turntable that revolves almost imperceptibly during much of the evening.

TOM CAIRNS: While one scene's being played right down stage, everything's on the move very gently. And by the time that has gone away, a whole new part of the design has come into focus.

LEWIN: It's meant to be unsettling, says Cairns. And composer Ades recreates that in sound with an off-kilter waltz.

ADES: You can tell that all is not as it should be in the music. The waltz - it's always slithering around (laughter) in its tonal center. It's almost as though the actual floor of the building is just tilting a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LEWIN: The dialogue in Bunuel's film is mostly low-key...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...but in setting the opera's text, Ades used music to heighten underlying anxieties.

ADES: When the hostess says, would you like a cup of coffee? Would you care to join us, Blanca? It's actually a rather desperate moment because the answer should be no, I want to go home. I don't want another cup of coffee. I'm going. So the way that line - would you care to join us, Blanca? - is sung is full-scale Soprano, high-C and has a kind of real Tosca-like desperation to you it.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing) Would you care to join us, Blanca?

LEWIN: Breixo Viejo, a Spanish-born Bunuel expert who teaches film at Columbia University, was a guest at the dress rehearsal. He enjoyed the opera but questioned the medium with its over-the-top emotions.

BREIXO VIEJO: Bunuel is the anti-emotional filmmaker, so you cannot translate a Bunuel film to an opera. If you want to do an opera of "The Exterminating Angel," maybe it has to - you know, singers cannot sing. That would be the perfect opera of "The Exterminating Angel." You have 20 singers who are unable to sing.

LEWIN: Which would certainly be surreal. But so is opera, says composer Thomas Ades.

ADES: Everything about it is not realistic. I mean, they're singing. That's not real. You don't go around singing.

LEWIN: You don't have live sheep at a dinner party either, but the Opera does just like the movie. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.