On a cold, dark night, a man comes to visit his reclusive old friend in a remote mansion, built from the stones of its cursed predecessor. Elsewhere, a 300-year-old ghost rattles a suit of armor to a chorus of laughter. These scenes, respectively lifted from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, are brought to life in the LA Opera’s Scare Pair. Two macabre tales, both staged as operas, crawl out of their graves and onto The Broad Stage for two nights only. What results is an interesting blend of a an elegant night out and a quiet evening in with a book, tied together with beautiful set work and ambiance, all designed to make a night at the opera into an otherworldly adventure.
Scare Pair highlights two of composer Gordon Getty’s ambitious pieces back-to-back, beginning with Usher House, a somber, serious tale narrated by Eddie Poe (Dominic Armstrong) as he visits his reclusive friend Roderick Usher (Keith Phares). The two haven’t seen each other in some time, and Poe, ever the avid seeker of knowledge, has journeyed to Usher House to learn more about the historic mansion and his friend’s struggles within. What he discovers is Roderick, struggling with the weight of his family’s legacy and his expectation to continue it. As the secrets of Usher House are revealed, the set itself shifts with strange mists and ghostly apparitions, literally coming to life, thanks to unique displays from projectionist David Murakami and lighting from Nicole Pearce.
The innovative and clever set work continues in The Canterville Ghost, where Sir Simon (joyfully played by Matthew Burns) hides away in a secret chamber, cleverly obscured or visible on a whim. Sir Simon has been haunting Canterville Chase, our setting, for years; he considers haunting as an art. Unfortunately, his “art” is completely lost on the Otises, the American family that’s recently moved in to his home. The story features Wilde’s signature wit, tinged with sadness for Sir Simon’s long imprisonment within Canterville’s walls.
Aesthetically, Scare Pair is a visual treat; the projections, the lighting, the moving sets, Dave Dunning’s scenery, Callie Floor’s costuming, all united under Brian Staufelbiel’s direction make Scare Pair a classic horror fan’s ideal kind of opera. That said, Usher House is well-placed in the first half of the show; Poe’s prose is dense, and to hear Getty’s interpretation of it seemingly as actors literally singing the lines of the text (in English) can be jarring, even difficult, but the production more than makes up visually for anything left to be desired by the story’s content and execution. In fact, Usher’s positioning only serves to enhance the levity of The Canterville Ghost, the witty offering of Oscar Wilde’s novella. Poe and Wilde are so different in tone: Poe favoring the melancholic memories of his narrators, while Wilde often chooses a roguish approach, that it’s unsurprising to find the audience far more engaged with Centerville in general.
Overall, Scare Pair is a fun departure from a regular “horror”-based experience; fans of Unbound Productions’ Wicked Lit will likely find common ground with many modern opera fans here. It’s certainly neither the easiest text nor composition to absorb as an audience member, but the LA Opera is making a concerted effort at outreach to an audience who may be unaccustomed to the operatic form with this production, which serves to both pay homage to historical literature and provide a comprehendible access point for those who may be less accustomed to the literature or its musical presentation. Scare Pair is a great jumping off point for classic horror fans dipping a toe into opera and opera fans dipping a toe into horror, alike. It’s refreshing to see a blend of the two genres produced so professionally and with a mutual respect for their origins.
Though the LA Opera’s Scare Pair has closed for now, you can keep up to date with future performances in their upcoming season here. You can also follow them on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and via video clips on Youtube.