By retelling the epic of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster Grendel, John Gardner created an extraordinarily powerful and strangely modern parable in his 1971 novel. Among its early readers were life partners and frequent artistic collaborators Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor. But when the book first came out, the composer and the director-designer, both multiple award winners, were still students and had not yet met each other. Both, however, remained obsessed with it. And this summer at Lincoln Center Festival, Goldenthal and Taymor will bring their opera Grendel to the stage for four performances, July 11-16. Aside from being a lavish spectacle‹the most elaborate event ever to be staged by the Festival‹the opera's creators hope that it will open up people's minds to the possibility of multiple perspectives amidst our ongoing war on terrorism.
"I don't think there's a simple message," says Taymor. "I love the idea of taking these important values of the 20th century, and maybe the 21st century, and turning them upside down. It's not just looking at the story from the enemy's point of view. The outsider becomes us: we become Grendel. We're able to identify with him. Things that are familiar or everyday are revisited with a fresh new perspective. It's wonderful to tell these tales and give people a sense of rethinking those values that we regard so highly."
While the battle between Grendel and the empires of the Danes and the Geats was first immortalized in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf more than a millennium ago, Gardner's novel provided the impetus for both Taymor and Goldenthal to conjure a medieval world that isn't all that different from our own, at least on some levels. "Human beings haven't changed very much," muses Taymor, while Goldenthal adds: "Now we're in office buildings and we have cell phones instead of using bludgeons and living in yurts."
But, as Taymor points out, "Telling a story from the monster's point of view is not a medieval thing to do. There is a certain kind of dissension in a contemporary society that says, 'Might is not right. Religion can be contested; we're not going to be burned to death.' But that's not always true. Look at Afghanistan. And it's not like everywhere but America, or everywhere but Europe. We see this gesticulating about evil and tyrants right from the top of our country. The talk is so medieval now about evil and good, we haven't changed one iota."
One of the ways in which Taymor and Goldenthal present the monster Grendel as a character with whom audiences will immediately identify and sympathize is by having bass Eric Owens, who portrays him, sing in contemporary English. Those who are portraying human beings will mostly be singing in Anglo-Saxon, the medieval precursor to English with words that are very difficult for today's speakers of the language to understand.
"Even though he is grotesque, you are immediately drawn into Grendel's world," Taymor explains, "but the human beings are foreign and strange. He's so attracted to humans but at the same time he's not allowed in; he's an outsider. We wanted to use language as a barrier. We thought it would help the audience to identify with the monster as opposed to identifying with the human beings. And then they get to hear an ancient language‹and it's such a pleasureful thing to listen to something and not have to hang on to every word. Of course with supertitles, if they want to read the translation they can. But they don't have to."
In addition to Grendel there are several other monsters in the opera who also sing in modern English and are represented on stage by giant masses of clay and earth that are as high as 12 feet tall.
"I wouldn't really call them puppets because there's nobody manipulating them from the outside," says Taymor. "People inhabit them inside. They're giant moving sculptures. Grendel also resembles that, although in one incarnation he's human scale. He has roots growing out of his head; his body looks like it's made of fossils and clay that's been impregnated with roots and nature. The Dragon we've changed to a female. [Denyce Graves will sing the role this summer.] The mouth opens and this debauched old diva comes out on the tongue of the dragon. She is the voice of the dragon and she's in this kind of strange dress that is reminiscent of a tongue. The tail of the dragon is a trio of coloraturas‹we call them the Dragonettes‹so that she can sing in quartet as well as solo."
All in all there are ten principals, a full 48-voice chorus plus a chorus of 12 children and a total of 20 dancers who will be accompanied by a 74-piece orchestra complete with electric guitars, musique concrète, and synthesizer.
"Grendel's music is often accompanied by a saxophone," says Goldenthal, "and there are other jazz elements that you might identify that surely nudge us to think he's a more contemporary voice than the Geats or the other characters." But there are similar musical anachronisms in the music for the human characters. At one point during a court scene, Goldenthal describes the music as "remindful of hip-hop or rap." His goal was purposefully "not trying in any way to sound medieval. I'm sure I'll get hate mail from the four people in the audience who understand Anglo-Saxon." Ultimately, the music evokes a timeless otherness, a technique that involves surprising juxtapositions and that has been a hallmark of Goldenthal's entire oeuvre since the days of his compositional training with master musical polyglot John Corigliano.
While dramatic music has been Goldenthal's forte‹he has composed an oratorio, a ballet, and the sound tracks for more than 30 motion pictures including Taymor's Frida (for which he won an Oscar), Michael Collins, Batman Forever, and Interview with a Vampire‹he has never previously composed a grand opera. On the other hand, Taymor‹though probably best known for Broadway's Tony Award-winning The Lion King and the motion pictures Titus and Frida‹is no stranger to the opera house, having staged productions of The Magic Flute, The Flying Dutchman, and Salome for houses ranging from the Met to the Los Angeles Opera. Goldenthal and Taymor have previously collaborated on the musical The Transposed Heads; The Green Bird, a play with music; and the "carnival mass" Juan Darién.
"This is my first opera, but this work is as equally important to me as the oratorio Fire Water Paper," Goldenthal says of the piece that he created to mark the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
Ironically, the genesis of Grendel predates everything Goldenthal and Taymor have done together. Taymor reminisces: "At different times, we had both read Gardner and were both very much taken with his original way of looking at contemporary Western values. My final paper when I was at Oberlin was on Beowulf and Grendel. We had the idea to do this many years ago, a little bit before Juan Darién. We contemplated it as a play or as a rock opera. One time it was going to be an opera where everybody sang but Grendel. Lincoln Center said, If you want to do it as a musical, we're happy to help develop it. And we contemplated that. But finally we were encouraged by Seiji Ozawa when he heard Elliot's original 20-minute sketch for Grendel and said, You have to continue this for the opera. The grand emotions that go on in this, even though they're not traditional emotions for opera‹it's not a love story‹are really appropriate material for the forces of an opera house."
Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and the editor of the American Music Center's Web magazine, NewMusicBox.org.