A performance of Michael Shapiro's "Frankenstein" opera in Norway. (courtesy of Michael Shapiro)

Q&A: Composer Michael Shapiro talks about his “Frankenstein—The Movie Opera”

Mark Gresham | 26 OCT 2023

This Saturday evening, The Atlanta Opera presents its Discoveries series production of Frankenstein—The Movie Opera the classic 1931 film with an operatic score by composer Michael Shapiro at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, with Shapiro conducting the Atlanta Opera Orchestra and Glynn Studio Artists.

Shapiro’s music, which spans across all media, has been characterized in a New York Times review as “possessing a rare melodic gift.” His oeuvre includes more than 100 works for solo voice, piano, chamber ensembles, chorus, orchestra, as well as for opera, film, and television, with recordings on Naxos and Paumanok Records.

EarRelevant publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham recently spoke with Shapiro by phone about Frankenstein—The Movie Opera. The Q&A below is drawn from that conversation and is edited for length and clarity.

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Mark Gresham: What is your take on the relationship between film and opera?

Michael Shapiro: Both are dramas, dramatic action. Films, stage plays, and operas. They’re all the movement of people through a scene, whether it’s love, hate, passion, horror—whatever the playwright and the director have set up.

If we go back to Ancient Greek [theater], Aristotle’s discussion of tragedy, and so forth, it’s the same issues; there’s no difference. However, opera has always [been] a heightened emotion and can often be different from what you would see in a dramatic play. Can you really set to music, a Shakespeare play? Not easily. Eugene O’Neill? Can’t be done so easily.

There are reasons for that because there’s already a lot of “music” in what them. So they add music on top of it, making it super rich, and that’s why Hamlet has been such a disaster for so many composers for so many years. But if you can somehow take the essence of the drama and convert it into something more heightened and more relevant for the viewer, seeing everything always through the viewers’ eyes and emotions, then perhaps you can create something that wasn’t already there.

For example, Frankenstein 1931 is an early “talkie” directed by the genius James Whale, with two essential actors Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. There’s a reason it’s in the top 100 American Film Institute lists. There’s no difference between what happens in the movie Frankenstein and what we would do in an operatic setting.

However, very few composers in the history of Western civilization have understood how to move people across the stage in a dramatic setting and go inside of them. We think obviously of Monteverdi. We think of Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. And in the 20th century, we think of about se of course, and maybe Peter Grimes, Porgy and Bess, and then the Broadway shows like [those of] Sondheim and Richard Rogers, and so forth.

How do we get inside the [characters] and how they’re moving across the stage? Very great musical minds have failed to do this. Schubert wrote 10 singspiels. We don’t do any of them. Schumann wrote Genoveva. These were stupendous vocal writers, but something in them did not understand the essence of dramatic music. It’s a very interesting thought: you can write great lieder, but maybe you can’t write great opera.

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So I learned from this, and from writing for TV and some films, that when you’re depicting what is going on in the movie. In the case of Frankenstein, it has no music, but that was before they figured out how to add a second soundtrack, which they did in 1933 for King Kong. But in 1931, they hadn’t yet figured it out technically.

I did not have James Whale; he died in the fifties in a pool accident. I didn’t have Boris Karloff; he had passed away. Colin Clive passed away in his thirties in the 1930s. So, these people were not around for me to spot the movie.

MG: For our readers, explain what it means to “spot” a movie.

MS: When you spot a movie with the director, you go in and talk about that 20 seconds, those 15 seconds, that minute, and the music should do this and that the director tries to tell you in their way often. Sometimes, they know what they’re doing. Sometimes they don’t. The composer has to find a way, like the great film composers like Korngold, Waxman, and John Williams have found a way in many films to incorporate what the director is trying to make happen.

Frankenstein [is] a 70-75-minute movie. Things were happening. How can I make those things not be so creaky? Because without music, the movie is kind of boring in spots. It’s like the throne scene in the original Star Wars; it’s boring without music. On the web, on YouTube, you can see the difference now with music and without music.

Michael Shapiro. (courtesy of the composer)

Michael Shapiro. (courtesy of the composer)

MG: You have written several different scores for Frankenstein without singers, for chamber orchestra, full orchestra, and wind ensemble. But Frankenstein, as a “movie opera,” is a whole new concept. How did that come about?

MS: I was asked by the Los Angeles Opera to do a new opera version of Frankenstein, the movie score. So I made Frankenstein—The Movie Opera.

MG: How did you approach that task?

MS: Well, it’s a talking movie in English with actors speaking kind of an English accent we used to call mid-Atlantic accent. So, how do I add singers to a stationary film?

I was speaking to a friend of mine who’s a famous librettist, Mark Campbell. And he just said, “I might have some ideas…” But you know, I wasn’t too happy with it because you have an English-speaking film that’s going through incredible human emotion and dramatic scenes. Creation of a monster from dead parts who has a soul. How the hell did that happen? But it did because Boris Karloff gives a soul to the monster. How did this all happen in any event?

If you have an English-speaking libretto [and you hear] “It’s alive! It’s alive!” in the movie and then the singers go, “It’s alive”? It’s would be like a Mel Brooks movie. It would be funny and campy and not what I intended because the movie, to me, is all about “the other,” and I’ll get to that in a second.

So, how did I do it? Well, in the middle of the night I thought, “How does the movie start?” It starts with a burial scene and a priest intoning [a kind of a Pig Latin] version of the requiem mass. I’ve conducted many requiem masses by the great composers over the years. So I said to myself, “Wait a minute, there’s my libretto.” So, my libretto is the Latin requiem mass. The listener will be hearing Latin [sung] under the film.

MG: Before this conversation began, I wondered how you would deal with that whole text issue. The requiem mass was what you chose. Did you have to reshuffle the elements of the requiem mass around to suit the on-screen dramatic action? Did you have to significantly modify the order of the requiem mass to suit the needs of the film?

MS: Yes, of course, somewhat. Should there be, under speaking, singing that would amplify what’s happening on the screen? For example, the creation scene when the monster is created with the electrical panels and instruments and the lightning and the thunder and all that stuff, you know, what Latin text would you have chosen for that scene? The Dies irae.

When the little girl is by the lake throwing flowers in the lake and playing with the monster, she thinks he’s just a playmate. If you remember that scene, the seven-year-old is saying, “Would you like some flowers?” And he takes the flowers, and he throws them, and he thinks it is great. And then he’s out of flowers, so he throws the little girl in the lake and drowns her. Well, when she’s learning to be with him and enjoying his company: Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, sung by a soprano over my orchestration. She’s the Lamb of God. It works.

Certain sections of the Latin requiem do not fit the film, like the Hostias. It just doesn’t work. I didn’t use it. I just used whatever I could use.

But go back to a fundamental question. What is the movie about? The movie is about not only “Now, I know what it feels like to be God,” a famous line. It’s about resurrection. He resurrects the dead and makes them living. What’s the Latin requiem mass about? It’s about resurrection. This is a direct tie-in.

There’s another theme that I want to talk to you about, which is fundamental to my entire work as a composer. That is the issue of “the other” and the fact that even though the dead tissue becomes a living thing, the villagers don’t want to know about it. They want to kill it, especially after it kills a little girl.

The monster is somewhat sympathetic because Boris Karloff makes him that way. But he’s a murderer too. And does he come from an evil brain? Probably. But he is, in James Whale’s thought, “the other,” not “one of us” as it were. And the crazy thing is, it’s a 1931 Hollywood film, but the people who burn the monster are German, it takes place in a German city with German people with German names, only eight years before the beginning of seven years before Kristallnacht and the horrors of the Second World War.

Now, we could not have known any of this, but it’s prescient in certain ways. And it is also a human rights element to this film, which I find fascinating and informs everything I write as a composer.

MG: Really?

MS: I’m very, very much involved with it. My new opera, The Slave, based on the book of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Nobel Prize-winning author, is all about human rights. It’s a love story between a Polish Jewish slave in 1652 during the time of the plague and the daughter of his Polish Roman Catholic owner. It is quite a story which I made into an opera. But that’s all about love. The acts of love between two people are much more important than pestilence, invasion, religious hatred.

All these are very big issues, but I think you cannot attack these issues in just the novel, which he greatly does. But I could see the impact in a staged opera. You can bring things into an opera setting that you can’t do, probably, in many other ways. Film is a possibility, but a live opera has a visceral impact on the human beings who are sitting there.

When we see [in Madama Butterfly] what Pinkerton does to Butterfly: He wants an American wife. Then Pinkerton beds Butterfly, gets her pregnant, abandons her, and returns with the American wife to take the kid. Really bad. Velasco did that in a play, and that’s what Puccini saw. But do we do the Velasco play now? No, we do Madama Butterfly in one of its iterations. And there’s a reason: because the music that Puccini created, especially in that first act, can get under your skin like nothing else.

So that’s what I try in everything I write: to get under people’s skin and to give them a realization that perhaps they didn’t have before they walked in because it only amplifies it. Opera can do things that very few other art forms can do to a listener and viewer. And that’s why it still has great relevance.

MG: And here we have Frankenstein—The Movie Opera, as a merger of film and stage.

MS: It’s a new art form I think I’ve created. You’ll see they just merge into each other. It’s kind of magical.

MG: What do you hope people in the audience will take away from this experience?

MS: Great question. It’s Halloween. So people coming dressed up in costume, many of them, there’s gonna be a dance afterwards in the lobby and drink and merchandise. First time. It’s ever been done.

In L.A. when we did it, we had that kind of audience. The L.A. people can dress up incredible monster costumes, like, you wouldn’t believe how good they were. So it’s going to be a festive occasion.

However, when they get to see the opera version, they’re going to say, oh my God, this is a love match; it’s not just a horror movie.

But in any event: What are they going to take away from it? They’re going to walk out saying, “Boy, that movie’s got a richness that I didn’t understand before and Michael’s score gave it a quality that I didn’t even know it was there.” And maybe a lot of them will say, “You know, I never saw that movie straight through. It’s a masterpiece.” So they come out with many different reactions. The most is enthusiasm. It gets right to their soul, because it’s about important issues facing us all.

There’s also the doppelganger thing at the end, which is interesting when they’re in the windmill. Doctor Frankenstein tries to get away from the monster. And at one point they’re in this kind of circular wind wheel that’s going around and around supporting the windmill outside. And they’re looking at each other through the windmill. James Whale, genius director, just shows their faces through this circular wheel that’s going around and around.

The doppelganger for Doctor Frankenstein is the monster. And is the monster our doppleganger? Are we looking into ourselves? It’s kind of mixed salad of love, hate, safe thoughts, murderous thoughts, you know: trick or treat. There’s more to trick or treat than just trick or treat. It has this very deeply felt resonance at the end.

MG: Some final thoughts?

MS: What a great hall we’re going to be in! Wonderful orchestra, wonderful cast[of] singers from the [Glynn Studio Artists] program. Really top-notch people. [We started] rehearsing on the 18th, and then we do our dress rehearsal the night before [we] do the show on the 28th.


About the author:
Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. He began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.

Read more by Mark Gresham.