'La Belle et la Bête' — Opera Parallèle merges Philip Glass score with Cocteau's classic film

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday July 5, 2022
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A still from the 1946 Jean Cocteau film, 'La Belle et la Bête'
A still from the 1946 Jean Cocteau film, 'La Belle et la Bête'

The curtain rises on one of San Francisco's most exciting arts events of the year next week as Opera Parallèle presents the world premiere of its innovative take on "La Belle et La Bête" (Beauty and the Beast).

The richly layered multimedia spectacle is the latest link in a remarkable chain of inspiration and influence that began with a French fairy tale published in the 1700s. The original has been imbued with queer subtexts since a landmark 1946 film adaptation by the gay French surrealist Jean Cocteau, who triple-cast his hunky lover Jean Marais as beast, prince and serf, poetically toeing the lines between romantic ideals and primal sexuality, hidden desires and honest expression.

Cocteau's film —which had a significant influence on the Disney animated and live-action versions— was revisited in 1994 by composer Philip Glass, who created an alternate soundtrack, replacing the lush original score by Georges Auric with his own pulsing minimalist compositions and transforming the spoken dialogue into song (a process described by Opera Parallèle concept designer Brian Staufenbiel as "reverse lip syncing.")

Leaping between stage and screen

Prior to the opening of Opera Parallèle's production, performances of the Glass version —billed as an opera— have consisted of a silent projection of the film with live instrumental and vocal accompaniment by an ensemble gathered in the shadows beneath the screen. But, at Glass' own suggestion, this new iteration makes the boundary between stage and screen more porous.

The main cast of Opera Parallèle's 'La Belle et la Bête': soprano Vanessa Becerra, baritone Hadleigh Adams, soprano Sophie Delphis, and baritone Eugene Brancovean  

"Our performers aren't just singing the parts," explained Staufenbiel in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "They're acting them. Sometimes you'll see them perform in front of projected scenes. We've created costumes to match the ones in the film. We've also done green-screen filming of the actors, so there are times when you'll see them within the Cocteau film. There's a lot of back and forth."

"This is unlike anything I've ever been a part of," said baritone Hadleigh Adams, who spoke at a panel discussion about the production held at The Academy social club in the Castro last week. Adams, a gay man, explained that he is enthralled by the content of the show as well as its form, tearing up as he drew connections between his own feelings as a closeted youth and the pain experienced by the Beast character.

"There's this scene where the Beast realizes that, despite his kindness, Belle and the other humans can't see beyond the aspects of him that are scary and unfamiliar to them. He sings "Je suis un monster, mais mon coueur est bon" ["I am a monster, but my heart is good"]. To me, that's the essence of the whole story, to be able to see the heart of a person regardless of anything else."

Celebrating complexity
The delightfully digressive panel discussion, which also featured ethnic studies professor Dr. Nicholas Baham, Opera Parallèle community engagement ambassador Michael Mohammed and surgeon Ellie Zara Ley of the Gender Confirmation Center, introduced some of the multifaceted, multicultural interpretations of the "Beauty and the Beast" story, from Baham's reading of the Beast as a Black man; to Zara Ley's musing on the act of transformation, and whether changes in exterior appearance are a necessary part of expressing one's authentic identity; to the fact that Cocteau's queer sensibility made its way into the live-action Disney movie ("I think its worth discussing that the gay character is named Le Fou [The fool]," jibed Baham).

The panel audience laughed aloud when Baham described the overall plot as "A male character imprisons a woman assuming that while being his hostage she will eventually fall in love with him."

"Oh no!" interjected Zara Ley. "I'm a big fan of the Disney. Don't ruin the movie for me!"

Rather than besmirching any past versions of "Beauty and the Beast," Opera Parallèle's Staufenbiel says he hopes this latest spin on a time-honored story deepens and complicates our perspectives not only on one particular fairy tale, but inspires us to appreciate the ways in which artists across media can interpret and build upon each others' visions over time.

"We are working with the prior versions," he said, "Not working against them."

Opera Parallèle has made a recording of the Academy panel discussion and a library of other resources about the history and queer interpretations of "La Belle et La Bête" available on the company's website.

'La Belle et La Bête' July 14-17 at SF Jazz Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin St. $55-$135. (866) 920-5299. www.operaparallele.org

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