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Behind The Scenes: San Diego Opera’s ‘Pagliacci’

Opera and Horror Going Hand In Hand

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes of San Diego Opera's "Pagliacci" to explore horror in opera.


San Diego Opera kicks off its 2014 season this weekend with “Pagliacci" (at the Civic Theater) and the story plays out like a classic horror film.

Opera can be scary. Imagine being the first audience to see “Pagliacci” in 1892 and wondering if the tenor losing his temper on stage was losing it for real or just as the character of Canio.

"One of the cool things about this play within a play in 'Pagliacci,'" says San Diego Opera's Dr. Nicolas Reveles, "is the fact that we also watch the onstage audience, the villagers, who are trying to enjoy this play, and see Canio begin to break character and they’re not quite sure whether it’s part of the performance or whether it’s really him."

Reveles is the Geisel Director of Education and Outreach for San Diego Opera. He’s also a horror fan who wanted to discuss “Pagliacci” with Miguel Rodriguez, director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival.

"That’s where the horror element comes in," Rodriguez says, "What I think is interesting, psychologically in the opera is this idea of the turmoil happening at the worst possible moment, when it’s most public."

"And it's scary," Reveles adds, "These emotions are so huge that it frightens us, we back away from it, and yet we’re attracted because we know that deep down we feel those things too."

“Pagliacci’s” story of Canio the clown flying into a jealous rage over his wife’s infidelity was supposedly ripped from the headlines. But audiences were not yet accustomed to “verismo” or realistic operas in which the characters were ordinary people just like the ones in the audience.

"The fact that this could really happen possibly, that’s what /starts to get people feeling fear and terror," Rodriguez points out.

Add to that composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s use of the ominous tritone, which tenor Frank Porretta says was once forbidden from use in religious compositions because it was thought to be of the devil.

"The music in this ["Pagliacci"] is incredibly tense to begin with, it starts with incorporating the tritone, and they called the tritone the Devil’s pitch because it sounds… [sings example so listen to audio to hear what it sounds like]… like it wants to resolve. It is very ominous sounding and so, yeah, the music, the score really lends itself to tremendous tension in this because it displays that emotional content."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Cory Weaver

Tenor Frank Porretta as Canio in "Pagliacci."

Opera is especially good at heightening that emotional content precisely because it is driven by music says Reveles.

"It makes the fright, the horror, the comedy, the drama, all that more clear to an audience and all that more powerful," Reveles says.

Porretta points out another scary element in “Pagliacci” – clowns. The horrific ending comes when the main characters are dressed as clowns and performing a commedia dell’arte show meant to entertain the villagers.

"There is this underlying fear of clowns,' Porretta says, "I think a lot of that comes from the idea of the innocence of of the idea of a clown, it’s a childhood thing, it’s supposed to be fun and funny and cute and lovable and the idea that something dark can come out of that is grossly terrifying because you are open to the fun and love and so you put your defenses down and the clown comes in, if something aggressive comes out of that then that is probably more scary because you’ve disarmed yourself."

Opera thrives on tragedy and characters in extremis, which prompts this comparison from Rodriguez: “For example, what are the objectives of a good horror story or a good terror story? And if one of those objectives is to have the audience come to terms with or experience something that would be unwanted in reality, as a way for catharsis, if we are going to go back to tragedy, then the purpose of tragedy was catharsis. If we start to look at that, we can see a huge connection between horror and tragedy, and I would say that tragedy is very similar to horror in that way and that starts to expand my definition of what horror is, what it can do.”

Porretta says blood and gore may not be what opera generally serves up but horror can be a key component.

"When you talk about horror like 'Psycho,' like some of the classic horror films, the kinds of stress and tension that you experience where you can feel palpitations and maybe you break a sweat in a moment while you are watching, yeah you can have that in opera absolutely," Porretta states.

“Pagliacci” takes characters in the throes of jealousy and passion, places them in a public setting at the moment they are about to crack, and plays it all out in near real time. It’s the kind of story Reveles loves.

"I mean that to me is a great formula for horror."

And perhaps that’s why people keep coming back to see “Pagliacci,” it speaks to something very primal and universal.

San Diego Opera’s production of “Pagliacci” opens Saturday and runs through February 2 at the Civic Theater.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: MGM

Lon Chaney, Sr. in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" inspired by the opera "Pagliacci."

Companion viewing: "Laugh Clown Laugh" (1928)

"A film that has definitely gotten a lot of inspiration from 'Pagliacci,'" Rodriguez says, "is 'Laugh, Clown, Laugh.' Lon Chaney, Sr.’s film where he actually plays an actor who is playing Canio in the opera 'Pagliacci,' and experiences some psychological trauma himself that builds and builds and builds to a conclusion at the end and what’s really interesting is the stories don’t follow exactly parallel, but a lot of the beats do."

'Pagliacci's Influence on Film


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