Dr. J. Mark Scearce was a graduate student in 1987 when he sat in a movie theater mesmerized as he watched Mickey Rourke, Robert DeNiro, and Lisa Bonet damage each other in a noir-murder flick called Angel Heart. Three decades later, an accomplished composer and a tenured professor at NC State College of Design, Scearce was tapped to write an opera based on Falling Angel, the 1978 book by William Hjortsberg that spawned the movie.
“I didn’t think at the time that it would make a great opera — but I thought it was great,” Scearce says of the controversial film, a cult favorite that contains bloody voodoo elements and barely escaped an X rating for sexual content, namely a scene between Bonet (still a family favorite on The Cosby Show at the time) and Rourke.
“I then went and read the book … it has a sense of humor about it, along with being creepy.”
This month, Brevard Music Center, the summer educational institute and festival celebrating its landmark 80th season, will host the world premiere of Scearce’s opera Falling Angel, commissioned by the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City. (In the group’s 30-year history, it’s only the third new work so engaged.) To do the opera, Scearce had to first contact Hjortsberg, since the author retained the rights for the book. After securing permission, Scearce hired librettist Lucy Thurber to write the lyrics. As the words were sent to him last May and June, he composed the music, finishing in July.
In the movie, detective Harry Angel (Rourke) is hired to find the missing singer Johnny Favorite, a shell-shocked war veteran who has a contract with a sinister man named Louis Cyphre (DeNiro’s classic performance resonates down to his creepy long fingernails). Angel’s search for Favorite leads him to New Orleans, where he meets a variety of interesting locals, including Epiphany Proudfoot (Bonet), the singer’s unacknowledged daughter.
However, the opera will not, like the book and film, be set in the mysterious Bayou, but in New York City. It also won’t indulge in the gore of the screen version — but the ending is enough to keep the audience wondering the characters’ surprising fate.
“This show takes you on a ride, and you don’t quite know where it’s going,” says stage director Dean Anthony, who was a student at Brevard College in 1984 and ’85. “The ultimate goal for me is to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.” Part of the challenge is streamlining the thick plot. “You don’t want the audience to work too hard to figure it out, because then the level of entertainment goes away.”
“There’s not very many operas based on a horror story, and there aren’t many operas based on a detective story,” notes Scearce. “What I’ve tried to do is make a noir opera, something black and white that’s set in the ’50s and has the feel of a detective story.” Inventive musical elements include a classic Greek chorus that articulates the detective’s dilemma, and world-music instrumentation, including the Turkish Rebab, employed during a war flashback.
Anthony says he is using mostly black-and-white costumes and lighting and creating locations with projections to keep the noir feel.
Last year, parts of the opera were workshopped during the summer festival. In a smaller hall, with just a piano, seven singers, and no costumes, half of the piece was performed. After the audience listened, they discussed their impressions with the opera’s overseers.
The full production was greenlighted.
It stars Matthew Queen as Angel, Steele Fitzwater as Cyphre, Myles Garver as Favorite, and Evelyn Saavedra as Proudfoot. Chorus members include Brevard native Jennie Moser and Rachel Anthony, a recent summa cum laude graduate of Brevard College.
This will be the first operatic world premiere for the festival, and it comes because of the six-week-long classical-music event’s new, ongoing partnership with the Center for Contemporary Opera, says Mark Weinstein, president and CEO of Brevard Music Center.
The program for students, who were chosen and cast in roles in December by Anthony, begins on June 4, and the singers should arrive knowing their parts, not only for Falling Angel but for the other two operas they’ll stage at the festival. Because the show has never been produced, performers won’t have preconceived notions about how to play the roles.
“Young singers get to see a piece created from the ground up,” Anthony says, “and not just musically and dramatically, but production-wise, too. We’ve created this show, and we’re pretty excited about it.”
Brevard Music Festival hosts the world premiere of J. Mark Scearce’s opera Falling Angel at Scott Concert Hall in the Porter Center at 7:30pm on Thursday, June 30, with a 2pm matinee on Saturday, July 2. $35-$55. See brevardmusic.org for more information.