- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2006

“The Exorcist.” “The French Connection.” Among the many pivotal films helmed by famed movie director William Friedkin, these two masterpieces earned him a permanent place in the Hollywood firmament as a master of the dark side. So, who possibly could have been a better choice to direct the double bill of sinister one-acts — “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and “Gianni Schicchi” — that will open the Washington National Opera’s 2006-07 season tonight at the Kennedy Center?

After all, Duke Bluebeard, the title character in Bela Bartok’s infrequently performed psychological masterpiece, is a serial wife murderer. Gianni Schicchi, the eponymous anti-hero of Giacomo Puccini’s dark comedy, is a con man who redirects the greed of others back upon themselves.

Given Mr. Friedkin’s reputation, you would expect to meet a wild-eyed eccentric attired head to toe in black. Instead, he’s a compact, elegant, yet easygoing professional comfortably dressed in impeccably tailored business casual. Behind this genial exterior, however, lies an artist of great intensity.

When he’s in the director’s seat, he clearly goes the extra mile to do his homework and develop firm concepts for character, background, motivation and action.

“Did you know that the story of Puccini’s opera was inspired by a character in Dante’s ‘Inferno’?” he asks. “Canto XXX, 22-45. The swindler, Gianni Schicchi, was a real person described in the poem, who poses as an already-dead old man in order to forge a new will. Puccini’s librettist got more material on this from a … commentary on the ‘Inferno’ published in the 19th century.”

Mr. Friedkin — who prefers to be called “Bill” — also has a strong sense of what Bartok’s notorious “Bluebeard” is all about. “People think that ‘Bluebeard’ is a horror opera, and certainly his back story is horrible,” he says. “But Bartok intended this as a psychological portrait. Bluebeard to me is a living nightmare, and the seven mysterious doors in his castle are really doors to his dark soul.”

Mr. Friedkin was born in Chicago in 1935 and remembers being fascinated by films while growing up, particularly Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” When his high school days were over, he began working in the new medium of television directing shows and documentaries.

Mr. Friedkin was drawn to Hollywood and moved there in 1965. Shortly thereafter, he directed an up-and-coming pair of singers named Sonny and Cher in his first feature film, “Good Times.”

His first monster hit, though, was the crime thriller “The French Connection” (1971). That gritty film copped numerous Oscars, including best picture and best director.

With the astounding success of “The Exorcist,” which followed in 1973, Mr. Friedkin’s Hollywood reputation was secure. Many critics hailed that film as a highly innovative revival of the tired horror genre. To this day, however, Mr. Friedkin disagrees with that point of view. So does William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel and the screenplay for the film, whose Georgetown landmarks also have achieved near-mythic status here.

Mr. Blatty was fascinated with the spiritual aspects underpinning this story of demonic possession, which was based on a true incident that occurred in Maryland in the late 1940s. Mr. Friedkin himself “never viewed it as a horror film, but as a film exploring the psychology underlying a system of belief.”

In 2000, he released a new, hot-selling DVD of the film that restored roughly 12 minutes of footage that had been cut from the original release to keep the running time more reasonable. He still stays in touch with author-screenwriter Blatty. “He moved from California to Bethesda a few years ago,” Mr. Friedkin says, “so his children would have the opportunity to attend school here.”

Mr. Friedkin was drawn into directing opera by his friend Zubin Mehta, whom he has known for years. “He suggested to me around 1990 that I direct opera,” he says. They discussed the matter, and Mr. Friedkin eventually found the gloomy, modernist operas of Alban Berg quite to his liking.

After conducting a good deal of research on Berg, he agreed to direct “Wozzeck” for Mr. Mehta. They staged the work in Florence in 1998 to considerable acclaim, which didn’t escape the notice of Placido Domingo.

Mr. Domingo approached Mr. Friedkin to direct a pairing of “Bluebeard” and “Schicchi” for the Los Angeles Opera in 2002. “The pairing was Placido’s idea,” Mr. Friedkin says. “He thought that doing Bartok’s psychological thriller and Puccini’s only comedy in one evening would be intriguing, and I agreed.”

Curiously, both operas had first been performed in 1918.

Mr. Friedkin says he felt blessed by Mr. Domingo’s choice of two top opera stars to sing the leading roles in “Bluebeard.” Bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, whose operatic portraits of the devil have become legendary, was cast as the sinister Bluebeard, while Washington’s own mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves sings the role of Judith, Bluebeard’s current wife.

Both are “fabulous singers, wonderful actors. They’re iconic for these roles,” says Mr. Friedkin, who says he is thrilled that the singers are again united in the WNO production.

Mr. Friedkin’s concept of “Bluebeard” has evolved since the Los Angeles performances. The spirits of Bluebeard’s former wives will be suggested by fantastic puppets “created by Michael Curry, who created costumes for the stage version of ‘The Lion King’ and has made costumes for the Cirque du Soleil,” according to Mr. Friedkin.

Mr. Ramey also will sing the title role in “Gianni Schicchi,” as he did in the L.A. production. “But the rest of the cast is different,” Mr. Friedkin says. “They are all wonderful, wonderful singers, and I know people will enjoy them. I think they will find this a very interesting evening of opera. Both works probe the darker aspects of the soul, but the comedy of “Schicchi” should create an entirely different mood when the audience returns from intermission.”

After this week’s opening performances of “Bluebeard” and “Schicchi,” Mr. Friedkin plans to attend the Fantastic Fest in Texas, a film festival highlighting science-fiction, horror and fantasy flicks (Sept. 21 through 28). It’s there that his newest film, “Bug,” will have its U.S. premiere.

“Bug” already has been honored at the Cannes Film Festival with the Director’s Fortnight award. It’s a small-budget indie effort, according to Mr. Friedkin. The cast includes Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon and Harry Connick Jr.

“While the film has its terrifying moments, I believe that it’s more of a psychological thriller, a character study of paranoia,” Mr. Friedkin says.

“A lonely and vulnerable person gets into a relationship, and each feeds off the other’s paranoia. It’s the most intense thing I’ve ever done, but I don’t want to give away any more of the plot. We filmed it for only $4 million in New Orleans just a couple of weeks before Katrina, and the cast did it for scale.”

The film is slated for general release during the upcoming holiday season.



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