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A Slightly Altered Altman

The process of turning a movie into an opera is intense.

By JANE AMMESON

In an industry where creative ambition can be scarce, where remakes are treated like originals, director Robert Altman keeps challenging his audiences, fellow artists and -- most of all -- himself. The 79-year-old takes a shot at ?remaking' by transforming his 1978 A Wedding into an opera, to be performed at the Chicago Lyric Opera December 11 through January 21. It's Altman's second opera -- his first was based on the Frank Norris book McTeague -- and the second time he's zeroed in on Chicago in recent years (Altman's 2003 film The Company followed the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet). For the operatic version of A Wedding, he once again partnered with composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein.

"Bill had been after me for ten or fifteen years to make an opera of this film," says Altman.

The process of turning a movie into an opera is intense, and the actual work, once the rights were ac-quired from Fox, took almost five years before it reached the stage.

"There were 48 characters in the film," says Altman. "We're down to around 16 by combining characters and dropping some completely. It actually helps make the piece more manageable."

Altman currently has a film about the contemporary art world, called The Paint, in pre-production, as well as several other movies, including one based on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion, which will star Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep. With all his different projects, the industrious director enjoyed spending time in Chicago rehearsing and pulling A Wedding together.

"On my days off, I was sorry that I wasn't at the theater rehearsing because I enjoyed it so much," says Altman. "It's amazing how well it's come together -- most of the libretto came from dialogue and paraphrasing in the film. And A Wedding doesn't lose anything from being almost 30-years-old. The passage of time doesn't affect it, as these types of events are timeless. We still have the distinction between old money and nouveau riche. We have many nuances that are very appreciable to today's time. A Wedding has the same type of sensibility of Gosford Park (a movie Altman produced and directed in 2001). And I think the opera is better than the film of A Wedding -- it's tighter."

Working hard is a good antidote for Altman, who finds himself dismayed over current events, especially the recent election.

"I am focusing completely on work now -- it's like burrowing in to keep my mind off other things," says Altman, who then proceeds to talk about those other things.

"I think the arts will be threatened financially, and the times will put the fear in people who are financing the films," says Altman. "It's going to get worse here. Not only is the country split, the far right will go after our freedoms, and one of those will be artistic freedom. I think we'll still have the schlock we have -- I just don't think that these smart films will survive because the financing won't be there."

It angers Altman that Hollywood produces aggressive films, and he has, in previous interviews, attributed some of the current political climate, including 9/11, to our penchant for violence in the media.

Always known as a maverick filmmaker, Altman holds nothing back when talking about his views.

"I think we're in for some very bad times," he says, "now that the president is free. He is so arrogant it borders on the supernatural. It's either you're one of us or you're against us. The vast majority of votes that George Bush got were from [the people] who are going to suffer under his policies.

"We need to become more organized," he continues. "We don't have the organization that got out the vote like the other side."

Altman, who flew B-24 bombers in the South Pacific during World War II, was against going into Iraq, and now, as the conflict continues, his feelings are even more intense.

"I lived through World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam," he says. "And the wars keep getting worse. There are so many Iraqis dead, and no one seems to care about that."

The theme and notion of war has been plaited throughout the director's career. Altman, who first started writing stories while overseas in the service and who moved to California upon returning, broke into the big time as director with the movie M*A*S*H in 1969. Up until then, the multitalented Altman, who also writes and produces, had a successful career as a director, writer and producer in television, working on series such as The Millionaire, Kraft Suspense Theater and Bonanza. He'd even done some acting before that.

Fifteen other directors had turned down the script for M*A*S*H, which, with its black humor, took a less-than-heroic look at war. Altman, who was used to directing war scenes after having worked on several episodes of the hit television series Combat, accepted the chance to direct the script. (Altman had once submitted an anti-war script for a possible Combat episode -- it was rejected. According to the Robert Altman Appreciate website, Altman responded, "What? Are you afraid that your children will grow up hating war?")

M*A*S*H won Altman a Best Director Oscar nomination, with the movie's mass appeal spawning a long running television series. Altman moved on to other successful films, including McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville and 3 Women. It was while shooting 3 Women on a hot day in Palm Springs that the idea for A Wedding came to him.

"It was very hot," recalls Altman. "It was so hot that I didn't know if I'd be able to finish the film. This reporter arrived, late, and asked me what my next film was going to be. I didn't even know if I would be able to finish this one, and like a smart ass I said a wedding. I went into lunch then, and I said, you know, that's not a bad idea."

A Wedding, which had an ensemble cast featuring Carol Burnett, Geraldine Chaplin and Mia Farrow, was like M*A*S*H, a satire full of subplots and backstories.

Though Altman can be harsh and critical when it comes to the political arena, according to those working with him on A Wedding, he's created a large family and a fun atmosphere.

"We're having the most marvelous time," says William Bolcom, who composed the music, which he describes as brimming with majestic and playful melodies and lilting rhythms that incorporate traces of sambas, blues, rags, marches, waltzes and Italian operatic comedy. "I think he is one of the great, great filmmakers. He's not autocratic. He really invites everyone's cooperation."

Arnold Weinstein is just as enthusiastic.

"He's able to work with everyone in creating this," he says. "A Wedding is similar to the Marriage of Figaro. It is a modern version, a comedy of manners, that works perfectly in our time."

As for Altman, he views A Wedding, whether in operatic or movie form -- and pieces like it -- as a way to help shape a more peaceful world.

"Hopefully there's a chance to get back to thoughtful films," he says. "Films with stories that use humor and dramatic values to deal with human emotions and get down to what people are to people. Movies set patterns, and it's important to set good ones."

Published: October 01, 2004
Issue: November 2004