Night of the Living Dead: The Opera
“The story of how this work came to be is a crazy one,” Todd Goodman, who co-created the theater production, explains of the opera’s inception. “Bill Hinzman, the actor who played the iconic graveyard zombie in the original movie, approached my librettist (Stephen Catanzarite) and asked him if he thought the idea of turning Night of the Living Dead into a musical was a good one. Steve immediately told him he thought that was a horrible idea, for musical theater typically means comedy and that Night of the Living Dead was not comedic at all. He said, ‘How about an opera?’ Bill said that he didn’t know anything about opera. To which Steve replied, ‘I don’t either, but I know a guy who does.’”
That person turned out to Todd Goodman. “Steve asked me what I thought of the idea and I have to admit I was hesitant at first,” he admits. “Singing zombies? But after watching the film many times and thinking about how I would deal with such a wonderful story musically, I agreed to work on the project.”
It only took a few months before Catanzarite and Goodman had a small handful of completed scenes. “I created very rough scratch tracks of the MIDI orchestra and me singing all the parts and gave those to Bill Hinzman,” Goodman continues. “He then got them to George Romero who liked what he heard and suggested that the whole Living Dead team get behind the project. Unfortunately, Bill has since passed away and Steve and I of course dedicated this work to his memory.”
The idea of turning zombies into opera singers may sound a bit absurd at first, but librettist Stephen Catanzarite and composer Todd Goodman have found a way to unite these seemingly disparate forms of entertainment nonetheless. Although the World Premier occurred in Pittsburgh, Night of the Living Dead held a workshop production at the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York City in July 2013, and the reception was positive.
“Jim Schaeffer, who is the executive director of the Center for Contemporary Opera, said that you can tell how much an audience likes a work by how long they hang out after a workshop, and a large portion of the crowd had to be ‘kicked out’ of the space,” Todd Goodman says of the experience. “It was a fantastic evening.”
And it wasn’t just opera patrons who were excited by the performance. “There were a group of diehard zombie fans there who claimed they hated opera, but they wanted to see what this was all about,” Goodman further explains. “One woman even said she had the film memorized, line-for-line. And they all said, overwhelmingly, that they loved the piece. I think often times folks associate opera with large women in Viking helmets screaming on stage, but that isn’t at all what contemporary American opera is about. Works like Night of the Living Dead focus much of their energy on using music as a way to better involve the audience into the story, to help them connect to the characters on a level that words alone cannot do. So Night of the Living Dead has no Viking helmets, just the undead.”
Night of the Living Dead was produced by the Microscopic Opera Company, a Pittsburgh-based theater troupe founded in 2009 by Andres Cladera and Erica Olden. Viking helmets are likewise rarely seen on any of Microscopic’s stages, as the company focuses on modern-day chamber operas performed exclusively in English.
Since its inception, the Microscopic Opera Company has produced Three Decembers and To Hell and Back by Jake Heggie—who also transformed both Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick into operas—as well as Happy Garden of Life, based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, and Monkey’s Paw, inspired by the classic horror story of W.W. Jacobs. Considering the contemporary elements that comprise these past performances, Night of the Living Dead was a good fit for the company.
“Todd Goodman’s setting of Night of the Living Dead serves to involve the audience in an even deeper and more meaningful experience than that of the original movie,” co-founder Erica Olden explained of the Microscopic Opera Company production shortly before the opera’s premier. “Todd’s careful attention to text setting, combined with his agile vocal writing, works in ways both playful and riveting to bring a truly humanistic perspective to the story. Based on the pop-culture classic film by George Romero, Todd Goodman’s focus on creating a timeless piece of theater takes on a multi-dimension aspect, which is sure to speak to both opera lovers and to fans of the horror movie.”
Which was, of course, Goodman’s goal all along. “I very much tried to create a piece of art that was listenable yet intellectual, fresh yet familiar,” he says. “Night of the Living Dead isn’t about zombies, it’s about the turmoil and strife that the characters are put through in dealing with this adversity outside this farmhouse. It could have been a flock of man-eating chickens and the main idea for the story still holds. It’s just that zombies are way more fun than man-eating chickens.”
Especially in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.