The Elephant Man has become an iconic figure in the 25 years since the play, written by Bernard Pomerance, and the movie, directed by David Lynch. The real-life Joseph Merrick lived in late 19th-century England and suffered from a rare condition that disfigured his face and body. He eked out a living as a side-show attraction before spending his last years in a London hospital where he became something of a medical exhibit.
Frenchman Laurent Petitgirard composed his opera, "Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man," in 2002. Like the movie version of the story, the original opera production portrayed Merrick's disfigurement with a mask. But in the new staging, countertenor David Walker won't be wearing a mask or make-up. Instead he'll show Joseph Merrick's disability through limited movement. Director and choreographer Doug Varone says he wants audiences to see the true nature of the Elephant Man and not be shocked by his deformity.
"By letting David be physical with the character as opposed to being made-up," says Varone, "it allows us to see a beautiful man from the outset and our perception as an audience members see him right from the very beginning. So all we're viewing is this human being. Everything else around him is viewing deformity."
The contrast between Joseph Merrick's grotesque physical appearance and his sensitive, intelligent inner life is at the heart of Laurent Petitgirard's opera. It was this duality that first attracted the composer to the story of the Elephant Man.
"The point of view of this person gives two possibilities of look: the look of outside and the look of inside," says Petitgirard. "This perspective proves that nothing is final, nothing is so simple, nothing is black and white. It's always a little more complex."
To further suggest that complexity, director Doug Varone has added choreography to this production. His company of dancers represents Merrick's shifting emotional state.
The decision to cast a countertenor in the title role was another change. Countertenors are men who sing in a trained, falsetto voice. Composer Petitgirard originally wrote the Elephant Man for a female contralto voice.
"There was not one second of doubt" about that choice, says Petitgirard, because he feels the warmth of the contralto voice reveals the inner beauty of the character.
But Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson believes a woman portraying the Elephant Man would have been another distraction for audiences already wading through a modern opera sung in French.
"I didn't want them to have a sense of yet another hurdle," says Johnson. He imagined patrons worrying, "'Oh, it's new music. Oh, it's a difficult character. Oh, it's a woman playing a man.' So we tried to strip some of that away."
Johnson describes Petitgirard's music for "The Elephant Man" as shimmeringly beautiful and subtle.
Countertenor David Walker says it's challenging: "I've done a lot of contemporary opera and this definitely ranks in the top one or two most difficult pieces to learn. It's very taxing on the brain. On top of that we're doing physicality and drama and emotion, so I think I'm going to have a breakdown."
Walker says accounts of the Elephant Man have fascinated him since he was a child. He says even though he'll never come close to understanding what Merrick went through, he's excited to tell the story through opera.
The Minnesota Opera opens the U.S. premiere of Laurent Petitgirard's "Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man" on Saturday at the Ordway in St. Paul.