LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE

One of the most celebrated and unique works in Philip Glass’s recent career is his live interpretation of Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece La Belle et la Bête. Originally conceived as part of a trilogy of stage productions celebrating the work of Jean Cocteau, La Belle et la Bête, is Glass’s most challenging experiment in synchronizing music with film. For this production, Glass removed the film’s original dialogue track and score by Georges Auric and replaced it with his own musical score played live by the Philip Glass Ensemble. The dialogue is sung by four live singers synchronized with the actors in the film.

Mr. Glass has pressed his music into the mold of the movie, and produced something quite different—so different that it works extraordinarily well…This is the best sort of film music.

The New Yorker

LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE

Composer’s Note

The opera/film presentation of La Belle et la Bête began as the second part of my trilogy of theater works based on the films of Jean Cocteau. In the first of the series, I used the scenario from the film Orphée as the basis for the libretto of a chamber opera. I didn’t use the imagery of the film, allowing the staging in operatic form to attempt a new visualization of the libretto. But in this case the opera, composed with the dialogue, is performed live in conjunction with the projected film (with the original soundtrack eliminated entirely). This made the job of composing the music much more complex since the words and the voices had to be synchronized as closely as possible to the images on the screen. The third part of the trilogy was a dance/theater work based on the scenario of the film Les Enfants Terribles. In this way the trilogy represents translation of film into the live thearical forms of opera (Orphée), opera and film (La Belle et la Bête), and dance/ theater (Les Enfants Terribles). To realize La Belle et la Bête as a live opera/film event has been a dauntingly complex project and without prior experience working with live music and film, I would not have attempted it at all. However, since the mid-80’s I have presented a variety of projects involving live music and film, working with music director Michael Riesman, and sound designer Kurt Munkacsi. Specifically, I am thinking of the films Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi as well as the melodrama 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, (while not actually a film, it is based on film imagery and technology). This preoccupation with film has grown out of my appreciation of film as one of the two new art forms (jazz being the second) born in the 20th Century. In its first 100 years, the world of film has created a new kind of literature, one that the world of live music, experimental theater, dance, and even opera can draw on, just as in the past, historic novels, plays, and poems become the basis of new music/theater works.

For me Cocteau has always been an artist whose work was central to the “modern” art movement of the 20th century. More than any other artist of his time, he again and again addressed questions of art, immortality and the creative process, making them subjects of his work. In his day, it seems that this was not well understood and, at times, he was not fully appreciated. He was even dismissed by some critics of his work as a talented dilettante who never finally settled on one medium to express himself. And, in fact he worked successfully as a novelist, playwright, artist and filmmaker. However, to me the focus of this work— the creative process itself—has always been clear. And it was equally clear that he was using the various art formsto illuminate his chosen subject from as many angles as possible.

As far as film is concerned, Orphée, La Belle et la Bête, and an earlier Cocteau film, Blood of a Poet are all extremely thoughtful and subtle reflections of the life of an artist. Of these three La Belle et la Bête is the most openly allegorical in style. Presented as a simple fairy tale, it soon became clear that the film has taken on a broader and deeper subject—the very nature of the creative process. Once we begin to see the film in this way, it becomes hard to see the journey of the Father to the Chateau itself in the opening moments of the film as anything other than the journey of the artist into his “unconscious.” The Chateau itself is then seen as the very site of the creative process where, through an extraordinary alchemy of the spirit, the ordinary world of imagination takes flight (as seen quite literally in the last moment of the film). Perhaps for this reason, La Belle et la Bête has always been for me the most compelling of Cocteau’s films. This work more than any other, expresses the profundity of his thoughts and the eloquence of his artistic vision.

– Philip Glass