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'Grendel': An Operatic Monster's Tale

Monsters and humans share the stage in Grendel, a new opera that opens in New York Tuesday night. Based on the novel by John Gardner, the show tells the classic medieval tale of Beowulf, but from the monster's perspective.

Julie Taymor, the show's Tony-winning director, also co-wrote Grendel with J.D. McClatchy. In order to get the audience to identify with the monster, rather than the humans, Taymor and McClatchy opted to have Grendel sing in contemporary English while the humans sing in the Old English of Beowulf. "It forces the audience to identify with the outsider, with the monster," Taymor says.

Taymor and composer Elliot Goldenthal have collaborated together, artistically and romantically, since the 1970s. Even before they met, both were intrigued with the idea of bringing Gardner's novel to the stage. They have been working on and off on the opera for twenty years.

Co-librettist J.D. McClatchy says one major challenge in adapting Gardner's book was to take what is, essentially, a philosophical interior monologue and turn it into something dramatic. "Every chapter is geared to a sign of the Zodiac," McClatchy says. "There's a progression of investigations of various philosophies, particularly existentialism... Opera is not a particularly subtle art form. It's not going to stand for philosophical analysis."

McClatchy says part of the novel was dropped in order to focus on the monster's emotional situation. Grendel is spurred on to find his inner monster by the Dragon, played by opera star Denyce Graves as a glamorous diva who comes out of the fire-breathing mouth of a large Chinese puppet.

Bringing Grendel to life has been an epic story in itself. Getting the physical production to work has been tricky. The set broke down in rehearsal, forcing a postponement of the Los Angeles premiere at a $300,000 loss to the L.A. Opera.

Another setback occurred when composer Elliot Goldenthal fell asleep at his kitchen table while working last December. His chair tipped over, sending him crashing to the floor.

Goldenthal suffered a serious brain injury that wiped out his ability to speak. He says he regained his power of speech by singing every note of Grendel. Amazingly, despite the injury, he pressed on to meet his deadline for composing the opera.

Grendel opens at the Lincoln Center Festival Tuesday night.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.