It was our pleasure to interview Daron Hagen. He is the director of Orson Rehearsed, an award winning indie film project. Orson Welles' heart has just stopped. We enter his mind in this moment, on the threshold between life and death. In the bardo Orson’s thoughts unspool as a stream of consciousness that loops back on itself, like a mobius strip. Three avatars onstage in the theater of his mind are paired with three films within the film as he shuffles through his memories, loves, regrets, like a magician preparing for one last magic trick. Is he ready for what comes next?
Tell us about the inspiration behind the making of Orson Rehearsed.
My older brother and namesake Daron was literally born with a broken heart. Atresia claimed his life after only a few days. The fact that I was born barely a year later, and given his name, really shaped my conception of self. In fact, my mother admonished me to “live for two.” Several years ago, when I was diagnosed with the same hereditary condition, I reacted by throwing myself into creating Orson Rehearsed, a Filmopera about how a creative person dedicated to living an examined life might come to terms with their mortality.
For better or worse, I am devoted to lyric theater. My breakout opera, Shining Brow, which debuted in 1991 when I was 29, set me on a path that has led to the creation of three more large-scale “grand” operas and nine chamber operas, so creating an opera seemed the best course. Had Brow not led to so many creative opportunities in live theater and in the concert hall, I might have pursued a career as a film composer. Nevertheless, a film score is not an opera score, though some get breathtakingly close. There are different (and equally artistically vital) skill sets involved. The act of combining opera and cinema for Orson Rehearsed was not so much a decision on my part as an inevitability because I chose the independent auteur filmmaker Orson Welles as my avatar and dramaturgical MacGuffin.
Why were these themes in your film important to you to work on? Tell us about how the story started forming and developing for you.
In order to achieve what Verdi called “parola scenica,” I have always systematically hierarchized dramatic events in my libretti by searching for “the word that defines and clarifies the situation.” In other words, I look for the emotional and psychological events in whatever story I am trying to tell that serve as the dramatic nuclear reactors for the drama as a whole (this is what results in great theater) and underline and highlight them in a singular way.
In electing to vivisect the exact moment of a master dramatist’s death, I chose to create 52 such moments in Welles’ life. Over the course of a few months, I whittled them down to the dozen or so that together make up my Filmopera. The result on its surface seems to be scenes of equal dramatic value linked by a peculiar, entirely filmic recurring transitional bardo state—sort of a “collection of essays” about living the Examined Life. On a deeper level, though, there is an inexorable, sort of horrible progression towards death.
Talk to us about how the film went into production and the most challenging or interesting thing about the process of making the film.
First, I chose beats from Welles’ life, then I found words and images that I felt manifested them. (I storyboarded and shot three sixty-minute silent films that are coordinated with the onstage action in the live iteration of Orson.) Then I storyboarded what I needed to see in the staged version of the movie. Then I mixed the live soundtrack (which included live electro-acoustic sounds in the theater and living players). Once the staged version was in the can, I edited the film to the soundtrack using the three films as raw material for one layer of visual rhetoric (in color), the live performance footage (washed into documentarian black-and-white) as a second, and a third layer of semi-opaque images that were organically generated through the interaction of the first two layers. It took two years to edit the film—twice as long to edit the film than it did to compose it, and four times as long as it took to shoot and record it. Those two years were the most fascinating, because during that period I really learned how to edit film, and to take my thirty years’ worth of experience in the opera world and bring it to bear on that. Because, you see, I wasn’t at all interested in filming an opera; or making an opera film: I wanted to make something new that was truly a hybrid. Huge vistas of understanding that I didn’t understand a lot of things, growing through immersion, and the bliss of discovery opened up for me as a creative artist during those two years—the same doors that are probably beginning to open up now for a lot of other composers because of the pandemic having shuttered live performance venues.
What is the message of your film and who is your targeted audience?
This Filmopera is an Opera about Film about Film about Opera, just as living an Examined Life is about understanding that Art is Life, and that Life is Art and that in the end it was all simply a Process, not a finished deal. As Welles sings at the end, we’re pretty much bound to “go on singing” even though everything’s ultimately ash. It is by far the most personal piece I’ve ever created. It is a fine art piece with no aspiration to commercial viability. For what it is worth, over the past thirty years I’ve written a number of lyric-theater works that aggravate partisans by straddling opera and musical theater conventions. Here I go straddling the cinema and opera worlds to spin a yarn about a man during the moment he straddles life and death. Obviously, I hope that people will like it; but I have no idea whether they will.
Talk to us about your next film project.
I am storyboarding a Filmopera called 9/10 which takes place in an Italian restaurant in Little Italy the night before the Twin Towers fell. I will film it in a co-production by the Chicago College of Performing Arts and my own New Mercury Collective in spring 2022 in Chicago.
Tell us about the most fascinating thing about the language of cinema for you.
It is the ability to simultaneously convey multiple levels of visual imagery with language and several levels of musical rhetoric that enthralls me. This combination of cinematic and operatic techniques enables one to subvert expectations and assumptions, and to probe with even more emotional and psychological verifiability, the human condition in ways that each has the potential to do on its own but can combine to do astonishingly well together.