Making it count: Ottawa’s Kevin Reeves creates an opera based on Nosferatu

The German actor Max Schreck played the vampire Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu.

Nosferatu is a German expressionist silent horror film made in 1922 by F.W. Murnau. It tells of a vampire named Count Orlock in what is essentially a rip-off of the original story by Bram Stoker. The film was first seen in North America in 1929. And now, in Ottawa, the vocal ensemble Seventeen Voyces will be performing a comic opera written by Kevin Reeves, the choir’s artistic director. ARTSFILE couldn’t resist asking the creator about his new work.

Q. Tell me why you are doing a comic opera based on Nosferatu

A. Count Orlok as a character isn’t comical, but the rumours perpetrated by those who witnessed the actor as Count Orlok inspired this opera. Many people truly believed F.W. Murnau had found himself a real live (?) vampire. In fact, German actor, Max Schreck, (whose name literally means ‘terror’) who excelled in portraying creepy and eccentric roles, played Orlock.  During the making of the film, Schreck stayed in character — refusing to step into the sunlight — brooding in the shadows instead, while the Slovak extras eyed him suspiciously from a distance.

While writing the libretto, I placed myself in the shoes of all those involved in the making of the film, and what their reactions to this macabre, cadaverous figure might be.

Q. Do you have an affinity for German expressionist film from the 1920s?

A. I do, and to prove it I’m presently filming a comedic short in that style. It was German expressionism that changed the whole look and feel of Hollywood and international films from the 1920s onward. It must have been awkward and strange in those days when Hollywood producers — all of them Jewish from Russia and the Ukraine — coaxed German directors and cinematographers to California because of their incredible craftsmanship and aesthetics.

It was the precursor of Film Noir — lasting through to the black and white films of the 1960s.  Hitchcock regularly traveled to Germany (he was completely fluent in German) from the 1920s on to learn from those filmmakers. Murnau and Fritz Lang were the most celebrated at the time. There would have been no Hitchcock ‘style’ without German expressionist film, Hitchcock is my favourite director.

Q. Do you like horror films?

A. One of my favourite movies is The Exorcist directed by William Friedkin. It holds up to this day. I actually had a chance to work with British cinematographer Billy Williams, who shot the opening scenes in Iraq, which to my mind are practically flawless. One can sense the strong documentary style in that whole opening sequence. It was a unique movie for its time; nobody had seen or heard anything like it. I also had a wee crush on Linda Blair — which probably explains more about my personality than I’d care to admit. 

Another horror movie I admire is John Carpenter’s The Thing starring Kurt Russell. It became an instant classic in the genre and is one of the most intense movies I’ve ever seen on the big screen. The spectacular practical effects by Rob Bottin (hospitalized due to exhaustion once the film was done) will leave your jaw on the floor. 

Q. Tell the story of your opera. 

In a nutshell, the director Murnau and his cameraman have begun shooting Nosferatu in a Slovak castle with local townspeople as extras. The three leads arrive on set and start shooting (parts of the actual film will be projected on a screen during the performance) and begin to notice the consternation of the extras once Max Schreck appears. Murnau makes matters worse when he and his cameraman perpetrate the rumour that their lead is the real thing. But the tables are turned on the film crew when Frances Stoker — widow of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula — appears with lawyer in tow, threatening to close down the production over plagiarism. Stoker actually won a court case in 1928 and completely ruined the film company. Nosferatu was their only film and all copies were ordered destroyed. But some survived.

Q. Tell me what people will see this weekend on the stage?

A. What they won’t see is singer Luc Lalonde under all the Count Orlok makeup. He will have completely vanished thanks to Michel Pennington’s prosthetics and spray gun. Luc may reappear at a local pub surrounded by his fellow cast members following the second performance.

I’m happy to say all the singers involved are locally grown. Five of the six leads studied voice at the University of Ottawa: Corey Arnold, tenor; Ryan Hofman, baritone; Rachael Jewell, soprano; Grayson Nesbitt, tenor; Luc Lalonde, baritone, and Kathleen Radke, soprano. Seventeen Voyces — 11 in this case — play the Slovak extras.

The instrumentalists are Adam Nelson and Maria Nenoiu, violins; Kevin James, viola; Jean-François Marquis, cello; Roxanne Léveillé, clarinet and Andrew Ager, harpsichord & piano.

Q. Does horror make for good opera?

A. I’m the worst person to talk about opera because my exposure to it has been spotty;  it took me a long time to appreciate even the most famous operas. Having said that I really enjoy most of Benjamin Britten’s operas — one of which is Turn of the Screw based on the Henry James story. When performed well it can be as chilling as anything you’ll ever witness on stage.

Q. Ottawa is bereft of an opera company. Is this the start of something? Are you looking to do more of these?

A. Seventeen Voyces’ bank account will be the judge of that, but when it comes to the arts, Ottawa is inscrutable. I have difficulty knowing what it wants, likely because audiences here are small, yet diverse, but have too many choices. There will always be a disparity between our world-class National Arts Centre, and the myriad grass-roots organizations, struggling to stay alive. If we have a good response to Nosferatu I’d happily take on another opera.

Q. Do you think opera can work in Ottawa?

A. It depends on the scale. Since the demise of Opera Lyra, a handful of little productions have popped up — especially Pellegrini Opera. Next Halloween, Andrew Ager’s opera Frankenstein will be presented at Dominion Chalmers which is probably comparable in budget to mine. On the other end of the scale, I know the National Arts Centre is not in a position to produce large-scale opera — the recent Louis Riel being a one-off for Canada’s 150th anniversary. Otherwise, the whole enterprise is just too risky, and Ottawa simply doesn’t seem to have the fan base to sustain it.

Seventeen Voyces presents Nosferatu
Where: Glebe St. James Church
When: May 31 & June 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.