Since they had no funding for a full-length opera, Steiner decided to make a pilot, which she hoped would capture the flavor of the entire opera.

“I chopped up bits of the libretto and put them together into what I could imagine as a trailer or pilot for the animated film,” she says. “That’s almost seven minutes, which you would think would be a simple matter.”

Think again. They had to find musicians who could play the 13 different early instruments (which “go out of tune in two seconds”) and arrange for them to rehearse and record. They had to find opera singers who could handle the different roles, some of which were a tad unorthodox. They decided that Merlin should be a counter-tenor, for example, partly because he’s a bit of a cut-up in the libretto and partly because they envisioned him singing at times with Freud, a Wagnerian tenor. “So there’s Merlin, sort of dancing all over the place with sound,” notes Steiner, “and there’s Freud, sounding like Siegfried.”

The role of Queen Guenevere was a challenge for Susan Hellauer, though one she enjoyed. “It was hard to get her emotions right,” Hellauer says. “She’s very angry with the transgressing knight and gives him his punishment. But she’s good at heart, and I had to work hard not to make her sound like an evil old witch.”

When it came time to record the music, they brought the musicians and singers to Right Track Recording in Manhattan, a top-drawer studio with very talented—and very young—recording engineers. “The funniest part was watching the recording engineers’ faces,” says Richards. During a break he overheard one talking on his cell phone. “Dude,” the engineer was saying, “you won’t believe what I’m doing now.”

Hellauer remembers Richards and DeLucia (then the music director) as being “a little nervous, because the three parts were at times quite dissonant with each other. They were sweating bullets, thinking that these un-medieval sounds would make it difficult for me to overdub myself on these tracks.” In fact, she was used to that sort of thing, since “composers like Peter Maxwell-Davies also drove us delightfully crazy with dissonance, and, for that matter, so have several anonymous medieval composers. We’re so blended in Anonymous 4 that it’s often just like singing along with yourself.” And the instrumentalists? “They were absolutely smoking hot as hell.”

Starting in mid-June, the team worked feverishly to complete the basic animation in time for a screening at the ICA on July 19.

“The tight deadline may have been the hardest part,” says Hagerty, whose official role as lead animator morphed into something closer to project director and assistant director. (Since she, Rubbo, and Wulfekotte were also holding down other jobs, the result was more than a few all-nighters.)

“There were shots that I would have loved to have spent more time on, expanding upon the animation, and elements that I’m sure Wendy and John would have liked to have had in the opera that time would just not allow,” notes Hagerty, but the key thing was “for the various visual styles to be actualized, so that one might see the potential of what more time could achieve.”

“A project like this can take years to develop and produce,” points out Mosley. “I think Erinn did a terrific job with both the animation and in managing the team of animators.”

Then, after a bit of tinkering, they showed it at the New Chaucer Society meeting, a conference of international Chaucerians, along with the Poets House of New York and the New York Medieval Society.

The positive reaction of these learned Chaucerians and interested others was particularly gratifying for Steiner. “They laughed,” she says. “It’s wonderful to make people laugh.”

After all, she says: “It’s not a piece of scholarship. So to be able to go over in that way, it felt so good! It’s been a pleasure—and it’s been very hard, because the people involved all have their own agendas, and as is always the case when you’re dealing with a number of people, it’s extremely complex. I felt as if I were the chair of the English department again and managing a lot of people, and not always well.”

Thanks in part to an anonymous Maecenas, Steiner has been able to pay her team (including the musicians, vocalists, and studio personnel) for their work. But turning The Loathly Lady into a full-length feature film is a much taller order.

“Sometimes I think I should put an ad somewhere, because that’s how I got the composer in the first place,” says Steiner. “‘Wanted: Production company with lots of money, director interested in branching out.’” She and Richards are also “exploring the possibility of a stage production,” but that’s still pretty much in the light-bulb stage.

“Everything about this is for the first time,” Steiner points out. “I’ve certainly never written a libretto before; it’s just been one completely new thing after another. But what’s amazing about this project is that at every stage, it’s been, ‘How in the world do you do this?’ And then as soon as I asked somebody, ‘Can you do this?’ or ‘Would you do this?’ it’s always been: ‘Yes.’ So I have a feeling there’s a way to do this. I just haven’t figured it out yet.”

The Wife, The Lady, and the Book of Dames
by Samuel Hughes
Illustration by John Kindness

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/01/07