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Dorothy Papdakos is known for her silent film programs. The Kansas City Symphony is presenting the 1929 silent film classic “Phantom of the Opera” starring Lon Chaney. Papadakos will improvise at the console of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. while the film is shown giant screen in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets from $25. Select your seat here or call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400.
Tell us about yourself. When did you start performing the organ for silent film classics? I learned how to improvise for silent films while I was Cathedral Organist at NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine from the legendary theater organist Lee Erwin who played silent films there every Halloween. I sat up at the organ watching him, taking it all in at the master’s feet. By then, Lee was in his 90s! One year he didn’t feel well and at the last minute they threw me on! I had two days to compose musical cues for a double feature of “Phantom of the Opera” in front of 3,500 people. I was terrified — my improvisations were “liturgical,” and I’d never improvised in the harmonic language of a silent film. But I dove in … Lee coached me over the phone on how to write good musical cues for my characters … 30 minutes into the first performance something inside me broke free, and I’d never felt freer in my improvising or at the organ. It’s an incredible feeling I still get in every silent film performance. Each show is utterly new and different. I never get bored!
How do you prepare? Do you watch the film many times?
Improv is best when it’s fresh and I’m on the edge of my seat, so I rarely preview a film once I’ve learned it. When we do screen check, I get to see some scenes, but I prefer seeing it fresh each time. I do study the scene breakdown and cue sheet on the plane flying to a gig, but my biggest preparation is registering a venue’s organ — choosing sound combinations to match the scenes and setting my pistons (the organ’s computer memory).
How does the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ compare to other organs you play? What is the process for becoming acquainted with an instrument when you travel? Helzberg Hall’s magnificent 5,548 pipe Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ is a genuine masterpiece! I LOVE playing this instrument because it goes wherever I need it to musically in any moment of a film — from loud and spooky to sparkling and charming — it has lots of what we organists call “toys and heavy artillery” on board! Getting acquainted occurs over hours of listening to each stop and combining sounds. Every film is different, so each year the sound combinations are different.
What part of “Phantom of the Opera” is your favorite and why?
I love the scenes where Carlotta brings down the chandelier, when the Phantom takes Christine on his gondola into his lair, the Masked Ball and when the inspector and Raoul search for Christine in the dungeons under the Opera House and get trapped. Universal’s 1929 re-issue of the 1925 original feature was brilliantly edited by the film’s star, Lon Chaney, down to 92 minutes and the action never stops. These scenes in particular are emotionally charged and the audience and I are right in there with the characters. I think this is why this film is so popular — together we all go on an exciting emotional ride of humor, suspense and romance with a profound subtext about “the outsider cast from society” are what makes this film so enduring and such a satisfying experience.
Since this film is presenting near Halloween, do you have any Halloween traditions? What do you find spooky?
My annual Halloween Horror Tour has become my Halloween tradition! In fact, I’ve become a Halloween tradition in many places … Dorothy coming to town with her costumes and creepy friends Nosferatu, the Phantom, Quasimodo, Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde. For me, spooky is a delayed or cancelled flight on tour! I love graveyards, full moons and pumpkins … though I’m pretty sure I never want to run into Nosferatu. THAT’S scaaaary.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
This Christmas my new Young Adult (11-14) sci-fi adventure book “The Kingdom of Winter” is being released! It’s book No. 1 of the “Kingdoms of the Seasons” quartet, and it’s already getting lots of great attention. It’s nature’s four seasons like you’ve never experienced them! Also in development, I have a terrific new TV drama series, “The Golden Door,” about Ellis Island’s incredible team who managed the largest migration in human history of 12 million immigrants. And, on top of it all, my fun musical “Bacchus” is also in development!
If you have any free moments while visiting Kansas City, is there anything particular you plan to do outside of the concert hall?
I have dear friends who live in the area, and we always get together for a lovely meal. I love Kansas City’s jazz history since jazz is how I learned to play the piano and improvise. Maybe I can catch a set somewhere!
After KC, where are you headed next? What are other highlights for your 16/17 season? From here I go to St. John’s Cathedral in Denver to play “Nosferatu,” then to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco for a double feature of “Nosferatu” (two in one night!). Both venues have spectacular, huge organs and acoustics, much like Helzberg Hall, so I feel very lucky to get to perform in all these wondrous buildings. Two really special treats coming up for me are performing “Phantom of the Opera” in Singapore in 2017 and a tour of “Phantom of the Opera” in Japan (TBD), which means translating the film for the first time ever into Japanese! Won’t that be cool to see!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to perform “Phantom of the Opera” in Helzberg Hall! I can’t wait to be with you all again and see your costumes — as I discovered the last two seasons with “Nosferatu” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Kansas City loves their horror movies and ROCKS!
Don’t miss “Phantom of the Opera” with Dorothy Papadakos at the console of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ on Thursday, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. while the film is shown giant screen in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets from $25. Select your seat here or call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400.
1. Tell us about yourself. When did you start playing the organ? When did you decide to pursue music as your career?
I started piano at age 9 in Reno, Nev., with a marvelous teacher who moonlighted as a jazz player in the clubs. When I was 11, he started teaching me jazz, how to read lead sheets of the great jazz and Broadway standards, and how to improvise off charts and invent my own spontaneous music. Five years later he died suddenly, and at age 16, I was utterly bereft. One Sunday in church I heard the organ going and started lessons … just four years later I would find myself a student at Barnard College and improvising a few blocks away on Friday nights at the world’s largest gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC, for Night Watch, a program where teens from across the nation would come for weekend retreats. I studied classical organ repertoire and earned my master’s degree in organ at the Juilliard School and then became the assistant organist at St. John the Divine. That’s when I learned how to improvise for silent films, from the legendary theatre organist Lee Erwin who’d come play a movie there every Halloween! Three years later in 1990, I was appointed head cathedral organist, the first woman in history, and I held that post for 13 years until 2003 when I moved into music theatre.
2. Are you performing a lot of silent movie concerts these days? Have you seen an uptick in interest for these types of performances in recent years?
There’s a HUGE uptick, yes! Silent movies haven’t been this popular since their golden era in the 1920s. My Halloween Horror Tour this year is eight cities in four weeks, and I have all kinds of gigs booked already into 2016 and 2017, including screening Charlie Chaplin shorts at next year’s American Guild of Organists National Convention in Houston, Texas! Charlie Chaplin at a national organist convention — I think that may be a first! It’s all about showcasing the art of improvisation.
3. What are you most looking forward to as you return to play the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ for the second time and your second Screenland at the Symphony concert?
I absolutely love the spirit, personality and power of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ. When I played “Nosferatu” at last year, I was so energized and inspired by its evocative and hauntingly beautiful sound combinations as well as the thunderous whomp it delivers! It shakes my bench up there! I also love the feel of the console six stories up — it’s like you’re floating out there over the stage in all that sound. It‘ll be terrific to see the whole Kansas City Symphony gang again, too!
4. How do you prepare for a silent film performance? In your opinion, does a silent film performance require more energy or endurance than a traditional organ recital?
Improvisation is best when it’s fresh and I’m on the edge of my seat, so I rarely preview a film once I’ve learned it. I have my scene breakdowns and cue sheets that I study on the plane flying to a gig, but the biggest preparation is registering a venue’s organ, choosing the sounds I like, and setting the memory combinations, the pistons. The cue sheets — all my silent movie scores are original material I’ve composed — are just like films and TV shows today where major characters each have his/her own theme, or “hook,” which I then improvise off of throughout the film. Since there’s no talking, the themes have to do the work of conveying the character’s interior world, dilemmas and action. Cues vary in length from as little as two bars to 16 bars.
Yes, silent film performance is an endurance test! A genuine marathon of non-stop improvisation, usually for 90-plus minutes for the horror films. In organ repertoire recitals, you get a break between pieces, even sometimes take an intermission. But when accompanying a silent film, you’re having to generate fresh new musical ideas non-stop to keep it interesting for the audience on the journey of the story. Because it’s such a test of endurance, improvisational ability, and quick adaptation to any kind of organ, there aren’t many of us who do it. But those of us who do accompany silent films professionally LOVE it. I know for me it’s one of the most freeing and creative musical experiences I have … it’s always different, every audience is new energy, every organ sings and plays differently, and I’m different each show with new musical ideas — I never get bored! To me the thrill is discovering in performance what’s inside me, inside the audience and the organ, moment to moment, in the synergistic four-way relationship triggered by the actors on screen.
5. Even though you improvise during the film, are there specific scenes where you’ve already pre-planned a special effect or to play a certain passage? Will you sample famous organ works throughout any of your improvisations? If so, what melodies or pieces might be featured?
I learned long ago you can’t pre-plan anything in improvisation. It never goes the way you planned! … because you’re not who you were when you wrote the pre-planned effect and in front of an audience everything changes. I have to enter each performance in complete surrender to the new moment and trust my bag of tricks will be there if I need it. I’m often asked if I using a cue sheet is it really improvisation. The reason for the cue sheet is to remember which pistons/preset sounds go with each cue — every organ is different and with all the gigs I play, there’s no way to remember which buttons to push. Also, no cue ever works/sounds/plays the same way on any two organs!
My dear mentor, legendary silent film organist Lee Erwin, told me that to truly accompany silent films the right way, which is to tell the film’s story and heighten the drama, you compose your own original themes that you think convey the emotional subtext and action of a scene. The only film where I do a direct quote of a popular piece of music is in “Phantom of the Opera,” where, in homage to Lee’s memory, I play his “Masked Ball Theme,” which is his marvelous rendition of the French Can-Can. I then improvise off it after the initial 12-bar quote. I tell my students the main reason silent films often don’t land in performance is that accompanists insert pop tunes, or even bad musical jokes, that have nothing to do with the story, characters or dramatic action of the moment. Instantly, the audience is jolted out of the film and shifts their focus onto the performer. It also diminishes the film’s power and integrity as well as your authenticity as the aural storyteller. Lee always told me, “If you do your job correctly, the audience forgets you’re there — audiences know when you’re with the film or faking it!”
6. Do you have a favorite part of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?” If so, which part do you like best and why?
I love how brilliantly John Barrymore performs Dr. Jekyll’s first transformation into Mr. Hyde, without makeup, all in one take. It’s pure theatrical genius! I also enjoy the film’s variety of locations, from London music hall to opium den to laboratory to high society parlor — it gives me the opportunity to create fun different styles of music for each one, like vamp music for Gina and the music hall, Chinese music in the opium den and Dr. Jekyll’s theme in his laboratory. OK, the spider scene is pretty cool, too!
7. Can you reveal anything about your costume? Or is it a surprise? 🙂
A dear friend who makes costumes for the film industry in Wilmington, N.C., created my gentleman’s cape and trousers and we’ve pieced the other bits together. The main considerations for my costumes are fabric and comfort at the organ (it gets hot playing for 90 min!) … and that’s all I’ll tell you!! 🙂
8. What’s up next for you — any big concerts or tours coming up?
My musical BACCHUS (the first musical ever about wine!) is my 24/7 focus as my Broadway producer and I develop it for production. But from Oct. 16 through Nov. 13, I’ll be in “Halloween Horror mode” with my creepy cool friends “Nosferatu,” the “Phantom,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” On Halloween night, I’m playing a “Phantom of the Opera” double-feature at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, hosted by San Francisco Jazz — everyone will be in costume … it’s Halloween in SF!
9. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity to perform “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in Helzberg Hall! I can’t wait to be with you all again — as I discovered last year, Kansas City audiences love their horror movies and they ROCK!
To learn more about the Screenland at the Symphony: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” concert at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29 featuring guest organist Dorothy Papadakos, visit the Symphony ticket page here. Tickets start at $25. Wear a costume and be considered for the Symphony’s costume contest prior to the concert! Prizes will be awarded to first, second and third place winners.
This year’s Screenland at the Symphony Halloween concert features John Barrymore — patriarch of one of the great American film-acting dynasties — as the protagonist in the silent-film adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The story itself is one of great intrigue. Dr. Jekyll, criticized for his dispassionate manner, becomes fascinated with the idea of two personalities residing within one person. He then embarks on a “scientific” journey not only to discover this other side of himself, but to give it a life of its own in the form of an alter ego, Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, this extreme “evil twin” becomes dominant, leading inevitably to the good Dr. Jekyll’s demise.
While many have attempted to bring this famous character to life on screen over the years, it was Barrymore who most genuinely captured the grotesque spirit of Stevenson’s character. And although he adapted to “talking pictures” quite well, Barrymore always will be remembered for his work in silent films and especially the performance you will see tonight.
John Barrymore was the son of actors and the brother of Lionel Barrymore, who many will recognize as “Mr. Potter” in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” His sister, Ethel Barrymore, was considered one of the finest actresses of her time, and he was the grandfather of modern cinema star, Drew Barrymore. Barrymore was often referred to as “The Great Profile” due to his handsome features and incredible popularity. His life — and death — are the stuff of Hollywood legend. It is rumored that after his passing at the age of 60, Barrymore’s buddies Errol Flynn and director Raoul Walsh commandeered his corpse and had a final drink with him at Flynn’s home before his funeral.
Regardless of whether you believe the legend, tonight, we have a rare opportunity to watch a true master of the silent-film era on the big screen. The music, courtesy of Dorothy Papadakos and the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ, will make it once in a lifetime.
To purchase tickets to the Thursday, Oct. 29 Screenland at the Symphony: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” performance featuring organist Dorothy Papadakos, call the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select your seat online.
Editor’s note: The Kansas City Symphony presents Screenland at the Symphony: Disney Fantasia Live in Concert on May 15-17, 2015. Learn more.
Walt Disney released “Fantasia,” his third feature-length cartoon, in 1940. As with previous projects, innovation played a key part in the life of the film. Disney originally intended to release the iconic Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a “Silly Symphony” short, but when costs ran so high that it could never recoup its investment, he decided to build an entire feature film around the short subject — and “Fantasia” was born. The full-length film contained eight separate vignettes, each featuring a piece of classical music. Disney first approached prominent conductor Leopold Stokowski about the project at a Hollywood restaurant, and the conductor quickly embraced the idea. Stokowski’s enthusiasm for the concept ultimately led him to work on the film for free, and the Philadelphia Orchestra performed the music for seven of the eight segments on this first-ever stereo movie soundtrack.
Though recognized as a masterpiece today, “Fantasia,” which was released in a road show traveling 13 cities, faced financial challenges from the beginning. Early reviews were mixed, the war in Europe had cut off the profitable European market, and Disney had to set up each theatre with a special $85,000 “Fantasound” system. Film production and distribution company RKO Pictures allowed Disney to handle this project on his own for the most part, calling it a “longhair film.” Despite great runs, it struggled to be profitable. After years of editing, restoration, remastering and re-releases, the film finally made a “profit” when it returned to theatres in December 1969. Since then, it has achieved both critical and financial success while becoming a beloved classic for generations of audiences.
Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, first suggested the idea of a sequel to the original film in 1974. He finally pitched it to Disney Chairman Michael Eisner 10 years later, and production for “Fantasia 2000” began in 1990. A long period of what was then groundbreaking animation using computer animation laid over traditional hand-drawn cells resulted in a 1999/2000 IMAX exclusive release.
The film actually reuses The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the original, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor James Levine providing an updated symphonic background. The film has received generally positive critical review.
Walt Disney felt sound in movies was so incredibly important that he blazed a trail with the first stereophonic motion picture ever made. Yet, we will respectfully do him one better — with a live soundtrack. Feast your eyes and ears on Disney’s Fantasia Live in Concert as the Kansas City Symphony makes this an experience you will never forget…
The Kansas City Symphony presents Disney Fantasia Live in Concert for three concert experiences on May 15-17, 2015, in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Tickets start at $35, with youth tickets from $25. To purchase, call the Kansas City Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online.