LATimes Calendar section
December 26,2004

L.A. Opera's secret weapon
When a fight scene is needed, Anthony DeLongis gets the call.

By Victoria Looseleaf, Special to The Times

While holiday shoppers at malls around town were engaged in consumer combat - jostling for gifts as if their lives depended on it - a kind of opera boot camp was underway recently in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's Rehearsal Room 3. Without arias but with a chorus of grunts, groans and growls, this was in fact a three-hour audition for dudes demonstrating their lunging, pirouetting and sky-high-kicking prowess as they duked it out with daggers and bare hands in the service of high art.

Talk about testosterone: Three dozen hopefuls flaunted their attack expertise for fight directors Anthony DeLongis and Ed Douglas, all striving to make the cut to perform in Los Angeles Opera's next new production, "Roméo et Juliette." Opening in January, this version of French composer Charles Gounod's 1867 take on Shakespeare will run for seven performances at the pavilion. Alas, the show's director, Ian Judge, had requested only eight performers (plus two alternates).

OK, the daggers may be rubber, but opera, like film, aims to suspend disbelief to create a rarefied universe, and this production promises to have brawling of the first order. After all, DeLongis, who's worked with L.A. Opera since its inception in 1986, is its go-to guy for anything weapons-related.

"If there's violence required, they call me and see what I can do to add a dynamic to the visual picture," says DeLongis, 54, whose video demo reel includes Michelle Pfeiffer touting the actor-cum-stuntman-cum-fight-choreographer as the reason her whip-cracking skills as Catwoman were black-belt-worthy in "Batman Returns."

A fight master for 31 years, DeLongis no longer schedules open auditions but culls from a list of performers he's worked with in the past and others who come recommended. In the case of "Roméo," Judge, who directed last season's "The Marriage of Figaro" for L.A. Opera, had specified that he wanted people with more than the necessary skills. He wanted them to look young.

Unlike the teenage Roméo, the bunch gathered in the pavilion rehearsal room ranged from their mid-20s to a well-preserved 52, but all boasted impressive credits. After DeLongis and sparring partner Douglas (a theater professor at Glendale Community College) had taken the guys through warmup stretches, the pair demonstrated a movement combination resembling a cross between power yoga and tai chi and incorporating a "bob-and-weave" routine. Also in attendance was Chari Shanker, L.A. Opera's production manager, who was studying the head shots and résumés of the applicants, all of whom had had Polaroids taken when they arrived.

While the roomful of hopefuls executed the combination, DeLongis walked stealthily among them, adjusting positions and watching how well they took direction.

"Action is dialogue with movement instead of words," explains the Los Angeles-born DeLongis, who began his performing career as a Shakespearean actor at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and in 1971 found himself onstage at the Shrine Auditorium as a spear-toting supernumerary with the late ballet great Rudolf Nureyev.

Thus was his present career born. And though he may have been somewhat star struck at first, today DeLongis says he's more concerned with the story he's telling.

"I'll try to pick the most dramatic image that visually supports the music," he says. "The choreography has to articulate that story and define the character. Otherwise it's just a lot of gymnastics."

Whip smart

DeLongis, who worked this fall on his fourth "Carmen" for L.A. Opera, made his stage debut with the company in 2002's "Girl of the Golden West," going mano a mano with tenor and company executive director Plácido Domingo courtesy of some intense whip maneuvers.

"I felt I could really add something to the barroom brawl with my ability with the whip," he recalls. "We were threatening Plácido for the hanging scene and, for a brief instant, the orchestra stopped and I became the percussion. I gave them five fast multiple cracks."

A onetime student of the "Life is short, opera is long" school, DeLongis admits that being a weapons specialist has since given him exposure to music he would not otherwise know. Yes, he's played Juliet's cousin Tybalt, he says, and even staged fights for half a dozen theatrical "Roméos," but he wasn't familiar with the Gounod score. And he describes his working method as listening to the music, getting ideas and then choosing dynamic moves he thinks will give it "flesh and blood."

DeLongis also looks for men who are sensitive to the energy they're exchanging with their partners.

"You have to be able to create an illusion," he says. "We're trying to make combat look real and open up the story so we can invite the audience in."

Making the cut

Kevin MORAN, 29, knows how to make thuds, pows and thwacks look very real. One of DeLongis' swordsmen in the 2003 film "Secondhand Lions," with Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, Moran has also performed in several L.A. Opera productions, including 2000's "Billy Budd" and this season's "Il Trovatore."

"I'm on Anthony's call list," the kneepad-wearing Moran said during the "Roméo" audition. "But he's got a big list. Being onstage is the best seat in the house, even if you're only holding a spear. In 'Trovatore,' I was on for 30 minutes."

As the men worked up a collective sweat and their moves became increasingly intricate ("Forward, retreat, lunge, recover, forward"), many added panache with extra turns or amped up their "oof" expressions of pain.

DeLongis told the aspirants he wanted them to connect with their partners by moving in slow motion, starting with a push. "Do not come in with the palms of the hand and beat the crap out of him. Be nice, because it's his turn next."

After working out with bare hands, the men were put through their paces with daggers. "I'm looking for surgery," said DeLongis. "Slice, slice, slice, but please be gentle. Those who are dying, face front. I'm giving you the money shot."

Unfortunately, this surgery also involved cutting the number of applicants by a third. Those asked to leave stepped forward and DeLongis graciously thanked them. A short break followed, after which emotions as well as bodies flew high again.

"Essentially, you're dancing. You don't want to be a brute," DeLongis cautioned, stalking the room in search of tough-guy perfection, when power and speed are secondary, he says, to moments of pure illusion. "Injury," he insists, "is just not an option."

Finally, the moment of truth arrived, and 10 men emerged victorious. Moran made the cut, as did Terence Rotolo, 32, a newbie to the opera stage but a skilled swordsman/stunt performer whose film credits include "Master and Commander."

Rotolo, who worked with DeLongis on the TV series "The Queen of Swords," was thrilled. "My aunt was an opera singer, and I love opera. This is like taking a vacation to a new country," he said.

Strapping good looks and skills also trumped youth, as 40-year-old Robert Chapin, a visual effects artist as well as an actor-fighter who had appeared in two previous L.A. Opera productions, was deemed a keeper. "Opera is such a different experience," he said. "It's bizarre to be standing there having trained singers around you. It almost takes your mind off of things, which isn't healthy."

Those chosen were told they needed to commit to up to half a dozen rehearsals and seven performances. Judge, who has had an association with England's Royal Shakespeare Company for 25 years, says he hopes to strengthen the connection between Gounod's "Roméo" and Shakespeare's play and that he was pleased with the final group of fighters (the term preferred by this team over the standard "supernumeraries").

"As with a choreographer," he says, "the director's input is a little like skimming the cream off the top. Anthony is very prepared and enthusiastic and did his best to fulfill my requirements - boys having fight skills and a sense of theater to help the feeling of violence in Verona."

DeLongis is confident his men are up to snuff.

"Opera is pretty tame and pretty minimal in the action arena," he says. "I try to give patrons something more than what they're used to, and L.A. Opera lets me push the envelope. When I can bring in professionals, I'm able to raise that level so that visually it's a lot more exciting."