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Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” gets a rocking rendition from Vox Lumiere, April 25

Rock music, theater and silent film combine to create a compelling production in the Auditorium in Roberts Hall on April 25 at 7:30 p.m.


Vox Lumiere's production of "Metropolis."
For a silent film released in 1927, “Metropolis” has figured in a lot of music in recent decades, especially rock. This expressionist, science fiction classic, directed by Fritz Lang, depicts a society where wealthy intellectuals live above ground and oppressed workers inhabit an underground realm. Perhaps this dystopian theme awakens the rebel strain in rock, or the film’s grand futuristic sets ideally complement the big, late-model sounds of the genre.

Clips from “Metropolis” have appeared in videos by Madonna, Whitney Houston and Queen. In 1984 Giorgio Moroder produced an 80-minute soundtrack to the film that featured Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant, Freddie Mercury and Billy Squier.

In addition, there has been an electronic score, and a musical version hit the London stages in 1989.

Following the apocalyptic feel of “Metropolis” (though most likely very coincidentally), the new millennium ushered in a fresh musical approach to the film when in April of 2000, Vox Lumiere premiered its take on Lang’s classic.

“Very coincidentally” because the spark for Vox Lumiere came when the ensemble’s founder, Kevin Saunders Hayes, stopped to check out a bin of silent movies in a New York City discount store.

After purchasing several classic films, he went home, and the first one he popped into the VCR was “Metropolis.”

“What an amazing movie!” Hayes said in a phone interview, “especially when you consider that the technology was only around 10 years old then. What Lang did was masterful. People are still learning it from it.”

Vox Lumiere is a group of singers, dancers and musicians, now based in Los Angeles, who present rock accompaniment and a light show along with the screening of a silent film. It is not just a soundtrack done live, but according to the ensemble’s founder, it is a way to “three-dimensionalize the movie.”

“I didn’t know the road existed,” he said, “so I had to sort of hack it out of the jungle.

“The idea is to have live performers on stage interact with each other and with the film.”


A movie still from Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film classic, "Metropolis."
A classically trained musician who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music and Connecticut’s Hartt School of Music, Hayes confesses that he “played in way too many rock bands in school.” He has also composed for film, television and commercials, so he knows how to tell a story with music.

His memories of “Metropolis,” in fact, go back to college, where he recalls being made to watch terrible prints of the film.

For his Vox Lumiere shows, though, Hayes has obtained a pristine copy of a 90-minute version.

“Metropolis” exists in a good number of forms. Part of this results from the original distributors’ feeling that the film was too long and unwieldy, so they made numerous cuts, and Lang himself would reedit it for different markets. Also, as Hayes speculated, Lang wasn’t done with it and kept wanting to make changes.

As recently as 2010, a restored print was released incorporating 25 minutes of lost footage that was discovered in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2008.

In addition to “Metropolis,” Hayes has created shows for silent versions of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Peter Pan” and “Phantom of the Opera.” He also has plans for “Zorro” and F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu.”

“It’s really opera,” he said. “There are no spoken words, and the films tell great stories, grand stories, which themselves are operatic.”


Kevin Saunders Hayes
Hayes used the term opera with qualifications. He cautioned that audiences should not expect anything resembling the traditional genre but something more like The Who (especially “Tommy”), The Moody Blues or Queen – all groups that can have a big, classically influenced sound.

Although the worlds of rock and classical music are really separate, there are some basic similarities according to Hayes. For instance, he noted, “Some of the lines in a symphony are like those played in a rock band, but on different instruments.”

Augmenting Vox Lumiere and making their sound a bit more “classical” will be the Rhode Island College Chamber Singers, whose conductor is Rhode Island College music professor Teresa Coffman.

Some of the singers already have experience with Lang’s “Metropolis.” Last March, they premiered an oratorio based on a 40-minute edit of the film, which was written by RIC adjunct faculty member and composer James Bohn.

Coffman, who is preparing the RIC ensemble for the performance, but not conducting at it, noted, “This is really an adventure, and the students are excited. We don’t know if we will be rehearsing with them [Vox Lumiere] the day before or the day of the show, so we are living on the edge.”

Hayes likes to incorporate local choirs into Vox Lumiere’s performances as it reminds him of days as a fledgling performer in his home state of Connecticut, when he was given opportunities to perform in shows with big-name groups that came to town.

“It goes back to my New England roots,” he reflected. “Connecticut was big on regional choirs when I was coming up. I did that kind of performing and now I am giving back and sharing my passion for it.”

For a composer who can think locally, Hayes’ work is certainly well traveled. Vox Lumiere’s version of “Metropolis” has been presented in New York City and Avignon, France, as well as in numerous venues across the country. Their “Hunchback of Notre Dame” was staged at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and was the subject of a PBS special. The group also has been in Lisbon, shooting a DVD of “Phantom of the Opera.”

Call it opera that rocks or crossover with a beat. If you are looking for a different kind of entertainment or art form (should you wish to make that distinction), Vox Lumiere’s “Metropolis” seems a very good way to go.

Tickets for Vox Lumiere are $35. Discounts are available for seniors, children and RIC faculty/staff/students/alumni. Purchase tickets in advance with Visa, MasterCard or Discover by calling (401) 456-8144 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; online at www.ric.edu/pfa; or at the box office in the lobby of the appropriate performance venue, which will open for sales two hours before the performance begins.