On Saturday, October 19, St. Philip’s Friends of Music presented an evening that was a departure for this group, which earned its Tucson “cred” through offering an annual series of quality chamber music concerts. In a Halloween Spectacular event, seven-time Grammy Award–winning organist Dorothy Papadakos brought to life the 1922 classic film Nosferatu through improvisation on the organ. The long-lost art of silent film improvisation, which is making a huge comeback, requires an amazing amount of skill, talent, and inspiration, which Dorothy applied to the brilliant and terrifying German Expressionist adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whose ground-breaking cinematography and technical achievements continue to thrill audiences nearly 100 years later. Dorothy came to international attention as the first woman to be Cathedral Organist of the world’s largest gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, from 1990 to 2003. She is a renowned international performer, celebrated for her daring and imaginative improvisations and scores for theatre, film, TV, and ballet.
Join us now, as we experience Nosferatu and Dorothy Papadakos.
The first roar of the organ, loud, shocking, invasive, and literally hair-raising, plunges the audience into Murnau’s Nosferatu. This unnerving opening shortly gives way to a soft, reassuring passage on the organ as the film opens by revealing sunny times in a small, happy village. This reprieve will be short. Knock’s manic expression, accompanied by eerie passages on the organ, promises something dark and sinister.
A procession follows. Nosferatu reveals the many faces of humanity: its innocence, fears, and its demonic side. Dorothy’s instrument traces the lines of these faces, their vulnerabilities, their innermost thoughts. Dorothy brings a new dimension to the film that fuses with the story, the photography, the acting. One senses after a few minutes that her playing is a seamless part of the film that had the spirit of Murnau nodding in appreciation.
We marvel at her musicianship, her perfect control, and the beauty of her playing, of the organ’s varied sounds as it evokes our emotions. “It took me about four hours to memorize the organ,” says Dorothy. She must instinctively know the locations of all the organ stops because her improvisations are reflexive interactions between the audience and her: “I so enjoyed playing in the midst of the audience and being completely surrounded by everyone’s energy.”
Perhaps the film was made yesterday and not in 1922 by a director besotted by his material. Darkness surrounds Count Orlock, shrouding his plague-like, hunched and tormented figure. We see him first emerging from his opaque cloak; we are startled by his bat-like ears, his rodent’s teeth. Later we see his figure photographed from below, commanding a doomed ship. He emerges from his coffin, the Shadow version of Christ—the Antichrist—arising. The terrifying loneliness of the ship, devoid of human life, takes our breath away as it glides inexorably into harbor. Meanwhile the ever-present organ mesmerizes us, carries us out of ourselves into Murnau’s plague-ridden world. We watch in horror and fascination as the rats invade the town, bringing fear, death, and isolation to the innocent townspeople—and to the world. At the end we sorrow at the realization that salvation and redemption will come only after a sacrifice.
Nine years short of a hundred, Nosferatu might well have been dated, unable to reach out to us today. But its longevity and the rapt yet vocal attention of its audience at the recent screening showed that this sometimes faded print, transformed by Dorothy’s command performance, can stir us to heights of renewal.
Afterwards, the audience spilled over to a reception, downing finger food and drinking cider from a smoldering witches’ cauldron, while enthusing about the film. The animated talk around the tables resounded with phrases such as German expressionism, camera techniques, makeup, and the magic of live organ accompaniment.
Nosferatu, filmed before most of us were born, excites our imaginations and for a moment unites us. Woosug Kang, the creative force behind this event, remarked, “Dorothy Papadakos shared something magical with the audience. We all know she is a phenomenal musician: her reputation from St. John the Divine is world-wide. But to me, the difference with her tonight was how personable her playing was. Her character and personality were clearly shared with the audience. What a night to remember.”
Dorothy made a big impression on Karine Story, St. Philip’s Organ Scholar. “I was so honored to meet Dorothy. I was impressed by the ease with which she could play the organ, especially improvising for an entire film. She is definitely a great inspiration for me. Not only is she a church organist, but Nosferatu showed me another form of organ music. I thought the music complemented the film perfectly. Many times I forgot where I was because I was so immersed in the music and the story.”
Finally we offer our extensive thanks to Dorothy and “her creepy boyfriend Nosferatu” for captivating almost 200 souls for too short a time. One viewer remarked, “The music found my heartbeat, or was it the other way around?”
—Bill Bucci, Bob Couch, Jamie Hilton, Carol Becker, Woosug Kang and (with our gratitude) Dorothy Papadakos
(photos by Bob Couch and Matilda Essig)