Gilliam turns his hand to opera with ENO debut

He is an ex-Python turned film director whose on-screen flights of fancy have proven his love of high-octane, large-scale productions with similarly sprawling budgets.

So what better home for Terry Gilliam than opera? The director of such surreal films as Brazil and 12 Monkeys has joined the English National Opera (ENO) to bring a new production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust to life.

The only sticking point might prove to be his switch from a Hollywood budget to a far slimmer one at the ENO. But yesterday, executives expressed every confidence in his ability to put on a highly imaginative opera. Edward Gardner, the ENO's music director, said he "can't wait to tap into his crazy world and his artistry".

John Berry, the ENO's artistic director, said Gilliam was well aware of the budgetary restraints. "He has a tremendous imagination, and what is great is that as we've been working with him, he has seen how the company works. He is comfortable here. He doesn't have a budget of £80m, that's for sure. But he has, over a period of time, understood how the budgets here work," he said.

Mr Berry added that Gilliam had experience of working with limited resources, going back to his early days of working on Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Other opera houses – including La Scala in Milan, and in Los Angeles and Verona – have attempted to enlist Gilliam for projects in the past, but he has always declined. Mr Berry said the film-maker was persuaded to direct his first opera after the ENO mounted a concerted campaign to woo him, during which he personally followed Gilliam across the country for months and even accompanied him on to the set of his latest film.

"I stalked him," he joked, adding: "I've admired his work for some time and I suppose I really crept up on him. We started talking six months ago and I suggested the piece gradually, rather than just saying, 'Will you do this?'

"So I introduced him to the designer, then the lighting director and the musical director, and he gradually got to know the company, he could see they were supportive and he thought it was interesting... he found himself in a situation in which he was committed to doing an opera."

Gilliam, 69, is renowned for his stylistic, flamboyant productions, which include last year's film The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, and Brazil, which landed his script an Oscar nomination. Yesterday, he suggested his conversion to opera would not require a great stylistic shift – "There is theatre in everything I do" – and he responded to the challenge of working with the ENO with nonchalance.

"I thought: 'Let's do an opera that's seldom been successful. If it doesn't work, we will blame Berlioz.' Movie-making has become really difficult and unpleasant and everyone has been at me to do opera for so long, I thought maybe it was time," he said.

Gilliam, whose opera will open in May next year, is not the only film director to make an operatic debut. Mike Figgis, the acclaimed director of Leaving Las Vegas and Timecode, is to direct Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia.