April 21, 2005


Opera and Film: Can This Union Be Saved? (Philip Kennicott, January 9, 2005, Washington Post)

Opera and film are invented art forms, cobbled together from disparate elements. It doesn't make much sense to talk of the invention of sculpture, or music, or dance, all of which have origins so far in the past as to be immemorial. But with both film and opera we can put a mark on the timeline and say, there, that's when the art form began.

With opera, it's at the beginning of the 17th century, when the Florentine Camerata, a group of Renaissance intellectuals who thought they were reinventing Greek tragedy, put together the first recognizably operatic music dramas of modern times. With film, it's at the turn of the last century, as various inventors and tinkerers realized that by passing light through a sequence of transparent photographic images, one could capture the illusion of motion in real time.

Perhaps because they're both invented, and because both art forms are essentially amalgams of other arts -- music, theater, dance, design, photography -- film and opera have had curiously parallel histories. Each has inspired impassioned generations of reformers, who seek to rebalance the weight given to the various constituent elements. In opera, Gluck and Wagner believed themselves advocates of the proper theatrical focus of the art form. In film, the cycles of reform and reaction have been dizzying over the past century. The visual daring of expressionist movements (in Germany, in the 1920s, for instance) yield to new forms of cool presentation and objectivity; the polish and glibness of big studio productions spawn new-wave movements, whose quirkiness and messiness appeal for a while until someone produces a sprawling, slickly made, old-style blockbuster and refreshes the form. While composers struggle over the balance among music, the flashiness of singing and the importance of drama, filmmakers seek to balance the virtues of storytelling with the sumptuousness of imagery, the clarity of theatrical dialogue with the possibilities of lingering over visual nuance.

Given their similarities, one might expect a long and fruitful relationship between opera and film. The relationship is certainly long-standing, but whether it's been fruitful is another question. A four-part festival of opera on film and video, sponsored by the Washington National Opera and the AFI Silver Theatre and running from tomorrow to Feb. 14, will nibble around the edges of the question, showing a small range of the theoretical problems and possibilities. [...]

But the larger question -- can opera and film be joined into more than a sum of their parts? -- remains relevant in part because of the DVD, which has made opera on film (or video) more available than ever, and home theater technology, which makes listening to opera on screen more satisfying than in the bad old days of VCRs. Even more important, the promise of filming opera has never been more tantalizing. Opera is an expensive art form, and when limited to those who can afford seats in the opera house, it is an elitist one. Film is expensive to make but easy to distribute, with the potential to bring a mass audience to opera.

The camera can also (potentially) "solve" some of the basic problems of opera, making its gestures more intimate, its theater more detailed and lively, and its narrative adventures more believable. An ideal experience of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, for instance, demands that the listener see the smallest nuance of facial expression, as well as experience epic floods and fires and rapid changes of place and scene. From no single seat in any opera house are those two extremes possible.

Opera also has the potential to revivify film, to force it out of the complacent rut of easy realism. The imaginative challenge Wagner puts to the audience in the "Ring" cycle, if demanded of cinema audiences, might result in a cinema of breathtaking daring. The abstraction and suggestiveness that mainstream filmmakers often avoid are the basic aesthetic starting point for the opera audience.

So where are the great films of opera? Yet to be made.

There's Peter Jackson's next project...or Baz Luhrman's...or both...

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 21, 2005 5:46 PM

that's weird, I know very few people, if any, except now you, that ever even heard of Baz.

Posted by: Neil at April 21, 2005 6:06 PM

Everyone's heard of Moulin Rougue, now. That's where I first heard of him.

Posted by: Timothy at April 21, 2005 6:21 PM

There's an idea. Peter Jackson can take all of the money ha made on Lord of the Rings and pour it down a rat hole trying to sell opera movies. Can I get a ringside seat at the pitch meeting?

Posted by: Brandon at April 21, 2005 6:41 PM

"Perhaps because they're both invented":

as opposed to all those other artforms that sprang fully formed from Zeus' head?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 21, 2005 7:01 PM

didn't baz do a spoken word song a few years back ?

i liked his ballroom dancing movie better than moulin rouge.

bring on the Hobbit remake.

too bad george lucas didn't let peter jackson handle the new star wars movie.

Posted by: cjm at April 21, 2005 7:19 PM

Ingmar Bergman did a movie of The Magic Flute some years back.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 21, 2005 11:46 PM

I liked "A Night At The Opera", though it has been years since I saw it.

Posted by: Mikey at April 22, 2005 8:41 AM

It's been done, and cannot be improved upon.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 22, 2005 9:27 AM

And everyone loved it. There's an obvious market.

Posted by: oj at April 22, 2005 9:33 AM

Topsy-Turvy is a superb film and one of my favorites. Yes, I know it is not grand opera but still....

Posted by: Rick T. at April 22, 2005 11:05 AM

Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet was great.

Posted by: Tom at April 22, 2005 11:07 AM



Posted by: oj at April 22, 2005 11:07 AM