Thursday, 14 February 2013

Film's Influence On Opera

An old article from the New York Times is doing the rounds. How Hollywood Films Are Killing Opera refers specifically to Kenneth Lonergan's 2011 post-9/11 masterpiece Margaret but it also has a (pair of) broader point(s) to make:
connecting opera so closely to red-meat emotionalism — melodrama, tears and screaming matches — also betrays a limited, and limiting, understanding of what the art form can be, signaling to its audience that its other aspects are less important... 
... until opera stops being associated with escapist nostalgia and fancy dates, it is doomed to struggle for relevance.
With some noted exceptions where theatre-going is shown as an integrated part of normal life, film tends to show opera and opera-going as special, isolated, one-off. In addition to the examples of the piece - Moonstruck and Pretty Woman - one might also think of the third Godfather film with its socially gilded performance of Cavalleria Rusticana that reflects the dramatic climax of that film, or perhaps Birth in which a society couple attend a Met performance of Die Walk├╝re.

At least the opera is integrated into the drama at hand in either case. The point of the article is to bemoan the distillation of the operatic experience being poured into a film, or 'going to the opera' being used as a trope to connote social standing or education - for example in Hannibal (the sequel to The Silence of The Lambs) in which the titular psychopath is meant to be a cultured man and so is shown to be attending an opera. The actual 'opera' is of no consequence and Hans Zimmer wrote one of his least effective pastiche works to fill the gap. The problem is that the film's audience, many of whom will not have experienced opera before, then come away from the film making assumptions about opera and opera-going: in this case that the music is oleaginous, stagings confined to 17th century re-creation and that the audience wears dinner outfits and sits too close to flaming saucers of oil in the aisle.

There have been even more recent examples with First Night, a British farce set in a country house putting on a production of Cosi Fan Tutti - for all it's turning opera inside out it still couldn't part with the rural glamour one associates with Glyndebourne, Garsington, Grange Park or Iford. Quartet, about retired operatic singers is more successful as it focuses on the characters of its own drama - opera is discussed as if in another room (it is in another lifetime) and the benefit concert is seen as a novelty, not a re-creation of another operatic performance.

The fact is that it suits those who sell - be it film or other merchandise - to have opera kettled as a symbol of something on the periphery of the consumer's understanding. For the filmmaker, it becomes an easy form of reference, for the promoter, shorthand for glamour and exclusivity. Probably the most successful live musician today is Andre Rieu whose recordings and shows sell in huge numbers precisely because of this impression of conferred glamour. The performers are dressed up in pastiche 19th century costume and operatic arias deconstructed to play to the arena format of the performances. The pageantry of the shows give the impression of the 'special' in place of the involvement of real drama or the wonder of high calibre acoustic music making.

Of course, the final point to make is that film-making is opera. Both are conflagrations of disciplines in a single production. Opera is simply three dimensional and acoustic - and, as it is confined to a single limited space it is much more expensive (in the final reckoning) to put on. It's this expense, an honest fact, that perhaps even the most sympathetic film maker cannot help to reflect when inserted into their own production.

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