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Features Opinion Published 18 April 2011

Opera as Cinema, Cinema as Opera

In the first installment of his monthly column on opera, Robert Barry discusses the affinities between stage and screen.
Robert Barry

Last year, The English National Opera’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo radically restructured the space of the vast stage of the London Coliseum – shrinking it, in fact, to the letterbox proportions of widescreen cinema. The ENO has, in recent years, proved itself at the forefront of drives to popularise and bring new audiences to the opera house, and the recruitment of film directors (as in Mike Figgis’s Lucrezia Borgia, and Terry Gilliam’s new production of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust), and appropriation of cinematic techniques have been central to such a scheme. But what of the opposite gesture? If opera has developed a parasitic tendency towards the cinema, how has the cinema regarded the opera house?

An anecdote by Czech director Milos Forman demonstrates the cinema’s operatic potential was not merely a product of the possibilities of synchronised sound. “The second film I saw in my life,” Forman recalls, “was a film of the most popular Czech opera, The Bartered Bride by Smetana.” Forman was six years old, and the cinema was in the small Bohemian town of Čáslav. The film in question was a silent version of the well-known opera, “which was absolutely absurd when you think about it.” But what happened in that cinema, Forman claims he will never forget. As soon as the curtain went up and the film began, “the audience in the cinema started to sing and the whole time people in the cinema were delivering the sound, they were singing all the arias, all the songs from the opera!”

In fact, in a sense, the very first cinema was not a cinema at all – but an opera house. The earliest opera houses, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reflected the glory of the absolute monarchs who, for the most part, were their sponsors. During performances, the focus of the audience’s attention was as much on the aristocracy inhabiting the lavishly ornamented boxes as it was on the performance. With the 1876 inauguration of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, everything changed. With its steeply rising parterre, complete absence of galleries or boxes, its orchestra completely concealed within a “mystic gulf” between the audience and the stage, and – for the first time – house lights dimmed during the performance, Richard Wagner was opening less an opera house, than a picture house.

Little wonder that film makers ever since the dawn of cinema have shown a persistent fascination with Wagner. D.W. Griffiths is said to have regularly marched onto his sound stages singing melodies from Tannhäuser, and when Sergei Eisenstein formalised Griffiths’s montage techniques into an explicit theory, it was to Wagner’s leitmotivs that he referred his syntactical units. Max Steiner, one of the most successful film composers of all time (King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Searchers, etc.) famously said that if Wagner were alive today he would be the greatest film composer of them all.

Today, opera is returning to the cinema – just as cinema is creeping into the opera houses. Last year, seventy-two UK cinemas saw their houses filled for a live broadcast of Verdi’s Don Carlos from the New York Met; and only last month, the Royal Opera House took its first 3D filmed opera, a recording of last year’s production of Carmen, to the silver screen. The trend has proved a boon, a chance to reach out to new audiences, for opera houses and cinemas alike. Yet, no matter how many stereoscopic dimensions it is projected into, the filmed show will inevitably lose some of the thrill of live presence felt in the house, on the night.

In the meantime, what of the true cine-opera, the genuine cinematic event structured by the principles of sung drama? Jacques Demy, whose Les Parapluies de Cherbourg features a continuous score and fully sung dialogue (albeit in a somewhat more ‘pop’ style than most operas; it recently opened in the West End as a musical) used to claim that song and music were no mere adjunct to the cinema, but a further dimension, comparable to colour, or sound itself. The opera-for-cinema was the dream of many directors of the silent era, somehow neglected, or unfairly represented, amidst the great leap backwards in cinematic technique that accompanied the earliest sound films. The new bulky, immovable cameras, ironically, reducing the film frame to a theatrical proscenium. Today, as a besieged Hollywood sprawls about in search of new ideas to combat the threat of dwindling audiences, perhaps now is the time to revive the old dream, and rekindle an old affinity.

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Robert Barry is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine