How Opera Can Learn from the Movies

By · Title Image New York Public Library Digital Collections (Public Domain) · Datum 11/21/2019

When opera house directors and administrators go to the movies, what do they think about (and if they don’t go to the movies, what are they thinking)? Do they consider the box office receipts, the number of people cycling through the theater that day, the number of theaters showing that same movie across the globe?

They should, because opera needs more money, more people in the seats and more kinds of people, from more backgrounds, and with more experiences in those seats, the kind of people who went to the opera in the 19th century and who have been going to the movies since the early 20th century. The opera needs the cash and continued attention of the masses. How to do that? Maybe think of opera more like the movies.

This is no way means making operas that are full of explosions, wise-cracking dialogue between mismatched buddies, or even superheroes (although a Siegfried more like Batman or Iron Man is an intriguing idea). It also in no way means making yet another opera based on an existing movie: we don’t need another “Dead Man Walking,” “Exterminating Angel,” or “Marnie,” one more inferior and tedious remake of original material.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “[Movie theater]. Omar, West Virginia” • Photo The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 (Public Domain)
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “[Movie theater]. Omar, West Virginia” • Photo The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 (Public Domain)

What this does mean is seeing why and how the movies replaced opera, the dominant public art form of the 19th century, as the dominant public art form in the 20th century. It means seeing what the movies do that few operas do, not because opera can’t do the same things, but simply because few people are doing them.

There is some irony in this. When the movies took their first steps as both an art form and a cultural industry, they used opera as a key part of their foundation. The acting style of the early silent films, the extravagant gestures and bug-eyed expressions that are both entertaining and strange to us now, are easy to understand once one considers that the movies frequently hired opera singers to appear in silent films—they were already familiar with acting without talking—and arrangements of opera music were a staple in the live piano (and at times vocal) accompaniments. Before there were dedicated theaters, many movies were shown in opera houses, and through the decades, filmmakers have made operas into movies, from “Tales of Hoffmann” to “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

Opera, as music and a way of thinking about dramatic form, is integrated in some of the greatest moments in the movies since the advent of the talkies, and not just in “A Night at the Opera” or “Metropolis,” which is a filmed 19th-century opera set in the far future. In the most famous example, Francis Ford Coppola used the “Ride of the Valkyries” as the diegetic music in the Air Cavalry attack in “Apocalypse Now,” turning the scene into opera while reversing the music’s dramatic purpose, saying troubling things about the social and political uses of music, the excitement of atavism, colonialism, and Wagner’s place in Western culture.

Coppola used opera—a performance of “Cavalleria Rusticana”—as the context in which the climactic scenes of “The Godfather III” resolve, but that paled against the original effect he was trying to recreate—and that itself has been emulated by dozens of other filmmakers—the baptism scene from the first “Godfather” movie. That scene has diegetic music, but it’s window dressing to a dramatic structure where the ceremony itself is the score that accompanies and stitches together the scenes of Michael’s soldiers murdering his rivals. It’s operatic in the extreme emotional vividness and intensity and in the way it builds tension toward release, pacing each moment with regular rhythms, while also owing a great deal to the climax of “Rigoletto.”

Luchino Visconti used a performance of “Il Trovatore” at La Fenice as the opening scene in “Senso,” his film of the Boito novel of the same title. As Visconti learned from Verdi, so did Michael Mayer learn from the movies, and the culture of stars and style surrounding them, for his recent staging of “Rigoletto” at the Metropolitan Opera, set in 1950s Las Vegas, with the Duke as a Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Peter Lawford amalgam, the title character a murderous Don Rickles. The staging is still conventional in operatic terms, but it did acknowledge not only the presence of the movies but their value in taking dramas from disparate and relatively archaic cultures and making them intuitively understandable to contemporary audiences. It is an unselfconscious and valuable acknowledgement of the place of movies in cultural life, how films (as Geoffrey O’Brien describes in The Phantom Empire) have conditioned the way we think and feel. But it’s all still Verdi—it’s still a linear plot.

Time is the master of both film and music, the dimension in which they exist. Music and film both run forward in real time. But filmmakers learned generations ago that though the reels are unspooling in one direction, frame by frame, the images themselves can be shuffled around in time. Taking simultaneous events and stitching them together; collapsing time by bringing moments from the past into the present; tossing out the random events of life and bringing them into retrospective coherence via one concluding moment; these are often the moments in film that we remember.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Street scene showing movie theater, probably in the vicinity of Lancaster, Ohio” • Photo The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1938 (Public Domain)
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Street scene showing movie theater, probably in the vicinity of Lancaster, Ohio” • Photo The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1938 (Public Domain)

These are key techniques in Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria” and Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s “Einstein on the Beach.” Where the opera is Einsteinian is in how it works with time; the key concept in the physicist’s Theory of Relativity. There is no straight line through the scenes of the opera—there aren’t really any characters, there’s no story of personal transformation—instead there is time moving at different rates, not only as the music changes tempo from scene to scene, but through Wilson’s juxtaposition of slow stage movements against fast music, as in “Train.” The drama in the opera is in the “Knee Plays” and the brilliant, recurring two-bar modulation from F minor to E major.

Film does this almost as a matter of course. But outside of “Einstein,” it’s rare to find on the opera stage, and Glass himself never followed up the possibilities he laid out.

Movies are also, in the best sense, fake, complete illusions; rooms are not rooms but sets on a soundstage. Increasingly what we seen on the screen never existed at all except as digital code. Movies turn illusion into reality, which, along with making time malleable, is exactly what opera demands. In “The Stunt Man,” everything is fake, especially the characters’ emotions and experiences. And what can be more fake than people singing to each other their every word and thought accompanied by strings, woodwinds, and brass? Nothing demands greater willful suspension of disbelief than this. It’s a gift that more opera makers should be willing pick up and run with.

Michael Gordon’s opera “Acquanetta” is the story of the movies and how they are made. The plot follows Acquanetta, née Mildred Davenport, an actress who appeared in a handful of low B-grade pictures in the ‘40s and ‘50s. She was featured in a 1943 movie called Captive Wild Woman, which starred John Carradine as a scientist who turned a gorilla into a woman.

Gordon’s “Acquanetta” is about her and that movie. It takes place entirely on the set, but that’s the least of it. Realized by director Daniel Fish, “Acquanetta” is an opera that exists on film. The audience views the action on a movie screen (the performance takes place behind the scenes and is projected in real time)—the experience is mediated by a movie camera. What the camera shows is Acquanetta getting made up, a scene being filmed, the director urging an actor to deliver “more intensity,” then a denouement that brings filmmaking and fiction together in an amazing operatic moment. The excitement of the opera comes from the layers of metaphors, from opera being made into a movie and a movie shown as an opera: the sensation of a reel of film being unspooled, frame by frame.

Music can make each second seem fluid and unexpected. 80 or so years before “Acquanetta,” Alban Berg composed “Lulu” with the explicit use of a silent film as the narrative interlude in Act I (the talkies had already arrived). This was not a shortcut: rather, the film follows the palindromic form of the accompanying music, and is essential to the work. Generations ago, Berg recognized the dramatic power of film and how it could be adopted by opera. It’s strange there has been so little meaningful overlap since.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “[Movie theater]. New Orleans, Louisiana” • Photo The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 (Public Domain)
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “[Movie theater]. New Orleans, Louisiana” • Photo The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1935 (Public Domain)

The film experience of the 21st century also opens up new possibilities. There are still movie theaters, but a substantial balance of film viewing has moved to the smaller screen, past television to computers and all the way down to hand-held personal devices, with an audience that usually numbers one. This change has been intertwined with the movement of the best writing and movie-making to long-form, episodic storytelling. Opera had its movements on the small screen, going back to Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a wonderful work made specifically to be broadcast live on television (it premiered on NBC on Christmas Eve, 1951). Telecasts of “Amahl” were far different than the experience of opera on the live stage—beamed straight into homes, directly at the viewers, there was a fly-on-the-wall intimacy to presenting opera this way.

While Menotti took on the project with some reluctance, Robert Ashley embraced the idea of making operas for television. He worked with that medium as the ultimate goal, and not only in “Perfect Lives,” subtitled “An Opera for Television”—it appeared on Channel 4 in Britain in 1984. Ashley examines television in the most fundamental ways, emphasizing prose, speech, monologues, and short, montage-like scenes, all structured by an absolute adherence to timing (the way live television has to be tightly controlled to fit in all the commercials). There was never enough money to realize Ashley’s ambitions of presenting his operas on television, but any live performance, or even a simple listening experience, shows how he thought of his operas within the frame of the small screen, the subtle gesture in close-up, the mundane but powerful satisfactions of a predictable, repetitive broadcast schedule, the haunting enigmas of normal lives. Perceived as an avant-gardist, Ashley was the one true Everyman of opera. He only wished his operas could reach into every home.

A recent production of an older work closes this too-small circle of operas that take advantage of what the screen has given us. The Komische Opera Berlin, under director Barry Kosky, has produced a staging of “Die Zauberflöte” that is essentially a live-action film. Kosky has a healthy irreverence toward opera by growing up in the film era—he’s been clear about how he found the Mozart opera boring. So he made it interesting for himself, and thus dazzling for the audience. He presents the opera as a silent film, an amalgamation of Buster Keaton, “Nosferatu,” and early Disney cartoons. The characters sing inside the projections that surround them—which include the witty substitution of title cards for the extended dialogue—very much like opera singers making music live to accompany a silent movie.

Kosky’s film is brilliant, and the music is, of course, some of the greatest in the operatic repertoire. By thinking in terms of film instead of opera, the Komische Opera has on their hands one of the most entertaining things available on the operatic stage. “Die Zauberflöte” was made as entertainment, and this staging returns it to its roots. The movies. ¶