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Opera and Film: Can This Union Be Saved?

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page N01

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.

Placido Domingo with Julia Migenes-Johnson in Bizet's "Carmen." (Columbia Pictures/Photofest Via Afi)

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.

The "Opera Goes to the Movies" festival focuses on opera films from the 1980s and '90s, and is intended more as an introduction to popular operas -- Puccini's "Tosca" (tomorrow), Bizet's "Carmen" (Jan. 17), Strauss's "Salome" (Feb. 7) and Verdi's "La Traviata" (Feb. 14) -- than as a survey of the broader form.

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. The form has never conquered what might be called the tongue-and-teeth problem. While it makes perfect sense within the opera house that everything is sung, when transferred onto film, the opera illusion often breaks down. Suddenly one is wrenched from a world where it's normal for people to say hello and good night and I love you in song into a world where you notice huge gaping mouths, swelling diaphragms, quivering tongues and glistening teeth. And even when the films are dubbed, and the singers attempt to look as if they're speaking, there's an uncanny sense that the voice is emerging from a hole not big enough to produce it.

Rather than assist in the creation of theatrical intimacy, the camera usually punctures the basic illusion essential to opera. (If films of classic musicals don't necessarily suffer from that problem, perhaps it's because their makers never took themselves so seriously as the directors of opera on film. Movie musicals are filmed with a wink and nod that acknowledges the lightness, the improbability of the whole aesthetic.)

There are at least two ways to compensate for this, as the features in the current series demonstrate. One approach: If going for the intimate gesture undermines the operatic illusion, then concentrate on the spectacular. Franco Zeffirelli's 1982 "La Traviata" keeps the viewer distracted with its sumptuous period detail, as does Giuseppe Patroni Griffi and Brian Large's 1992 "Tosca," which was shot on location in Rome at the places mentioned in the libretto of Puccini's opera.

The other solution, demonstrated by Derek Bailey's version of the Peter Hall stage production of "Salome" (1992), is to place the action within the opera house, so that the camera captures not the fictional reality of the opera narrative, but the reality of the opera performance.

There is a danger to each of these approaches. The Zeffirelli approach can yield spectacle without meaning: plenty of draperies and dresses and champagne glasses and horses and coaches, but where did the essence of the drama go? And the "Salome" approach, while it can produce gripping records of great performances, often feels like a second-order artistic product, a document of an event rather than a work of art in its own right. And although it returns the attention to the theatrical detail of characters, singing and interaction, the camera can never filter out the unwanted cheapness of stagecraft. So while "Salome" reproduces a dazzling performance from soprano Maria Ewing (plus, she gets naked!), it also shows the viewer that the stonework of ancient Judea is actually made out of wire mesh.

Unfortunately the Washington National Opera/AFI series doesn't stray much beyond the most narrow parameters of opera on film. The selections were made by the opera's artistic director, Placido Domingo, who happens to star in three of the four works. This isn't necessarily megalomania on Domingo's part, given his large role in the movement to make theatrically successful opera films in the 1980s. He starred in Zeffirelli's "La Traviata" and in his 1986 "Otello," as well as in Francesco Rosi's 1984 version of Bizet's "Carmen." Domingo's dramatic intelligence bears up well under the scrutiny of the camera, and his physical form of 20 years ago made him believable in heroic roles in a way that, say, Luciano Pavarotti could never be on film.

But the choices for this small-scale festival don't capture the variety, or the historic scope, of opera on film. The collaboration between film and opera goes back to the early days of the silent era, when opera stories were filmed and distributed with phonograph records or musical cues for live accompaniment. Pioneers such as Georges Melies and Edison produced opera-based silents, perhaps in the hope that the prestige of opera would rub off on the nascent form (rather as early photographers produced carefully constructed, "painterly" photographs). An exploration of the surviving examples of these early works, anchored perhaps by Robert Wiene's 1926 "Rosenkavalier," would be well worth the AFI's time.

As would a look at the rich production of opera films in the 1930s. Abel Gance, director of the gargantuan saga "Napoleon," also produced a version of Charpentier's "Louise," in 1938, and Max Ophuls did a version of Smetana's comic opera "The Bartered Bride" in 1932. Both are major works from major directors.

Finally, a look at the more experimental efforts made in the field would be welcome. Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's 1982 version of Wagner's "Parsifal" could be a festival in and of itself. Filmed on a giant death mask of Wagner, with the title hero split into male and female avatars, it is an uncut orgy of cinematic and directorial perversity, a dizzying adventure in getting down, on film, as much as possible of the rich and shifting symbolism, political allegory and sexual fluidity, of Wagner's final masterpiece. It is rarely seen, but a benchmark nonetheless for the inherent possibilities of merging the two art forms.

The conclusions drawn from any of these wider looks at opera on film might be disappointing. Some arts merge easily and with complementary results. Others don't. Novels can be turned into passable movies, but how do you make a movie of an epic poem (without losing the poetry, or listening to endless voice-over)? Dancing to music works; sculpting to music suggests only limited novelty interest.

Part of the desire to see opera on film may well be a dissatisfaction with the essential limits and values of opera, a misguided wish that opera be more of what it inherently is not: Faster-paced. More spectacular. Less musical and more dramatic. One appeal of the opera films made in the 1980s and '90s is the quality of their soundtracks, which can be played through modern sound systems at higher volumes and with more enveloping acoustics than anything heard in the opera house. But vocal drama supercharged by modern electronics isn't opera, it's Broadway.

Still, the form has promise. Syberberg's "Parsifal" is interesting because he chose an opera filled with cinematic possibilities. Wagner was striving after visual effects in the transition scenes of "Parsifal" that anticipated the potential of cinema. Musically, he had pioneered a kind of thematic montage. Filmmakers who approach opera with the desire not to improve the operatic experience but to create an entirely new, hybrid form have also produced intriguing results. Leos Janacek's opera "The Cunning Little Vixen" was originally based on a 1920s cartoon character. An animated film of the opera, produced for television by Geoff Dunbar (and available on DVD), is a stand-alone visual creation, adding to the power of the music.

Both films suggest that the best guide to film opera may be to avoid realism at all costs. Taking opera out of the opera house and forcing it into the real world doesn't usually work; finding a substitute for the staginess of the opera house in another medium can yield surprising results. It makes one wonder if there's potential in computer-generated imagery: Is a CGI version of Wagner's "Ring" just waiting to be made?

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