On New Opera and Film Music

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Rehearsing Río de Sangre, cast members (from left to right): John Duykers, Guido LeBron, and Mabel Ledo. Photo courtesy Nancy Shear Arts Services.

Since embarking on my first opera, Río de Sangre, I’ve often been asked, “Why would you want to compose an opera?” It’s interesting to note that although the context of this question has often changed, the question itself remains the same. I actually expect this question to arise among those who know me primarily through my work as a film composer, but when it’s asked by accomplished composers who have also composed operas, it seems that its answer lies more in the philosophical than the practical. I’m generally at a loss to answer this seemingly simple question, and the only way that I can approach an answer is to revisit my origins.

Although the options confronting a young composer may seem varied, circumstances often limit the paths a composer may embark upon. It is no secret that choosing musical composition as a vocation will never be lucrative, and every aspiring composer must come to terms with the ramifications of this fact. A natural, and as it turns out prevalent, solution to this conundrum is to turn to academia as a vocation to both fund and support a composer’s work. As noble and practical as this option may be, there were two reasons I felt this journey was not appropriate for me. First, in my opinion, the ability to teach is a special gift that I did not possess, and secondly, even if I did possess it, I was uncomfortable passing on to another human being something that would frustrate him/her for the rest of his/her life.

In my case, then, after graduating from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in music theory, I opted out of continuing on to graduate school in favor of seeking work as a composer of film music. Other pressures influenced this choice as well. At that time in my life I was expected to begin to fend for myself financially, and frankly, working as a film composer offered an opportunity for me to operate within the culture in which I found myself, as opposed to the perennial outsider status that composers of contemporary music are relegated to. As I have grown older, the latter of these two conditions has become of almost no consequence.

I continued to work on concert pieces, and kept abreast of developments in new music, all the while remaining active in commercial music. I also continued to embark on the chief endeavor of the young serious composer, which was to pad my resumé with the badges of honor received from winning composition competitions. After gathering a few of the accolades available to young composers, I began to hesitate to continue competing in that arena. Having been very fortunate as a film composer and earning a reasonably substantial living, it seemed morally wrong to compete for grants and prizes that were clearly intended to aid composers who had few financial advantages. I also discovered that a serious drawback in choosing a career scoring films was that my schedule as a film composer prevented me from making longer term commitments that would have allowed me to participate in the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals, not to mention Darmstadt and Donaueschingen.

Although the constraints on my time prevented me from working on concert music as much as I would have liked, film composers do enjoy certain aesthetic benefits. There is a true joy in discovering the inner personality of a film’s dramatic narrative and enhancing it with musical accompaniment, enlarging the scope of the drama and elevating the film to a level that isn’t possible otherwise. This joy, unfortunately, is often frustrated by the hierarchy of film making, in which composers are often demoted from the status of creative collaborator to lackey serving the whims of overpaid underachievers. The tyranny of the “temp track” will oppress, sooner or later, every film composer, who will be asked to imitate the temporary music inserted into a film to enhance screenings. This frustration is compounded when the need for music in a film is acute and the composer is prevented from providing the creative impetus that a well-thought out score can achieve.

Composing an opera had been in the back of my mind ever since I began composing music, but it was the tension of straddling two very disparate music careers that enabled me to clarify the creative drive that led me to composition in the first place. I began to realize that the aggregate of all my experience was leading me inevitably to opera. Having been immersed in composition for drama, I developed an understanding of the fundamental relationship between film music and opera out of a personal need to reconcile my function as a composer in the 21st century. I started to evaluate operas of the distant and recent past in terms of the relationship between dramatic narrative and musical narrative. I’ve always had very strong convictions about the necessity to invest new music with the spirit of invention, without which there is, in my view, no reason to compose at all. My epiphany came as I realized that I had a point of view in regard to drama, that drama could be relevant if it embodied a similar spirit of invention. I developed a point of view that I felt could be applied to new opera in a way that would be relevant in both dramatic and musical terms.

This search for relevance in both drama and music became my incentive to contribute to the already vast canon of opera. I knew that if a libretto was lacking in relevance, its music would fail as well. Film composers like to say, when scoring a bad movie, that we are putting lipstick on a corpse. But writing an opera with a bad libretto is far worse: the music becomes the corpse, and the libretto is the lipstick.


On New Opera and the Development of Musical Style

From my perspective, opera offers a composer the unique opportunity to move musical style into new forms by offering the listener a dramatic context in which to absorb sound structures that otherwise might be considered alien. We also find ourselves situated at a moment in history in which an exponential leap in style is, I believe, imminent.

In musical history there seems to be a cycle of innovation – periods of disparate breakthroughs that are followed by extremely vital and creative periods of assimilation and metamorphosis. These periods of assimilation occur at what appears to be an impasse, after which new invention can only be made possible by absorption and mutation. In the late 19th century, much of the musical community was divided: the followers of Wagner were convinced that Brahms was irrelevant, and the followers of Brahms ignored Wagner’s innovations. It took the insight of Schoenberg to show composers that one need not choose between these two musical giants, that both composers showed the way into the future. There was a similar divide after World War II, when it took the insight of Boulez to show that we didn’t have to choose between Schoenberg (via Webern) and Stravinsky, that neither composer could be ignored in discovering the path to new music. Now, after many years of divisiveness between modernity and minimalism, it is once again true, we must not choose between Boulez and Adams, we must assimilate the achievements of both modernists and minimalists in searching for new ground. In addressing the musical needs of specific dramatic moments in opera, these assimilations become not only possible, but necessary.


On The History of Film Music

Prior to the ascent of film as a dramatic medium, opera was the vehicle by which dramatists could portray characters that were larger than life. As such, the dramatic narrative of an opera could be of little consequence, yet remain relevant by reason of the larger than life quality of the presentation. When film came into prominence, the effect of an actor singing his part couldn’t compete with the image of a human face projected onto a 60 foot screen. In addition, films could be produced for a single investment, then exhibited many times in many different places with little further investment, while opera was still just as costly each time it was presented. Suddenly, impresarios had an enormous incentive to abandon opera for film production, and the days of a new opera production traveling around the world in a short period of time ended nearly overnight. Opera found itself in an unanticipated state of irrelevance, and I don’t think the medium that had dominated dramatic art for over a century has ever recovered fully from these blows.

Music that accompanied film prior to the advent of “talking pictures” in 1929 ranged from a single organ player improvising while watching the exhibited movie to small orchestras playing a string of excerpts selected from the general repertory by a conductor. Only rarely was film accompanied by original composed music. This singular technological development revolutionized entertainment, and in so doing created an entire field of composing original music for film. Two other events occurred simultaneously with sound movies: the collapse of the stock market, and the rise of fascism in Europe. These three developments did not bode well for the opera world, but opera’s pain became film music’s gain. Throngs of the newly unemployed flocked to movie theaters, making the film business one of the very few industries to actually profit from the Depression, and Hollywood was infused with European refugees, among them Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who elevated film music with an operatic sensibility. As film came to fully dominate the theatrical landscape, film music issued forth from operatic tradition fully developed.

The tragedy of Puccini is that he died far too young at the age of 66, leaving Turandot unfinished. But the golden side of that tragedy is that he died prior to the advent of movies with sound, and his work was spared the influence of the medium that would demote opera’s status in the hierarchy of dramatic media. Alban Berg’s unequivocal masterpiece Wozzeck also preceded talking movies. His sprawling, flawed, unfinished opera Lulu, however, came afterward. Berg’s attempt to reconcile the fissure between opera and film is evidenced by Lulu‘s Film Music Interlude, a brilliant orchestral fantasia that accompanies a film projected between acts two and three, detailing exposition that couldn’t be dealt with on the stage. The biggest tragedy of Berg’s early demise was that his insight in the transcendence of opera and its fusion with film was left further unexplored.

Now that the 21st century is upon us, the medium of film is experiencing a crisis, which may well provide an opportunity for opera to fill a creative void. Although independent film remains vital (yet underfunded), Hollywood films have been suffering for some time under the burden of studio business. Funding sources, particularly in the wake of the financial sector meltdown of 2008, are becoming more reluctant to finance films without assurance that their investments will reap profits. Hence, the avalanche of sequels and remakes that audiences have been forced to endure under the subjugation of the “known quantity.” As is well known to artists, nothing relevant can be achieved without extreme risk.

As part of the team that made the Matrix movies, I can say that we attempted to transcend the oppression of the “movie business” to achieve a new relevance in the film medium, specifically by infusing philosophy into popular culture. It is my belief that we succeeded, although it must be acknowledged that there is more work to be done. When scoring the Matrix trilogy, in particular The Matrix Revolutions, I made a number of references to Wagner, even going so far as to quote the Tristan chord at the emergence of the Deus Ex Machina (a wonderful dramatic pun if there ever was one). This was not done to parallel Wagner’s dramatic musical style, but to reveal, symbolically, a kinship with Wagner’s relationship to Schopenhauer’s philosophy of will and representation, as well as Nietzche’s Ubermensch. My attempt to impart philosophical double entendres in the film’s score to mirror the multiple layers of reality and reasoning in the film’s narrative may have been too subtle for general appreciation, but it was immensely satisfying for me.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for composers to embark on a new era of opera that embraces a closer fusion of drama and music, an era that reveals a multilayered reality while implying deeper philosophical and symbolic meanings. A new era of opera can inform us intellectually, morally and spiritually with a closer integration of drama and music, in which the drama informs the music and the music informs the drama. We have reached an epoch in which technology can be transcended, and in which the deficiencies of both the medium of film and the medium of opera can be eliminated while retaining the elements of each that can deliver us from mediocrity into the sacred land of relevance.

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Don Davis, photo by Leftéris Photography



Don Davis has enjoyed a widely varied musical career, not only in concert music, but also as a composer and conductor of film music. His compositions have been performed by ensembles such as the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the California E.A.R. Unit, XTET, the Arditti Quartet, the Debussy Trio, the Rundfunk Kammerorchester, the NDR Radiophilharmonie, and the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra. He is perhaps best known for his scores for the film trilogy The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, and The Matrix Revolutions. On October 22, 2010, the Florentine Opera Company will premiere his first opera Río de Sangre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.