Higher Definition: The Link Between Opera and Film

TMNT: Movie NovelizationTo dub myself a “public intellectual” in the area of new music would do an injustice to the word “public” (and probably also to the word “intellectual”). However, I do want to appropriate part of that job description, per Christopher Hitchens: “to introduce complexity into the argument.” Of course, “argument” is not the word to use to describe the unanimously positive if not downright rapturous response to the Minnesota Opera’s recent premiere of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night. Nevertheless, having traded mercenarily on my affiliation with NewMusicBox to get into a preview performance, I want to introduce some complexity into what has thus far been a pretty simple conversation.

Silent Night (which by the criteria most commentators are applying to it is, I agree, absolutely fine) is based on a film, Joyeux Noël. I haven’t seen the film, but I can’t imagine that Puts’s handsome collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell and director Eric Simonson dishonors it in any way; the production is spectacular but tasteful, the singing emotive, the music and words entirely appropriate to the gravity of the drama. In other words, all aspects of the opera classily ticked the boxes they were supposed to tick. But if you attend performances of music to encounter questions rather than ready-made affective dioramas, one such question is unavoidable: Why is Silent Night an opera?

To put it a different way: In what respect is Silent Night different from those novelizations of movies that come out after a film’s release? Maybe novelizations are expected to contribute synergistically to the movie’s marketing, which Silent Night certainly wasn’t (Joyeux Noël came out six years ago). I guess it costs a lot more to produce an opera than a book, and I don’t think anyone would dispute that opera is a more upmarket ware than TMNT: Movie Novelization—lest the class of consumer go unexamined in our analysis of interrelated creative practices. In both cases, however, an existing film property is the token exchanged for profit in another medium. When people say that cinema is a dominant cultural form, this is precisely what they mean.

Today’s mainstream opera (i.e., Minnesota Opera opera, not Rhymes With Opera opera), emblematized by Silent Night and Met broadcasts in multiplexes, collects the resources of traditional opera—bel canto vocalism, the orchestra, rotating scenery—and yokes them to the movies, without whose world-spanning reach and glossy grasp they are at a steep and possibly terminal market disadvantage. Is this a problem or a solution? Introducing complexity into the argument is easy; answering that question is tough. Thankfully, that’s someone else’s job. Congratulations to Kevin Puts, Mark Campbell, Eric Simonson, and the Minnesota Opera on a successful world premiere.

2 thoughts on “Higher Definition: The Link Between Opera and Film

  1. Phil Fried

    For me the connection is tenuous. Film scoring is mostly an instrumental form. Opera is not. On the other hand if your expectation is a dramatic reading with the words set to music, heterophonicly, to the underscoring fine. In fact I sent a letter to MN opera some time ago to that effect. What I had in mind was to turn classic movies into operas using their original sound tracks. Obviously the same procedure could be used to create new works.

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  2. Daniel Wolf

    I believe we tend to ignore the degree to which film, at its origins, was in debt to 19th century opera (and ballet and operetta as well — from both French and Austro-Hungarian traditions), from the ways in which scenes cut and connect to one another to staging patterns to overall visual design, but also, when through-composed musical sound tracks emerged, directly to the musical materials and styles of the late 19th century (and, to a large extent, composed by European musicians who had been raised in those styles.)

    This should, in large part, be unsurprising as opera was the major vehicle for the spectacular as well as emotionally most immediate genre prior to film as well as the genre of music and theatre with the greatest degree of technical experiment (it is perhaps peculiar, from our (at least my own) “Brahms the Progressive” vantage point, but certainly up until the time of Pelleas and Salome, concert music was the conservative genre, with fixed forms, instrumental ensembles, and tonal behavior, while opera and ballet, under pressure from market forces demanding novelty, represented a field for innovation in orchestration, tonal practice, and a loosening of formal constraints.

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