It ain’t over til the fat lady sings… on screen?

There is a reason why cinematic depictions of operas have never been hits. It is a common assumption – on the part of producers, some opera directors, and even some financially greedy conductors – that when cinema first began with the Lumière brothers, terrifying audiences with a train in motion, they paved the way for anything to be turned into film. What was overlooked, however, is that opera in itself is already an art form. For, even when a novel is adapted for screen, the work is still primarily a film, made of screenplay and direction, not the author’s long descriptive passages. A similar thing happens when a novel is turned into a stage play. Cinematic opera takes the art as a whole – costumes, music, conductor, and real singers – and integrates it into a film which strives to look believable. The result, however, is usually disastrous.

Opera in cinema loses out on two counts; it is neither emotionally effective opera, nor effective cinema, because it lacks the instruments that make up both genres and the two are mostly ill suited in any case. Yes, opera is about visual splendour, and so is cinema. Cinema includes music to stir up emotions in the audience and opera is made of that music. But the two establishments – movie-theatre and opera house – are as distant from each other as possible. The experience of the opera is everything that cinema isn’t. Film is not so dependent on its proper home of the cinema. The nature of the work is that it’s something recorded for eternity, that in the eyes of the creator, it is a memory.  A film can be watched on a big screen but also at home, on the internet or even on a mobile device.

Opera, on the other hand, is entirely dependent on its premises. It is theatre; something that registers best in the mind of the audience when consumed live. The music pervades the auditorium; with the acoustic at its best, you can feel the orchestra’s sounds vibrate on the ground and even through the balcony railing. Operatic voices have the ability to fill enormous houses or arenas that nowadays can seat from 20 to 20,000 spectators. Apart from anything else, opera is primarily a work of music and a visual spectacle. Even in the case of verismo operas – Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, even perhaps Puccini’s La bohème – there is nothing realistic, not even for the most fervent of opera lovers, about a collective of people singing their hearts out about their most intimate problems.

Where modern drama and the cinema invites subtext, mysticism, ambiguity, lack of clarity or silence, opera offers up the ‘truth’ on a silver platter. The key to cinema is presenting its ‘truth’ – the concept, theme, or even just the story – through visual means and, in cases where it’s more relevant, in dialogue. Dialogue, however poorly written, is a realistic tool. Humans converse with each other. This makes cinema, purely from the point of view of its technical fabric, the closest art of all arts to reality. We see in it the sort of views and cuttings of life that we have in our memories; brief scenes with people that we know, images of faces in our minds, recollections of discussions that we had with them.

Opera depends on the other side of art; taking what is not pertinent to our very existence – just as ballet does – and presenting all the feeling, beauty and ideas with which our souls are familiar. In order for this miracle to happen, a genius is necessary for the ‘realisation’ of the opera; for something that will transform it from being just a pleasant, glorious spectacle or feast of pretty music into a piece of believable, convincing theatre. In the majority of cases, this is something that doesn’t work out. Cinema attempts to take this opera myth and makes it real. Instead, it becomes more artificial.

The trouble with opera in cinema is that cinema wants to make use of what it assumes is ‘lurking beneath’. For instance, in Verdi’s La traviata, the second act begins with Violetta and her lover Alfredo having moved from Paris to the countryside. Alfredo, in his aria “Dei miei bollenti spiriti”, informs us that he and Violetta are gleefully in love and that the country is helping to alleviate the effects of her consumption. In Zeffirelli’s 1982 cinematic version, we are offered the visual ‘filler-in’; an image of Alfredo spinning Violetta around in his arms in their garden and the unexpected presence of a horse. Putting aside the sheer poor cinematic quality of this scene – the cliché of the steamed-up screen, as though to show it’s Alfredo’s imagination and not what actually goes on when he’s singing – it’s simply not what Verdi intended to say. No opera lover would imagine a horse being at all relevant in an opera where the main theme is a dying courtesan who, having lost all hope, finds her first source of genuine feeling in this man, Alfredo, and the only happiness in her life at this place in the country. The horse, even the grass or the fields, is simply not what it is about. This is why Verdi has Alfredo mention they are in the country but he certainly makes no great point about it; we only see the interior of the house in which they live.

Equally, the chances directors take with opera often disrespect the thoughts of the composer. In Robert Dornheim’s 2008 version of La bohème, in which Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón held starring roles, a totally unnecessary brief vision of Rodolfo and Mimì preparing to make love made its way between Acts I and II. Considering the end of Act I has Mimì and Rodolfo decide to go to Cafe Momus, where the latter’s friends await him, and the next Act begins at the Cafe Momus that evening, it would be safe to assume that the action takes place on the same day. The fact that Rodolfo and Mimì have become lovers reveals itself quite well when Rodolfo declares love for Mimì in the aria “O soave fanciulla” – “O sweet girl,” and there has been a sufficient lead-up preceding the aria.

Opera is an ‘obvious’ art, and however often intellectuals will try to make the case that Tosca “might not have died” at the end of Tosca, when she jumped off the Castel Sant’Angelo, she fell to her death – it’s really self-explanatory. In opera, everything is in the music. The reason for a forte or legato is not because it sounds prettier that way, just as the reason ‘Character A’ says something in a play is not because of euphony. The story runs through the music. Onscreen, it runs visually, and sometimes through dialogue. So when directors attempt to find something ‘hidden’ to explore in opera, they are making a crucial mistake. Thus by locking the orchestra into the medium of film, where the acoustics aren’t felt, where the theatrical experience isn’t present, they close off our chance of better understanding the music. It is only through perceiving those diminuendos and unexpected accented notes and expression markings audibly that we can know what Verdi or Puccini meant. Examining it visually in cinema hinders the progression of the music and does nothing for it. It’s quite evident that when in Madama Butterfly Cio-Cio San and Lord Pinkerton sing their love duet newly married on their wedding night, Cio-Cio San is not arbitrarily wandering in her nightgown through a field before she and her husband make love. Yet these are some of the additions which ‘innovative’ directors tend to bestow on poor opera (in this case it was renowned opera director, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle).

These are the inventions with which directors taint opera in cinema. Opera is difficult enough to believe when, as in most cases, the singers are hardly convincing; it’s difficult enough to process through your mind that a human being has real sentiment when they’re singing them out in grand arias and not speaking them aloud or hiding them. In the combination of the overtly spectacular nature of opera and the quieter, often subtler, and more curious form that is cinema as art, the result is not a failed merger of two arts in one. It leaves no art at all.