Foxes, fans and farting

Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen
September 3, 2004

Christopher Wood finds that songs on film have a curious star system.

The austere French film-maker Robert Bresson took a famously hard line on the use of music in movies. "No music to accompany, support or reinforce," he decreed in his slender, revolutionary volume Notes on Cinematography . "No music at all."

At the moment, we could hardly be further from the fulfilment of Bresson's desires. Modern movies seem to display the same sort of annihilation of silence that doom-mongers used to predict for our public spaces, whereby banal activities such as taking a lift or buying a pint of milk would be accompanied by an obligatory soundtrack of muzak. It was not only the paranoid who were reminded of the unswitchoffable telescreens in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four .

Going to the cinema these days can give rise to similar feelings of entrapment. Music is companion to every image, even when it duplicates or even nullifies what the image is trying to do. Film music is so ubiquitous that its greatest impact comes when, suddenly and unexpectedly, it isn't there.

Bresson modified his statement with a footnote: "Except, of course, music played by visible instruments." Would he approve, then, of filming classical music, such as occurs at this time of year courtesy of the Proms? Yet the televised Proms seem to offer redundant images instead of redundant music. Does it really matter what the triangle player looks like at the moment his tiny hammer blow falls? Does the sight of the trombonist's puce cheeks enhance our enjoyment of the music he is manfully struggling in the service of? Orchestral musicians are generally expressionless creatures and so the cameras dwell on the conductor; but is the music any more moving because the conductor looks moved?

Perhaps Bressonian integrity can be maintained only by filming dramatic action that carries its own inseparable musical component. Opera, in other words. Which is a good moment to introduce Ken Wlaschin's tour de force aimed at devotees of filmed opera, films set in opera houses, films where opera is a central feature or someone suddenly bursts into song, or films where opera forms part of the soundtrack; all manner of combinations of opera and film, no matter how fleeting or insubstantial, are to be found in the Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen .

We can all probably think of a few instances of opera in the movies. The French film Diva a couple of decades ago made extravagant use of an aria from an opera whose title caused the English much innocent amusement, Catalani's "La Wally". "The Ride of the Valkyries" (ever the popular operatic lollypop, as its outing at the Glastonbury Festival this year confirmed) accompanied a bombing raid by US helicopters in Apocalypse Now .

In Citizen Kane , Kane's wife Susan revealed the slenderness of her singing talents in an opera composed especially for the film by Bernard Herrmann.

Joseph Losey did a Don Giovanni . The Marx Brothers spent A Night at the Opera ; various versions have been made of The Phantom of the Opera ; and Bugs Bunny pertinently asked "What's Opera, Doc?" At which point our brains might start to feel racked dry.

But Wlaschin has come up with thousands of such instances. Parts of The Marriage of Figaro , for example, are heard playing: in a park bandstand where Michael Caine and an Albanian spook meet in The Ipcress File ; in the 1942 spy mystery Cairo ; over the titles of Trading Places from 1983; in a ten-minute Italian silent that (we must trust Wlaschin on this) was apparently doing the rounds in 1911; and in a further 30-odd entries.

In many cases, the opera has more of a decorative role than a direct bearing on the content of the film, but Wlaschin also cites numerous operas or arias that have been used to reflect or comment on film action. In Sunday Bloody Sunday , made by opera buff and occasional opera director John Schlesinger, the trio " Soave sia il vento ", sung to a departing ship by Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso in Mozart's Così Fan Tutte , recurs frequently and poignantly presages the sundering of the film's love triangle.

The bulk of Wlaschin's encyclopedia is taken up less with operatic intrusions into feature films than with straightforward films of opera productions, which range from the prosaic, literal-minded practice of planting one or more cameras in an opera house and letting them run, to more imaginative recent efforts, such as the cartoon version of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen and an elaborate Tosca , which intercut scenes of the orchestra in a recording session with episodes of dramatic action.

Of course, it is cheaper and simpler, though usually duller, to adopt the former approach, and looking again at The Marriage of Figaro , we can read of filmed productions in Italy in 1948, Germany in 1949 and 1967, Glyndebourne in 1973, Paris in 1980, and numerous others that probably did little to extend the creative boundaries of the filmic art. On the other hand, if the singers involved were rather special and are no longer active, through death or retirement, such films can be of inestimable value to opera buffs purely as documentary records. Wlaschin adds details of VHS or DVD recordings if they exist, and by consulting a list of distributors at the back, readers can try to track them down.

Unsurprisingly, Carmen is the opera with the greatest number of screen versions, and to glance at that opera's entry - from an 1894 work by Thomas Edison, to a 2003 film by Vincent Aranda, taking in dozens of movies along the way - is to bear witness to a level of astounding research that is sustained throughout this encyclopedia.

The book functions as a series of alphabetical entries, largely by opera title, under which can be found all the filmed productions Wlaschin has been able to unearth, along with details of any film with the slightest hint of relevance to the opera. There are also entries for a smaller number of films themselves, when opera is the dominant subject matter (I nterrupted Melody, The Great Caruso, Carmen Jones and so on), and for singers, opera and film directors, for the odd city (for example, Vienna), and for various notable composers and conductors.

The definition of opera adopted by Wlaschin is broad enough to encompass operetta and its Spanish variant, zarzuela , and also takes in a certain number of musicals. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Kern make it, with Oklahoma also passing the test as a "vernacular opera". There is no mention at all of the genre known as rock opera - Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Tommy et al - whether on grounds of semantics or aesthetics is unclear. (A recent television screening of Ken Russell's film Tommy certainly suggests it could be for aesthetic reasons.) More regrettable is the exclusion of the films made by Jacques Demy with composer Michel Legrand: it should not be too taxing to come up with a definition of filmed opera that allowed a mention of such wonders as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort .

There are also entries for a few definite non-operas - Haydn's The Creation, Verdi's Requiem, Bach's St Matthew Passion - although it is not quite clear how they bluffed their way in.

Being the work of humans, the encyclopedia has the odd flaw. Losey not Schlesinger is at one point named as the director of Sunday Bloody Sunday , and a (sadly) non-existent DVD is listed for Michael Powell's Tales of Hoffmann. Trading Places is claimed to have been made in 1983 and again in 1993.

And there are omissions. If one is going to allow Haydn's Creation , reference must be made to Jaime de Armiñán's wonderful film El Nido , shortlisted for the foreign-language Oscar in 1980, in which Haydn's piece plays a central role. The 1962 Billy Budd , Terence Stamp's screen debut, is left out. An entry for the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler could have mentioned Istvàn Szabó's recent film of Ronald Harwood's play about Furtwängler, Taking Sides. The Chinese opera that features near the climax of Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai might have crept in, as could the down-and-out opera singer whose craggy integrity contrasts with the fripperies of Swinging Sixties London in the closing scene of Schlesinger's Darling .

A curious star system is in operation to denote Wlaschin's special approval. It seems to be three stars or nothing, except that a two-star rating on page 313 makes one uncertain. Probably a misprint. Elsewhere, Wlaschin's personal likes and dislikes are not difficult to discern. The tawdry Amadeus , with all its farting jokes, is a particular favourite, as is the German director Werner Herzog, "one of the great film-makers of our time" (discuss), and so are the zarzuela productions at the Jarvis Conservatory, Napa (California), which all seem to get three stars.

Wlaschin's dislikes include a scene in Ken Russell's Mahler that jokes about Mahler's Jewishness, which has got so under his skin that he returns to savage it several times and lists it under the entry "Worst Opera on Film".

As more and more DVDs of filmed operas are coming out even as we speak, there is a risk that a book such as this will very soon fail to reflect what is available. The DVD listing is in any case a little erratic - Sunday Bloody Sunday is one of many films listed as being "on video" that are actually available on DVD (in this case only in America, or via the internet).

But enough griping. The Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen is a prodigious work. Admittedly, many of the thousands of films it mentions are too obscure for there to be any real prospect of ever seeing them. But lovers of opera or film or both will find each page a rich source of endlessly fascinating knowledge. The best of these films offer a triumphant blessing on the union of film and music. Even Bresson might have approved of that.

Christopher Wood is a freelance writer on music and film who regularly reviews film books for The Times .

Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen

Author - Ken Wlaschin
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 872
Price - £45.00
ISBN - 0 300 10263 1

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