JWR Articles: Interview - S. James Wegg (Source: Phil Hall) - October 1, 2004
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S. James Wegg

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JWR managing editor discusses opera and film

Note: In the most recent edition of the Online Film Critics Association newsletter (October 2004), film reviewer and contributing editor to Film Threat, Phil Hall, interviewed James Wegg. Here is that transcript:

A personal confession: I love opera. And yet, I’ve always wondered why there are so very few successful film adaptations of classic opera. To get an answer, I turned to James Wegg, who recently joined the OFCS and who is also a classic music and opera critic as well as a film journalist.

Opera is performed all over the world, but there have been relatively few film versions of great operas. Why do you feel that filmmakers shy away from this source?

One of the great advantages of film is that its shelf life is limited only by the medium on which it’s been recorded. With the digital age going full tilt, most films can expect to be available in one format or another forever. A performance of opera (depending on the composer’s inspiration!) lasts 2 (Puccini) to 6 hours (Wagner) and has no future life: It ends with the final curtain-call of the Diva. That’s one reason why opera tickets are so expensive.

Finding the ideal cast is another near-impossible task. Only a very few rise to superstar status (Pavarotti, Sutherland, Callas, Domingo, Vickers, Fleming)—there isn’t enough talent to go around so when a “dream cast” is put together for Milan’s Teatro alla scala or Convent Garden in London (two of the few stages that can afford the freight), the prices skyrocket again. Opera fanatics will gladly pay any price if the voices they love will share the same room with them in person.

And there’s the key: bel canto, beautiful singing.

Let’s face it, passable acting and off-character obesity is readily overlooked if the top C is clear, supported and frequently held two seconds longer than indicated in the music. It’s an incredible human accomplishment that rewards the faithful for ninety minutes of so-so plot.

Enter the filmmakers.

When filming “live” stage performances, their task is to selectively choose which singer to follow, what part of the set (more designed for clarity from the balcony than the close scrutiny of a lens) to include and when to cutaway to the maestro urging his unionized charges in the pit on to excellence.

In an opera house, the conductor mixes the sound from the podium—his hands shape the texture of the final product—no (well, er, hardly ever) microphones are used. The filmmaker must try and recreate that glorious natural sound using all manner of artificial means: body mics, stage mics, pit mics, hoping the sound engineer is a genius (an unexpected fortissimo from 100 musicians, 12 soloists and 50 chorus members could result in a spike that only leaves distortion in its analog—those were the days—wake).

As can be imagined, the chances of producing a truly exceptional film trying to force one art into another is so daunting that, even apart from the huge costs involved (with little chance of becoming a popular “hit”) are so small, few producers take the risk.

Another approach is to record the music in a studio, then film the opera “on location,” having the singers lip-sync their roles. The results are far more visually attractive, but perfect synchronization is rare, leaving viewers disappointed or forced to shut their eyes and just revel in the sound—but isn’t that radio?

If you were to introduce moviegoers to the best of opera-on-film, which films would you recommend and why?

Two words: Franco Zeffirelli. As a way into opera-on-film (or opera itself), there is no abler proponent than this Italian master. His 1982 La Bohème (videotaped live at Lincoln Center—television is the only way to broadcast live-to-air, cross-reference below) is a marvel of understatement and subtle effects (he also designed the sets and costumes—a huge plus in ensuring artistic unity). And with Teresa Stratas as the doomed Mimi, Zeffirelli has an all-too-rare combination: exquisite voice and first-rate actor. His genius in this production is revealed in the way he focuses on her hands, employing close-ups that could never be seen in the hall, contrasting those with extreme wide shots of his scenic tableaus that, likewise, would be appreciated only by those in the highest balcony. The score is the most “perfect” opera ever written, its four acts expertly balance comedy and tragedy, solo and duets with ensembles and lusty choruses. Zeffirelli’s ace? He understands the music.

Four years later Zeffirelli dared to try the pre-record-the-music-then-film approach, coming up with an Otello (Verdi’s) that still stands as one of the finest achievements ever in opera-on-film. As is his habit (and incredible skill) Zeffirelli designed the entire production, knowing all the while when candles would add warmth to an aria or the shadowy window bars would provide visual subtext to Otello’s marvellous descent into personal hell. By using many cutaways rather than the obligatory “stand and deliver” approach preferred by others whenever the leads open their mouths, the inevitable mismatched “lips-to-music” moments were greatly reduced. (cross-reference below)

Again, with such depth in design, blocking and an instinct for the music, viewers can’t help but be swept away.

Mozart’s Masonic masterpiece Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute)—particularly the 1991 Metropolitan Opera telecast (widely available in VHS and DVD)—is another painless entry into the operatic genre. With animals that sing, dysfunctional families, fear of imminent death (think Jurassic Park with a tune!) and discreetly positioned English surtitles of the original German, you can’t go wrong. And the voices: Kurt Moll’s Act II low F and Luciana Serra’s (The Queen of the Night) stratospheric excursion four octaves higher are worth the price of admission alone. (cross-reference below)

This may sound strange, but Hollywood frequently made films based on opera during the silent movie era—but after the coming of sound, Hollywood never produced a film version of a famous opera. Do you foresee a day in the not-so-distant future when one of the studios will give the green light for a filmed opera?

If the acting level of today’s opera stars improved and directors with more than a passing knowledge of music and design could be found and if technology could somehow allow perfect links from voice track to the screen (note: the human body at full cry in a big aria takes on the persona of the pitch—it’s not just the mouth, what with gallons of air supporting the vibration, the throat holding on for dear life and the diaphragm pushing and pulling as required), then perhaps the two art forms could find their way to the artistic altar and produce more satisfying suspensions of disbelief.

If you had the funds and capacity to adapt an opera to the screen, what would you choose and why?

Dead Man Walking (cross-reference below) has journeyed from book form to film to opera (Jake Heggie, composer), but each format used a different approach to Sister Helen Prejean’s moving testimony of life on death row.’ Given its strong visual demands and that the story leads the way rather than the vocal histrionics, the opera would likely work better as a film; that could be the way to the future: Imagine operas conceived as film. Perhaps Canada’s Guy Maddin, whose film-ballet of Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary(cross-reference below) was so brilliant, could be persuaded to put his considerable skills to that near-impossible enterprise. JWR

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Source - Phil Hall
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