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11.1.05

Live Opera vs. Film

There was a tempest in the arts blog teacup, involving A. C. Douglas, as you might have guessed. The matter at hand, which I read and followed but have not yet commented on, was ACD's request for any reason that would justify to him the continued existence of live theater, when film to him seems to have made such performance obsolete. George Hunka defended his favorite art form at Superfluities, and ACD responded, as did Helen Radice (twang twang twang), John Shaw (uTopianTurtleTop), Marcus Maroney (Sounds Like New), David Sucher (City Comforts), Lisa Hirsch (Iron Tongue of Midnight), et al.

I know that ACD has said "Basta!" to this topic, but Philip Kennicott's article (Opera and Film: Can This Union Be Saved?, January 9) in the Washington Post made me think about it again. Would ACD extend his definition of "live theater" to include live opera? Can a filmed opera present an opera better than an opera performed live? Furthermore, does the possibility of filmed opera obviate the live performance of opera? (I seem to recall that ACD has admitted on his blog that he does not attend many operas these days, because no production measures up to the perfect production running in his head. If I have that wrong, for which I conditionally apologize in advance, you can rely on the certainty of ACD's correcting response.) Kennicott's article is an interesting explanation of the shortcomings of film as a medium to present opera:

So where are the great films of opera? Yet to be made. The form has never conquered what might be called the tongue-and-teeth problem. While it makes perfect sense within the opera house that everything is sung, when transferred onto film, the opera illusion often breaks down. Suddenly one is wrenched from a world where it's normal for people to say hello and good night and I love you in song into a world where you notice huge gaping mouths, swelling diaphragms, quivering tongues and glistening teeth. And even when the films are dubbed, and the singers attempt to look as if they're speaking, there's an uncanny sense that the voice is emerging from a hole not big enough to produce it.

Rather than assist in the creation of theatrical intimacy, the camera usually punctures the basic illusion essential to opera. (If films of classic musicals don't necessarily suffer from that problem, perhaps it's because their makers never took themselves so seriously as the directors of opera on film. Movie musicals are filmed with a wink and nod that acknowledges the lightness, the improbability of the whole aesthetic.)
I don't know if this is a propos or not, but there you go.

UPDATE:
A. C. Douglas has provided an interesting response to this post: "in answer to the question, 'Can a filmed opera present an opera better than an opera performed live?', the answer is, No, it cannot." For ACD just as it was obvious that film has made live theater obsolete, opera must be experienced live on a stage (except for Wagner's Ring, which calls out for high-end animation).

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