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Vocal Apparitions: The Attraction of Cinema to Opera

Vocal Apparitions: The Attraction of Cinema to Opera

by Michal Grover-Friedlander, Roger Parker (Editor), Carolyn Abbate (Editor)

Cinema and opera have become intertwined in a variety of powerful and unusual ways. Vocal Apparitions tells the story of this fascinating intersection, interprets how it occurred, and explores what happens when opera is projected onto the medium of film. Michal Grover-Friedlander finds striking affinities between film and opera--from Lon Chaney's classic


Cinema and opera have become intertwined in a variety of powerful and unusual ways. Vocal Apparitions tells the story of this fascinating intersection, interprets how it occurred, and explores what happens when opera is projected onto the medium of film. Michal Grover-Friedlander finds striking affinities between film and opera--from Lon Chaney's classic silent film, The Phantom of the Opera, to the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera to Fellini's E la nave va.

One of the guiding questions of this book is what occurs when what is aesthetically essential about one medium is transposed into the aesthetic field of the other. For example, Grover-Friedlander's comparison of an opera by Poulenc and a Rossellini film, both based on Cocteau's play The Human Voice, shows the relation of the vocal and the visual to be surprisingly affected by the choice of the medium. Her analysis of the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera demonstrates how, as a response to opera's infatuation with death, cinema comically acts out a correction of opera's fate. Grover-Friedlander argues that filmed operas such as Zeffirelli's Otello and Friedrich's Falstaff show the impossibility of a direct transformation of the operatic into the cinematic.

Paradoxically, cinema at times can be more operatic than opera itself, thus capturing something essential that escapes opera's self-understanding. A remarkable look at how cinema has been haunted--and transformed--by opera, Vocal Apparitions reveals something original and important about each medium.

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Studies in Opera Series
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6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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Vocal Apparitions

The Attraction of Cinema to Opera
By Michal Grover-Friedlander

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12008-9


THIS BOOK is about cinema's attraction to the operatic voice: not about any and all points of contact between cinema and opera but rather about films that thematize the power that opera has over film-thematize, so to speak, their own "pull" toward opera. I explore cinema's acknowledgment of opera's power over it and account for this extreme attraction to opera. If a film is not driven by opera or does not wish, in its infatuation and obsession, to become operatic, if it does not risk its own "cinematicness" in being so haunted by opera, it does not figure in this book.

Starting with questions about the inner elaboration of the space of opera, I ask what happens when that space is projected onto the medium of film. My emphasis is on what specifically occurs when what is aesthetically essential about one medium is transposed into the aesthetic field of the other. It is not the case that each medium-opera or film-loses what is characteristic about it in this transformation. Instead, the transformation reveals the specificity of each, in ways that a consideration of opera or film on its own terms cannot. Paradoxically, cinema at times can be more "operatic" than opera itself, thus capturing somethingessential that escapes opera's self-understanding.

I deal with opera as a medium, on par with the medium of cinema, rather than as a musical genre or style comparable with, say, the symphony or the concerto. My investigation of cinema's relation to opera is to be distinguished from historical accounts of the influence of opera on cinema or of operatic music on film music. I do not outline continuities between the two media or discuss the development of genres across them (for instance, the melodrama of opera as finding a renewed life in Hollywood melodramas). Nor am I concerned with analogies of themes, actions, or characters, although those are always part of the picture. Operas appear within plots of films; characters go to the opera, listen to it, and are absorbed or overwhelmed by it, as we ourselves often are when viewing and listening to opera.

But if those instances are to be elaborated in relation to the guiding thread of the book, it is not by merely asking about the relation between the plot of the film and that of the embedded opera, or by treating the music of the opera as part of the film's music (operatic music as background film music is almost "too much," overdetermined). This is true of filmed operas as well: the attraction that opera holds for cinema does not express itself in what would initially seem to be the obvious case of filmed opera productions. Indeed, the most important, even avant-garde filmed operas emphasize the impossibility of a straightforward and direct transformation of the operatic into the cinematic, or of the vocal into the visual.

The fundamental point is always how all these cases of film's interaction with opera teach us something about the exchange between the two media, and how the transformation of one medium into the other may reveal unanticipated or previously unarticulated characteristics of each. The particular cases thus teach us something essential about the two media in question.

For precisely this reason, I am most interested in individual cases where the affinity between opera and film is extreme and extravagant, since true attraction is never moderate. These are often cases where opera-true to its nature-makes contact with film in unique conditions, under special circumstances, or in unexpected places. These extreme cases delimit the boundaries of the possibilities for film's involvement with opera.

This book assumes a conception of opera that ties together all six chapters. First and foremost, the chapters share a premise about the foundation of opera in a notion of voice. Voice is thus a common theme, yet I have not tried to cite or construct some common theoretical framework that could subsume and organize all the works I discuss. Any theoretical framework must be consequential to the interpretation of the works themselves, not something assumed or imported beforehand. My own idiosyncratic view of the nature of opera and of cinema, in particular the importance I assign to the singing voice and to the voice as a more abstract idea, does inform my approach. Yet I have tried to allow it to emerge from the material: the voice of opera in silent film (chapter 1), an impossible striving for the perfect image of song (chapter 3), opera on the phone (chapter 5), and a journey of the bodily remains of opera (chapter 6). It is my hope that, viewed in this way, my operatic films will reveal something about the relation of opera and film that is available neither in the abstract nor by way of theoretical accounts alone.

The title Vocal Apparitions: The Attraction of Cinema to Opera is meant to intimate a paradoxical linkage. First, "attraction" is meant, deliberately, to anthropomorphize film and opera, to imply transgression, to suggest that films deal with opera as an object of desire that may also be perilous to their autonomy or strict cinematic identity. But in coining that title, I wanted as well to problematize the notion that there is some continuous passage or smooth, predictable transition (either historically or within any given film) between opera and cinema. The linkage between cinema and opera should be taken as improbable or paradoxical, not natural; we should not assume that one melodramatic genre naturally and inevitably calls out to another and is answered in kind.

The title is also meant to suggest a series of passages or transformations. First among these is the passage between the vocal and the visual, both within each medium and in film's appropriations of opera. The idea of a vocal apparition unites the spectral with the acoustic; in my view, the interaction of these two domains always involves a critical negotiation, and not just in the more obvious case of film. Voice and image are uneasily related within opera. But "apparition" also alludes to the specific case where film calls up images whose origin lies, so to speak, beyond the medium of film. These images are imported into film by way of a hidden power that belongs to opera-they are the spectral remnants of the immaterial, invisible operatic voice.

Another passage implied by the idea of the apparition is the passage between death and life. One of my claims is that cinema inherits opera, as it were, reincarnating it. Thus scenes and images of opera in cinema refer to a past existence, a dead ancestor. At the same time, they maskthese reminders of mortality; they both divert us from and draw our attention to the uncanny presence of death. And paradoxically, at the same time, by lavishly staging the human voice with its implications of life and presence, opera in cinema holds out a promise of revival.

* * *

Four premises delineate my understanding of opera. The first premise is that the aesthetic foundation of opera is the operatic voice. Opera's voices and, with them, the idea of the operatic voice are unique to its world; the medium conceives of itself through its voices. This premise assumes a notion of song and singing that is characteristic of Italian opera and less so of other national genres. Though I do not wish to insist on or argue for the point, my view is that all opera-including nineteenth-century French and German opera, twentieth- and twenty-first-century opera-carries some trace of an "Italian" notion of song.

By an "Italian notion of song," I do not refer to some style of singing (such as bel canto) or even to the general point that melodious singing is an important aesthetic criterion in opera. What I mean is something quite different: opera that engenders a state in which one is always listening in anticipation of, or listening toward, a place where one knows beautiful singing will take place. The Italian notion of song produces the condition of always waiting for "beautiful moments" of singing. This is a kind of ecstatic listening, and it specifically acknowledges operatic singing as an activity bordering on the superhuman. Such singing is transcendent on the one hand yet always under the threat of appearing ridiculous on the other, being both miraculous and continually available for parody.

Such beautiful moments do not have any fixed aesthetic manifestation. They could figure as outbursts of coloratura, as improvisation, as continuous and smooth legato articulation, as singing to the limits of breath, or as an expression of "dramatic truth." These beautiful moments could yield the high note, the long note, the darkest note, and the most lyrical note. But in all cases, it is the special state of listening in anticipation of these moments that is crucial and accounts for their meaning. All opera has such moments.

These beautiful moments are objects of desire and anticipation; however, they are also ephemeral. Thus the state of anticipation brings with it a simultaneous consciousness of mortality. Moments of beautiful singing are always already being mourned, since one knows that they will have gone by at the very moment they appear. Put in its most paradoxical form: they are gone before they are there. There is a sense of no return connected to those beautiful moments, and, ultimately, their power over the listener depends on this programmed loss.

By raising the issue of mortality, I am intimating the second premise that conditions my understanding of opera. This is that death is immanent in the operatic voice. There are several accounts of death as a phenomenon in opera, and not just simply from the overobvious perspective of the libretto and the plot. Catherine Clément, Michel Poizat, Slavoj Zizek, and Carolyn Abbate, to name only a few, have various perspectives on this theme.

Clément provocatively claimed that singing itself seems to kill the heroines of opera. In her interpretation of opera's cultural work, these repeated deaths-the "undoing of women" in opera-are a symptom of female victimization in general. Our investment in this victimization ensures that opera will continue to be enjoyed. We are doubly deceived by the beautiful music, for it not only gives voice to and even causes these deaths but also encourages us to overlook or become amorally complicit in the murderous plot. Thus though the plots wallow in female death scenes, singing and music are also guilty-or even guiltier. They mask the horror of opera's excessive female mortality. Clément envisions a future for opera wherein women sing and are finally permitted to die for good. Violetta expires one last time, and La traviata is never performed again, for this is preferable to the forced immortality of infinitely repeated deaths.

In theorizing opera's attraction to death, Michel Poizat downplays the role of operatic plot while endorsing Clément's correlation between voice and death. For Poizat, the various characters' deaths mirror a trajectory that is, in the abstract, immanent in the idea of the operatic voice as such. Voice, in Poizat's view, is a spectrum, a continuum whose "high" extreme is a sound beyond singing (melos) and beyond signification: the cry, the shriek, the scream, fading out into after-echoes and silence. The "low" extreme of the voice is logos: a logical, minimally inflected, and unsung speech. For Poizat, operatic voice, in being drawn into melodious singing, is always impelled toward the high extreme in an unattainable quest for a transcendent point that does not exist. Thus operatic narratives that prescribe death for their characters allegorize the tendency of voice to reach for its own high extreme. Thus in staging death, opera stages its fundamental vocality. For Poizat, opera's essence resides in moments in which listener and singer alike lose themselves in the singer's voice, dissolving in what becomes sheer voice, a vocal object. He writes: "In opera, the voice does not express the text-that is what theatre is for; the text expresses the voice ... it is not because the dramatic Logic of the libretto has led the female character to her death that she cries out at that moment; it is because a logic of vocal jouissance is at work and is driving at the cry that the dramatic conditions necessary for its occurrence are created, demanding a death, for example."

Slavoj Zizek, concentrating mainly on Wagner, interprets opera as being about a subject unable to die, about longing for peace in death. Zizek imports the Lacanian-some might say horror-movie-motif of "two deaths" and existence "between two deaths," the first being the biological death, and the second, dying in peace "with ... accounts settled and with no symbolic debt haunting his or her memory." Between the two deaths is a state of eternal longing and unfulfilled desire. It is here that Zizek locates the exemplary Wagnerian horror as he sees it: the threat of existing as an undead monster. For Abbate, however, death in Wagner's operas is a Utopian moment in which the opera seems to displace the authorial voice quite radically, replacing it with a voice that has no source from within the plot. Death thus also allows a form of operatic immortality. Heroines remain in music after their death, in something resembling a sonorous form.

As an addendum to these theories about death in opera, I formulate my third premise, which is more specific and yet makes a rather pan-historical critical claim about mortality and operatic voice. Operatic deaths replay the medium's primal "Orphic death," by which I mean not the death of Orpheus (which was, in fact, seldom included in librettos) but a more complicated system or structure implicit in the myth. Citing the Orpheus myth as a master operatic figure is, of course, hardly unprecedented. As Wayne Koestenbaum put it, "Every opera revives Orpheus, the art form's genesis." The very persistence with which critics and historians return to this master trope should, itself, be seen as significant. We should note how curious it is that the founding myth of the "birth of opera" via the narrative of Orpheus has persisted for so long, despite grave reservations concerning its historical accuracy. An accounting of the actual invention of opera, the precedents of opera, and its development after 1600 has long gone beyond Orpheus. Yet the sense of a miraculous birth persists-in other words, opera's "philosophical" and fabulous lineage, as opposed to its actual and "pragmatic" lineage, persists even in light of contradictory evidence.

And so, the founding myth: the death of Eurydice, the transformation of Orpheus's loss into music that attempts to overcome death. Initially, Orpheus is successful in bringing back the dead Eurydice. But Orpheus's success is ultimately also the story of his failure to sustain Eurydice's revival. What is striking in the myth is that song's power manifests itself in the first instance as the possibility of passage between death and life, indeed, as the power to bring the world to life or back to life. But if we turn this on its head, we see the corollary: without facing mortality and separation, without experiencing the pain that can create song, one brings death into one's life. A world without song is itself dead.

But there should be reservations about any such ecstatic claim, reservations already intimated in my first premise, about opera, voice, and song. It is inherently impossible to sustain the ecstatic power of song. Singing, "Italian song," is always anticipated as subject to inevitable mortality. Singing is a way station on the voice's inevitable trajectory toward cries and silence. And, in the Orpheus myth, song opens only a temporary passage between worlds, and it is unable to make the upper world a permanent home for someone who inhabits the netherworld. The slip back into old ways of experiencing the world is the temptation figured in Orpheus's need to gaze backward at Eurydice. But, more important, he cannot sustain, or make permanent, a miraculous phenomenon based on and in song. Any such phenomenon is transient, ephemeral, and without the reassurance of actual presence. Orpheus is tempted to look back at Eurydice and to relate to her in the way that must bring her renewed death.

In the myth, a distinction is established between a song that revives (but is transient) and a gaze that kills (and is permanent). According to Stanley Cavell, this duality has to do with "the expressive capacity of song: ecstasy over the absolute success of its expressiveness in recalling the world, as if bringing it back to life; melancholia over its inability to sustain the world, which may be put as an expression of the absolute inexpressiveness of the voice, of its failure to make itself heard, to become intelligible-evidently a mad state."


Excerpted from Vocal Apparitions by Michal Grover-Friedlander Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Carolyn Abbate
No précis is adequate to the range and perceptiveness of Vocal Apparitions, which sets Harpo Marx's mute "singing" aside silent speech as remnants from silent opera tradition, or lip-synching as a technological corruption of the operatic voice aside the telephone in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine and its orchestral voice-effects. The sheer intellectual élan of Grover-Friedlander's book lends it a marvelous wind-from-another-planet quality that is to be celebrated in no uncertain terms.
Carolyn Abbate, Princeton University
Stanley Cavell
The sublime topic of opera in (and as) film has increasingly attracted the attention of young, culturally aware, scholars. The book presents an ideal orientation to the reach of the phenomenon. The depth of Michal Grover-Friedlander's knowledge, her intellectual verve and purpose are everywhere in evidence.
Stanley Cavell, Harvard University
Mary Ann Smart
An enormously engaging book. Grover-Friedlander's reflections on individual operas and films, and on the structural relationship between the two genres, are several steps ahead of any existing book on the subject.
Mary Ann Smart, University of California, Berkeley

Meet the Author

Michal Grover-Friedlander teaches in the Musicology Department and the Interdisciplinary Program in the Arts at Tel Aviv University.

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