Sometime in 2014, I started wondering about why musicals have had so many successful adaptations to the big screen, and operas haven’t. Since then, I started to make my own cinematically-filmed operas, and experiment with both old and new work onscreen.
While at Guildhall, I took the opportunity to do some dissertation research on the subject. In 2017 I made a catalogue of (as far as I’m aware) most of the cinematically-filmed operas ever made in the Anglosphere (and a fair bit of the rest of the world), though the pandemic has led to that becoming gloriously incomplete. I’ve watched about 20% of them, and made some tentative conclusions.
First, film adaptations vary from one another in two key ways - how far the ‘text’ of an opera is adapted prior to being filmed, and how far different works take advantage of the filmed medium - how ‘filmy’ they are. Some works change the score a lot, while others a scored especially for film. Some works are made by sticking a static camera in front of a staged production, while others incorporate film as an essential element of their expressive tools.
To be honest, the highlight of the whole dissertation was producing the above graph, which summarises most of the research.
But if you want to read my full conclusions, but don’t want to email me for a copy, here you go:
"imaginatively conceived, beautifully articulated and richly illustrated"
- Rose Lawrence Horners' Award shortlist citation
“Cinematic opera can add many things to the form by providing another tool for the creators of opera to use. It can be far more than sticking a camera in front of a pre-existing stage show; the best filmed operas are those that need to be onscreen to be fully realised. Film has developed a huge number of expressive elements, many of which have proven to be compatible with opera as the form attempts to find the best way to transfer itself to screen. By examining the canon of cinematically-filmed operas, some core elements of that language - cutting with the phrase, the use of montage, and the use of shot composition to display relationships - have become increasingly set. We can also see that practitioners can usefully consider how far they should adapt the opera’s score prior to filming, and whether what they are creating ‘needs’ to be filmed to be fully realised. Work that has this need uses the visual element in a way that fluently combines with all of opera’s other components. Filmed opera also provides a way for opera to reach a large audience, and become native to the medium of transmission. These elements provide an abundance of ways in which cinematically-filmed opera can add new possibilities to opera, bringing it into a new era.”