Virtual Opera

Lockdown has caused a rash of online opera, so I thought I'd write a bit about my experiences with opera for film - whether researching it or making it as Artistic Director of Virtually Opera.


Point 1: Please, please, please Google the name of your company before naming it. It helps distinctiveness, brand identity, and people trying to find you. Yes, I'm looking at you, Virtual Opera [REDACTED] and Virtual Opera [REDACTED].


Point 2: No, the arts have yet to establish a commercially viable way of releasing content for the screen and getting people to actually pay for it. No, that does not make it OK for you to ask artists to send you stuff for free and not bother paying them. Your artists should be paid at least Living Wage, even if it means you can spend less time making The Work.


This applies all the more in a global pandemic where artists have loads of free time (because they've lost a lot of work).


Point 3: Here's a few things I've started to think about cinematically-filmed opera.


Cinematically-filmed opera, by which I mean "opera made and staged specifically for the screen" has possibilities and limitations beyond stage work. What does this mean for the work?


Let's start with a graph.


First off, is your opera written for the stage, or written for the screen? This isn't a simple yes/no - while an opera like Carmen is written entirely for the stage, once you start making cuts to it, you're starting to rewrite it for the screen, as in Zefirelli's Otello. You can rewrite the words (say, for the screen version of Carmen Jones), or even bits of the music, as for the 1930s film of Rosenkavalier.


And then there are operas written for screen, most famously Britten's Owen Wingrave. But that's still definitely an opera written by a stage composer, and one that could be done onstage. Unlike the awe-inspiringly gory cyberpunk special effects-filled mess of a show that is Repo! The Genetic Opera.

Why is this important? Because if you are filming an opera, you need to know how film-native it is. Films don't usually have shots longer than about 7 seconds, but a lyrical musical phrase can easily be twice that length. The default mode for a film is naturalism - but opera is inherently not realistic.


In much the same way as filming one of Shakespeare's plays, filming an opera requires some careful judgements about what exactly you're trying to do. Do you want there to be a film that recreates the experience of watching an opera in an opera house? (Good luck with that on a laptop with other tabs open...) Or do you want it to create the emotional response of watching that opera in an opera house? Or do you want to create something that treats the opera's score and libretto as a starting text, but makes a great movie? The further along the road you go, the more you're going to need to think about making changes to the opera's stage score - or even just commissioning a new work.


In my research, I tend to call this 'filminess'. How cinematic is the work? At the bottom, we have archive recordings - single-camera recordings of staged productions with no editing involved. Gradually, we start editing things a bit more for livecasts and DVD releases, before moving into specially-made films that increasingly use other filmed genres as an equal point of reference, as in the sitcom-esque film of The Telephone. Otello makes cuts to the score, so sits a little further along the 'written for stage/screen' axis. (There are also blackface things to talk about in that film, but not here).


Then we get to the special adaptations of stage works for the screen. Holten's Juan changes the libretto of Don Giovanni to tell a related, but different story. It's very definitely a cinematic interpretation of the tale.

Why think about this? Because at the moment, a lot of the scramble to hastily-made filmed operas hasn't appeared to think too much about the challenge of making a staged work fit to the screen. But if we think about what exactly we're doing, we can think about what the other possibilities are.


You can use film to bring out the narrative, characters, and other elements of a canonical work, emphasising different motifs and gestures in a way that the stage cannot. You can reinterpret such works, offering new ideas by translating them into a form which has far more accessible reference points (imagine, say, the Ring Cycle filmed in the style of a Marvel movie. What does that add to the story? What does it take away?).


It can provide a new home for work that draws on stage traditions, but takes advantage of some elements of film (such as an increased number of locations, or simple special effects). But the most exciting work for me is when it creates work that would be impossible to stage, that has the maximum possible 'filminess', and thus reinvents what opera can be by using a new medium. The opportunities aren't just technological - they're the chance for parallel texts, or a wider palette of stories, or work genuinely made for mass consumption. That last part, for me, is where the most exciting work is to be done - can we make such a thing?


I could go into a little more detail on those last two paragraphs, but I'm aware that this article is getting a little long.


I could also talk about how much all this costs to do well. We need to be thinking about such work as a thing-in-its-own-right, not a recreation of the live experience. Film can bring opera to far larger audiences, especially online, which is a plus, but it also drains audiences from local live opera houses, especially outside big cities.


Perhaps a more interesting future article is on what exactly cinematically-filmed opera is for. Are we trying to serve the composer's intentions? To create a new Regietheater interpretation? Or just a series of well-composed shots in a music video? For my money, we are best served by drawing on other genres.


But in short, cinematically-opera can add a lot to the form - but please, do more than just stick a camera in front of a singer and pretend I'm not going to open Facebook in the boring bits!


Just cut the boring bits, or commission a work that works on screen.

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