The convergence of film and opera, or, What I did on my summer vacation

I'm back from my Santa Fe trip, which was just about the ideal vacation. (I only wish I'd been there longer than a long weekend. Next time. And there'll definitely be a next time.) Two eminently enjoyable nights at the opera, in the open air with the mountains in the distance; two magnificent sopranos;* excitingly unfamiliar architecture and landscapes everywhere; excellent New Mexican and Spanish food; a little Georgia O'Keeffe; lots of walking around; the fortuitous discovery of a good used bookstore; and more sunshine than I've seen in New England for ages. How beautiful is Santa Fe? Well, see for yourselves; I took pictures.

I ended up spending a lot of the trip thinking about the convergence of opera and the movies. I'd been looking forward to The Letter, the second opera I saw, for more than a year — ever since last spring's blogger meetup and Met HD broadcast expedition with Terry Teachout, who wrote the libretto and who's been blogging the whole process of writing the opera with composer Paul Moravec. The Letter was originally a short story by Somerset Maugham, which he then adapted into a play, which was made into a movie starring Bette Davis. The visual vocabulary of this production was explicitly and deliberately cinematic and film-noirish. (Some of the musical vocabulary sounded cinematic, too; once or twice I thought of the score of Vertigo.) At one point, Patricia Racette puts on a broad-brimmed hat and a white trench coat straight out of the ending of Casablanca. And, like the movie, the opera starts with six gunshots and a dead guy on the veranda.

It was both intriguing and at times quite startling to see film conventions and operatic conventions collide. Especially because film conventions tend to be so visual and camera-oriented — the close-up, the blackout, the flashback, and so on — and operatic conventions are so closely associated with the stage; even the chorus is a holdover from ancient Greek drama (as interpreted by sixteenth-century Florentines). The overall effect is to defamiliarize both sets of conventions. There are surging strings in the scene between the adulterous lovers, but there are soaring voices as well. There are flashbacks and cinematic lighting, but there's also a stage set that's constantly being shifted before our eyes. And Patricia Racette's character in The Letter is very much in the film noir femme fatale mold, until she starts singing arias — and suddenly she takes on the kind of inner life you get from intensely operatic music, but not so much in actual film noir, where the femme fatale character is usually a) tough as nails and b) something of a cipher. But the worlds of opera and film noir seemed quite close to each other by the end of the evening.

The interesting thing was that I had some of the same thoughts about La Traviata on my first night in Santa Fe, in large part because the director emphasized Violetta's distance from polite society by playing up the "wild party" aspects of Act 1 and Act 3. Noticing that the costumes were vaguely late 19th-century except that all the women's dresses were slit up the front to allow for can-can style leg-flashing, I thought "Hey, they're borrowing from Moulin Rouge!" And then I thought "Well, that's appropriate, since Moulin Rouge borrowed most of the plot of La Traviata." Later on I recalled that Baz Luhrmann is also a theater director who's done a fair amount of opera. All of which made the chorus's little performance-within-a-performance at the beginning of Act 3 ("E Piquillo un bel gagliardo") seem even more metatheatrical.

I'm not surprised that opera and film might converge, especially in the age of opera on DVD and movie broadcasts like the Met's, which have the added benefit of highlighting the acting chops of singers who can act for the camera. I'm sure there are purists on both sides who won't like that idea, but as for me? I'm a fan of both film and opera, and I have a thing for hybridity, not to mention that eminently 21st-century genre, the mashup.** And I say, long may it last; I can't wait to see what's next to emerge from the collision.

* I love Patricia Racette, who got to act up a storm in this production. I love Natalie Dessay even more. Some of the reviewers have been saying her voice isn't big enough for Violetta; I can see that, but in the end, if it's not already obvious from this post, it's the theatricality of opera that draws me as much as the music does. And I don't think I'll ever forget the way she laid Violetta's soul completely bare for us, bit by bit, at the end of Act 1, or the devastatingly quiet remoteness of her "Addio del passato." (I had to take advantage of the prolonged applause afterward to blow my nose honkingly a few times.)

** One of the books I was reading on the plane was Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. 'Nuff said.

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