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From Screen to Stage

A surprising number of operas are using cinema for source material.
By Joe Cadagin
Illustration by Ben Kirchner 

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Illustration By Ben Kirchner

THERE'S AN UNSPOKEN HIERARCHY in art that places older, “highbrow” forms of storytelling (epics, novels, plays, ballets) over more recent media (comic books, movies, TV shows and video games). Adaptation is supposed to move downward through this hierarchy: Norse sagas are distilled into J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, which are made into Peter Jackson’s blockbusters, which end up on your kid’s Xbox as LEGO® The Lord of the Rings. While the prestige of the original lends the “lower” adaptation a seal of legitimacy (“based on the beloved classic”), a move upward in the hierarchy is seen as an affront to good taste and panned as a laughable attempt to milk a franchise.

Opera has traditionally followed the “acceptable” progression from stage to screen, with successful studio productions such as Zeffirelli’s Traviata, Bergman’s Magic Flute and Syberberg’s Parsifal. Yet artists have been hesitant to allow the current to reverse. In live opera, moving pictures typically take a dramaturgical back seat, either as a technological novelty (the film sequences in Lulu and Die Soldaten) or as an affordable alternative to painted backdrops and three-dimensional sets. 

But in the past few decades, the industry has slowly reevaluated this relationship, in which film simply serves as a tool for staging or transmission. Composers, librettists and directors are beginning to acknowledge cinema as a viable source for operatic adaption—and not only films inspired by novels or plays, but original stories that were conceived for the big screen.

If the concept feels counterintuitive, it’s because it goes against the grain, moving “backward” through the unofficial hierarchy of adaptation. The first major translation of a film into an opera, Philip Glass’s 1993 adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, had its premiere a century after the invention of modern motion-picture cameras.

Glass’s choice of Cocteau points to a common feature of film-based operas; while Broadway capitalizes on mainstream Hollywood hits, opera prioritizes groundbreaking “art films.” Works by daring cinematic auteurs—directors such as Hitchcock, Bergman and Lars von Trier, who capture intense emotions and tackle big questions about what it means to be human—transfer well to the stage. Von Trier’s films are especially suited, with their tragic, self-sacrificing heroines straight from Verdi and stories of social alienation reminiscent of Benjamin Britten. “He’s just as good a manipulator as Puccini,” says Danish librettist Henrik Engelbrecht, who collaborated with composer Poul Ruders on a 2010 adaption of von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. “He knows when we are going to reach for the handkerchief.”

Engelbrecht sees little difference between adapting movies and the more traditional practice of operatizing plays and novels. There’s an expectation that cosmopolitan operagoers of today will be familiar with art-house classics and the latest Cannes winners in the same way that cultivated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century audiences would have known the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, Beaumarchais and Walter Scott.“And the composers back then worked that to their advantage. They didn’t have to elaborate,” says Engelbrecht, pointing out that a convoluted opera such as Il Trovatore makes perfect sense if you’ve seen the play by Antonio García Gutiérrez.

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Kiera Duffy in the 2016 operatic adaptation of Breaking the Waves
Dominic M. Mercier for Opera Philadelphia

OPERA COMPANIES MAKE THE MOST OF THIS FAMILIARITY IN THEIR MARKETING CAMPAIGNS. In 2016, Opera Philadelphia hosted a screening of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves in anticipation of composer Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation. The company has also produced Kevin Puts’s 2011 Pulitzer Award-winning Silent Night, based on the movie Joyeux Noël. General manager David Devan views cinema as a possible “on-ramp” to bring in new audiences, though he hopes it’s not the only one. “There are clearly benefits of notoriety, but I don’t think we would be at a point where we were suggesting a film to any composer.”

However, for director Leonard Foglia, opera’s upsurge in adaptation looms as a threat to true creativity, reflecting the steady stream of reboots coming out of Hollywood and Broadway. In 2016, he had the challenge of staging Jake Heggie’s opera version of It’s a Wonderful Life. “Everyone’s looking for a familiar title that the audience will relate to. And I find that sad. Because I think there are a lot of original stories out there that could be told.”

THE FAMILIARITY OF ICONIC CINEMA CAN PROVE A CURSE, SETTING UP EXPECTATIONS THAT ARE IMPOSSIBLE TO MEET. Engelbrecht even recalls a backlash after the premiere of Dancer in the Dark from viewers who expected an operatic clone of the von Trier: “Both the audience and the reviewers, they almost unanimously said, ‘Oh yes, that’s fine, but it’s not the film! Why is this omitted? Why is this not in?’”

For this reason, operatic creators often distance themselves from the film. Some of the artists I interviewed seemed almost ashamed of their stories’ celluloid origins—perhaps a symptom of working against the established hierarchy of adaptation. More accurately, this distance makes it clear to audiences that the opera is a separate work of art from its source. “We’re telling the same story with all its elements, all its values and its message,” says Foglia, “but we’re telling it in a different way.”

Like many of his colleagues, Irish composer Gerald Barry interacted solely with a screenplay, avoiding any contact with filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, after he began work on his 2005 adaptation. “Even though I had seen the film decades earlier, I made a point of not looking at it before I wrote my opera, and in fact have never looked at it since. I think I didn’t want to be burdened with the reminder of what he had done. I felt I would be freer if I was just doing it simply from my own reactions.”

Barry is unusual in that he set every word of the script in his trademark, rapid-fire style. (Remarkably, the opera is fifteen minutes shorter than Fassbinder’s two-hour film.) It’s more typical for adaptors to refashion a screenplay into an opera-friendly libretto, cutting large stretches of screenwriting to account for the slower passage of musical time.

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The Exterminating Angel flies from screen to stage: Thomas Adès’s operatic adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s film at Covent Garden, 2017
© ROH/Clive Barda

THERE'S ALSO THE ISSUE OF INTERIORITY. Film is heavy in dialogue, and characters rarely reflect aloud on their emotional states in soliloquies that would translate into arias. In their 2016 opera of Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, British director and librettist Tom Cairns and composer Thomas Adès solved this by inserting poems by Chaim Bialik, Yehuda Halevi and Buñuel himself into their libretto, opening up space for more lyrical moments of introspection. 

This may explain why the novel has long been the go-to source for musical inspiration—not because of any imagined hierarchy of art forms but because an author’s ability to probe a character’s innermost thoughts mirrors the conventions of opera. In some cases, if a famous film has its own literary “ursource,” composers and librettists will return to the novel, even if it’s been overshadowed in the public’s mind by the movie version. 

Nico Muhly’s 2017 opera Marnie, which has its U.S. premiere at the Met this month, looks past Hitchcock’s campy thriller to the original novel by Winston Graham. “There are all these places where only an opera could shine light on the way that the original prose implies a psychological condition,” says Muhly. He and his librettist, Nicholas Wright, have added an additional level of interiority with a quartet of Marnie doppelgängers who express the character’s guilt in vibrato-less straight tones. “It embeds a purely musical concept to realize something psychological. There’s just no way to do that in a visual medium.” While the visuality of film ostensibly provides a point of convergence with operatic mise-en-scène, cinema’s language of montage, panning and close-up simply doesn’t translate to the stage. “You’ll hear people comment, ‘Oh the staging was so filmic,’” says Foglia. “Which is, of course, impossible. The most important thing one has to realize is that you cannot replicate a film in any way, shape or form.”

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Luis Buñuel’s classic 1962 film
Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy

Admittedly, some films seem to offer distinctly theatrical possibilities—Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel, for instance, with its unchanging drawing-room set. But in the opera house, Cairns found that having fifteen soloists onstage at all times presented the problem of where to direct the audience’s eye. “The camera, as it does, tells you where to look and who to look at. But of course, we were effectively making a piece in wide shot the whole time.” As a solution, Cairns approximated a cinematic close-up by placing the singers on a large, rotating turntable. “We brought the set and the staging to the audience, rather than the camera bringing it.”

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Jonathan Hackett and Emily Watson in the 1996 film of Breaking the Waves
Collection Christophel/Alamy

AND THEN THERE'S THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM—THE SOUNDTRACK. How does a composer deal with a movie that already has its own music, especially if it’s a well-known film score? Ruders and Engelbrecht ran into this quandary with Dancer in the Dark, which is a musical featuring showtunes by its leading lady, Björk. Ruders had the rights to set von Trier’s screenplay, but the texts for Björk’s songs were off limits. For his libretto, then, Engelbrecht simply filled these gaps in the narrative with new lyrics, which became the “arias” for the opera.

It’s more common to select movies that have forgettable scores or no original soundtrack at all. This is what attracted Missy Mazzoli to von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, which she adapted with librettist Royce Vavrek in 2016. “There are some musical moments [in the film], but it’s all ’70s rock music or diegetic music that’s being played by the wedding band. So that left a lot of space for me to create my own emotional, musical layer to it.”

Mazzoli, then, places her creative stamp on the screenplay without erasing the work of a fellow composer. Her score is something of a personal reinterpretation of the story, teasing out themes that are latent in von Trier’s film. Mazzoli was intrigued by the characters’ moral ambiguity, seeing operatic potential in their complex motivations. “You’re never quite sure where people stand,” she says—“who the good guys and the bad guys are.” This aspect informed the tonal uncertainty of her musical setting. “I’m interested in creating a story with an ambiguous emotional landscape, in a way, where it’s all these things rubbing against each other at the same time—there are major and minor chords that are clashing with each other.”

Mazzoli’s sophisticated musical characterization in Breaking the Waves sheds light on what an opera can do that a soundtrack can’t. Dialogue and music remain separate entities in cinema, patched together in the editing phase. But live opera unites the two in the act of singing. In this fusion of text and melody, the vocal line becomes an integrative expression of a character’s “essence,” while the film soundtrack remains a mere accompaniment.  

This isn’t proof of some inherent inferiority in cinema; the camera can achieve visual feats that are undreamed of on the stage. Each art form has its strengths and weaknesses, but a good story transcends these divisions in media. It’s a kernel that will germinate, whatever soil it’s planted in. spacer 

Joe Cadagin is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford University.



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