A provocative opening salvo: opera, not film, is the ur-adaptive art form. Since its birth in Italy in the late sixteenth century, this expensive art has thrived on the tried and tested, not the new and original. But the process of adapting literature to opera involves a number of steps. The most obvious is that a popular text (legend, myth, novel, drama, history, etc.) is condensed and shaped through operatic conventions into a libretto. That libretto is then set to music in the score, arguably a sonic adaptation of print words, dramatic action and stage world. Subsequently, both libretto and score are realized in live performance, a remediation from page to stage. Today, the adapted texts from which operas are created may be cinematic: Robert Altman’s 1978 A Wedding became William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s 2004 opera of the same name. Even more directly, Philip Glass took the screenplay of Jean Cocteau’s 1949 film, Orphée, as the libretto text for his 1993 opera.
Like film, opera is an “allographic” (Goodman 113) art, requiring a phalanx of creators, performers, and producers to interpret and thus bring its libretto and score to musical and theatrical life on stage. And, like film, opera is a complex hybrid, as well as a collaborative medium par excellence. But, unlike film, opera has occasioned considerably less theorizing of its adaptation process, despite groundbreaking work on individual adaptations by scholars such as Nassim Balestrini, Michael Halliwell, Irene Morra, Marcia Citron, Jeremy Tambling, and Suddhaseel Sen. Another reason for the relative lack of operatic adaptation theory is the stubborn persistence of that familiar, limiting “fidelity” discourse that has gone out of critical fashion in recent years in film adaptation studies. While, in earlier centuries, both operatic scores and libretti were supplemented and substituted—in short, constantly altered to fit specific audiences, performers, and local conventions—since the Romantic period, they have become reified into the completed creations of “genius” and thus respected as if inviolate and untouchable (Goehr 222-4) .
This 200-year history of what is called Werktreue is invested in “serving and authentically realizing the operatic work bequeathed to us by notation and authenticated by tradition” (Morris 102). Not surprisingly, this ideology has inhibited theorizing about opera as adaptation (or even about adaptations of opera) because of the inevitable Romantic association of adaptation with the secondary and the derivative. This history has also rendered operatic adaptations to film and television suspect as valid forms of operatic performance. Now, however, the immense popularity of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD broadcasts in movie theaters has rekindled the critical debates, though these have most often been over how the adaptations fall short of live performances, instead of provoking theoretical reflection on the HD broadcast as an adaptive form in and of itself.
Both a document of a creative act (a “reportage of a performance” [Götz Friedrich, qtd. in Senici 64]) and a creative artifact in itself (Morris 111), the live broadcast is adaptation as re-mediation: it has its own visual language and conventions (including close-ups) into which the live staged opera is adapted. This is the case whether it be in a relatively straightforward streaming of a performance at the Met or in a more complex form, such as the 1992 Italian television Tosca, performed on location in Rome at the precise sites where each act takes place and at the actual time of day indicated in the libretto. Worldwide, live opera has long been relayed, first on radio, then television, and now broadcast to cinemas (see Fawkes 157-70). The subsequent fixing of these live relays on video recordings raises the significant question about whether the production team should gear its work toward the audience viewing the performance in the opera house or the (even larger) one seeing it on the screen (Baker 377).
This adaptation of opera to the screen raises the inevitable and problematic issue of stage theatricality versus mediated realism. The visual idiom of TV and film, each in its different way, is one of naturalism; that of opera is not—not only because of its sung artifice but also because of the brute corporeality of the work of the singing body. Those pitiless close-ups of wide-open singing mouths and sweating faces proved disconcerting to early television viewers (and critics), faced with the “intrusive physicality” (Esse 81) of operatic sound production. Add to this the scale difference between opera’s customary grand spectacle and TV’s domestic intimacy, and the difficulties of adaptation to the new medium increase (Barnes 34-41). Yet, both television and film adaptations have used these media to their advantage to produce effects impossible on the stage. Cross-cutting between characters can annihilate space, while fade-outs between scenes can alter time (Warrack 373-4). Close-ups can isolate characters in an ensemble; indeed, different shot angles can alter the spectators’ focus and attention with ease. The point of view of the camera in television and film can direct the audience’s collective eyes in a much more controlling way than can all the efforts of the director and production team in live opera.
Film and TV have had other advantages to offer adapters of opera. Because the score can be recorded in the studio separately from the visual enactment of the story, arias can be presented as the interior monologues they often actually are: singers do not move their lips, but audiences hear (and recognize) their voices as ‘inner’ and private ones. For audiences accustomed to the conventions of cinema, then, there will be a greater sense of realism in filmed opera, thanks to the possible effects achieved by the use of everything from split screens to slow—or fast—motion shots. These are among the potential ways to overcome the problem, for example, that the pace of an opera is radically slower than that of both film and television. The advent of the new electronic media, in turn, has meant new possibilities for adaptations of opera (YouTube videos) and for adaptations to opera (using a device like Google Glass, perhaps, as the site of surtitle projection).
Opera continues to be an archetypal adaptive art form, ever expanding and diversifying: new technologies will no doubt continue to alter options for creation, production and consumption. This energizing possibility was articulated early on (1989) by director Peter Sellars: “The new technologies suggest new vocabularies; the new societies demand them. Is there an art form which is various and organic and subtle enough to comprehend the social imperative and questions of identity that confront the next generation? Maybe it’s film. Probably it’s video. But if the issue finally arrives as the point of living people in a room together all at once, include film, press on with video, and let’s make an opera” (24).
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Baker, Evan. From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2013.
Balestrini, Nassim Winnie. From Fiction to Libretto: Irving, Hawthorne, and James as Opera. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005.
Barnes, Jennifer. Television Opera: The Fall of Opera Commissioned for Television. Woodbridge: Boydell P, 2003.
Citron, Marcia. When Opera Meets Film. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.
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Fawkes, Richard. Opera on Film. London: Duckworth, 2000.
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Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
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Sen, Suddhaseel. “The Afterlife of Shakespeare’s Plays: A Study of Cross-Cultural Adaptations into Opera and Film.” Diss. U of Toronto, 2010.
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