When Opera Meets Film.
Over the course of the last six years, the Cambridge Studies in Opera series has presented a stimulating range of monographs that have greatly enlivened and strengthened the field. One of its most recent offerings, Marcia J. Citron's When Opera Meets Film, continues the series' tradition of expanding study of operatic influence in various aspects of culture, in this case proposing that "the more ways we can approach [the opera/film encounter] the better will be our sense of opera's place in contemporary society" (p. 249). Citron, who has published widely on the relationships between film and opera, is well positioned to take on this task. In this volume, three previously published essays on Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy (1972-90), Norman Jewison's 1987 Moonstruck, and the filmed operas of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1972-88), are interspersed with three chapters of new material focused on Don Boyd's 1987 Aria, Claude Chabrol's 1995 La C'eremonie, John Schlesinger's 1971 Sunday Bloody Sunday, and Mike Nichols's 2004 Closer (for the earlier essays, see "Operatic Style and Structure in Coppola's Godfather Trilogy," Musical Quarterly 87, no. 3 [Fall 2004]: 423-467; "Subjectivity in the Opera Films of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle," Journal of Musicology 22, no. 2 [Spring 2005]: 203-240; and "'An Honest Contrivance': Opera and Desire in Moonstruck," Music and Letters 89, no. 1 [February 2008]: 56-83).
As Citron is well aware, this range of repertory dictates an ambitious scope for her investigations, taking into its purview not only "mainstream film" but also full-length opera film and "postmodernist pastiche" (p. 4), several national traditions, and a number of extremely diverse film directors, film composers, and opera composers, over a thirty-year historical span. Citron's project in this book, however, is not to emphasize historical similarities, but rather to study the "factors that produce meaning" when opera is present in film (p. 13), in order to show, through a range of case studies, how "opera can reveal something fundamental about film, and film can do the same for an opera" (p. 1). While acknowledging that "the circum stances of a particular situation generate the theory and categories that fit the work," and that therefore the volume "is fundamentally a 'perspectives' study [that] shies away from any sort of unitary viewpoint" p. 13), she nonetheless proposes across the chapters a "framework that can lead to larger observations and encourage comparative discussion" (p. 7) based on Werner Wolf's terminology of "intermediality"-- "a simple and elegant system to categorize the relative importance of media when they combine" (p. 7). With this emphasis on theoretical consistency, but across an array of contrasting repertory, Citron seems to be addressing some of the few criticisms of her first full-length study of opera and film, Opera on Screen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000; see for example Byron Nelson's complaints in Opera Quarterly 17, no. 4 [Autumn 2001]: 718-21). Citron herself sees When Opera Meets Film as part of a "second generation of scholarship" on film and opera (p. 1), one that "refines and expands our approaches to opera and film, adds important repertoire to the scholarly purview, and advances our understanding of the aesthetics of the opera/film encounter" (p. 1).
The diversity of the book's subject matter is balanced by the somewhat formulaic structure of the volume: each chapter provides a brief introduction to the film or films in question, a review of Citron's goals, and a detailed description of the work from a general and visual perspective prior to a discussion of its music. Citron amply demonstrates her capabilities in visual analysis and her thorough knowledge of film studies, making When Opera Meets Film aptly titled; unlike some other studies of music in film, the non-musical film analysis presented here is thorough and insightful. To this reader, at least, these introductory discussions of visual and textual symbols constitute some of the most interesting passages of the book (for example, the discussion of water symbolism in Sunday Bloody Sunday and Closer, p. 214ff). Comparisons of visual and musical techniques often offer an illuminating way of understanding both media: take, for instance, the discussion of camerawork in the climactic sequence of Godfather I: "This sequence is also operatic in its overlapping entrances--a kind of dramatic stretto in which events and visual cuts follow each other much more quickly than in the rest of the film. It resembles an operatic finale in the coming together of dramatic strands, and in the tension from the accelerated pace and the heightened emotional level of the collective acts in proximity" (pp. 24-25).
At times, though, it seems that for all Citron's hope to engage theory in new ways, the discussion of the music remains constrained by restrictive approaches. While offering the theory of intermediality as an alternative to describing film sound in terms of diegetic relationships (what she calls "the Procrustean bed of diegesis," p. 75), this alternative terminology, rooted in a descriptive binary, is itself limited. As described by Citron, the theory of intermediality offers a way of describing the relationship between two media present in a situation: if both media are foregrounded, the situation is characterized as "overt intermediality," whereas if one medium is indirectly present within a more dominant medium the relationship can be termed "covert intermediality" (p. 8). But what Citron calls the system's "illuminating powers" (p. 9) remain frustratingly opaque, for an analysis that considers the "status" of the "intermedial situation" (p. 9) does not yield new or broader conclusions, but only a differently-worded description of what is happening on the visual and sound tracks (a description, what is more, that relies on an individual perception of the relative power of the two). While the incorporation of new terminology into the volume certainly expands the descriptive vocabulary for film music studies, it would have been beneficial here to have been shown how (or indeed whether) this new vocabulary could provide insight into a broader realm--for example, whether it could enhance our understanding of the "cultural work" (p. 175) of the films, intermittently mentioned by Citron, contributing to investigations not limited to description of the technical Features of the "film itself."
Indeed, the emphasis on descriptive technique rather than cultural interpretation makes When Opera Meets Film an unusual member of the Cambridge Opera Series. Citron, an accomplished writer on issues such as gender and sexuality in music, does offer socio-political interpretation of some of the films. In passages on Ken Russell's "Nessun Dorma" segment of the film Aria (p.76ff), for example, she argues that the fragment shows "the West's fear of black culture" (p. 88) and proposes that "Russell stages a successful act of social criticism" (p. 88); Chapter 4, on Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie, touches on issues of class tension and "repressive politics" (p. 162) as well as hinting at "lesbian implications" (n. 36 to chap. 4, p. 280); chapter 5, on Moonstruck, incorporates a brief discussion of the characters' sexuality (including their "masculine features" and "feminization" [p. 181]); and chapter 6, on Sunday Bloody Sunday and Closer; includes a discussion of gender presentation, suggesting among other things that "the exclusion of male-female sex" from [Mozart's Cosi fan tulle trio] `Soave"s orbit spells a gay scoring practice that accords with the landmark homosexual openness of the film" (p. 230). But none of these assertions form the main interpretations or conclusions of their chapters, and they would have been strengthened by further development, as well as a more critical attitude to the prior interpretations on which they often rely. Focused primarily on description of the "interior" workings of the films themselves (what in music we would call an emphasis on "the music itself"), When Opera Meets Film is also vastly different from the other volumes in the Cambridge Opera Series in its lack of consideration of the reception history of the works in question. Perhaps ultimately it will be this next step, an incorporation of Citron's manner of description and detailed analysis into a broader reception history, which will truly bring study of the film/opera encounter into its new generation.
California State University, Sacramento
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 23, 2011|
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