Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen by Ken Wlaschin - review by Patrick O’Connor

Patrick O’Connor

The Age of the Silent Singer

Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen


Yale University Press 769pp £45 order from our bookshop

THE HISTORY OF opera on film is as old as the cinema itself. Strangely, during the silent era producers and presumably audiences were eager to see filmed versions of famous operas. In 1917, Samuel Goldwyn persuaded the celebrated Scottish soprano Mary Garden to appear in a silent version of Massenet’s Thafs. In one scene, the director had Garden walk along a path, where, she recalled, there were ‘thirty parrots on their perches. “Scratch their heads!” the director shouted to me. “You’re not serious!” I protested. “Scratch their heads!” he demanded.’ She did as she was told, and reflected, ‘For $125,000 I suppose I would have scratched the heads of all the parrots in the world.’ In his introduction to this new book, Ken Wlaschin quotes Thomas Edison’s prediction, made in 1894: ‘I believe that in coming years grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with artists and musicians long dead.’ Although there were many experiments with synchronised discs and silent films, it was only after the perfection of the sound process in the late 1920s that filmed opera became a possibility. In practice, it is only in-the very recent past that anything like a realistic record of performances has been viable. Until the 1980s, such fierce lights had to be used if an opera was to be filmed or video-taped from a stage production, that most of the results were ludicrous in their exposure of the heavy make-up, generous perspiration and painted sets.

Wlaschin notes that Carmen leads the field as the most filmed subject. From the silent days there are twenty-three variants of the story listed, and since the advent of sound the use of Bizet’s music has ranged from what is described as ‘the most bizarre version of the Toreador’s Song’ in a Tex Ritter western called Ridin’ the Cherokee Trail, to Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man.

The material in this encyclopaedia is arranged in a way that makes it easy to use. There are entries on individual singers and composers, plus a few conductors and directors. These point one to the chapters on the operas concerned. Then, under each opera (and some of the performers), there are listings of ‘Early/related films’. Wlaschin awards a few star ratings to films he recommends ‘for their quality’. For enthusiasts, the bonus paragraphs provide the richest source of trivia. Who remembers that the climax of Max Ophuls’s film of Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman occurs at a performance of The Magic Flute, sung in Italian, at the Vienna State Opera? Or that Zandonai composed scenes from an imaginary opera, ‘Penelope’, for Beniarnino Gigli’s 1940 film Ritorno? Even though it is well known that Bernard Herrmann composed the aria from the non-existent ‘Salammbo’ for the opera scene in Citizen Kane, it’s news that the Polish soprano Ganna Walska was the model for the character of Susan Alexander.

The problem with the performances given by opera singers in all the early attempts to film complete operas is that the soundtracks were pre-recorded and then the singers had to mime to them. In order to look nice for the screen, they didn’t open their mouths as widely as they would have done on stage, nor strain the neck muscles to sustain volume. Unlike experienced screen stars such as Jeanette MacDonald or Paul Robeson, they were not good at lip-sync, so the effect is usually unconvincing.

The exceptions are some of the very early short films, ones that were simply individual arias sung straight at the camera. Many of these were made for Vitaphone – the list of celebrities is mouth-watering for anyone interested in historic singers, and includes Pasquale Amato, Giuseppe de luca, Giovanni Martinelli, Rosa Raisa, Ernestine Schurnann-Heink and Frances Alda, whose autobiography is entitled Men, Women and Tenors.

As with any survey of such chancy enterprises, there is a good deal of ‘what might have been’. It’s frustrating and ironic that the only h of Maria Callas on stage are all of the same scene – three different versions of Act Two of Puccini’s Tosca. Even singers of later generations are not that well represented, for instance there seems to be only one film of the dynamic Anja Silja from the early part of her career, a complete Fidelio shot in Hamburg in 1968. How one would like to be able to see her in Berg’s Lulu, directed by Wieland Wagner. With the archives of television stations all over the world opening up and waking up to the commercial possibilities of releasing: historic material.,there is still much to be discovered: such a book as this is out of date before it7s printed. On my desk are two DVDs of the ever-present Carmen that are not listed here. One is a new Franco Zeffirelli staging from last year’s Verona Festival, the other an Italian studio production from 1956 starring Franco Corelli as Don José.

Nevertheless, this is the most comprehensive survey of opera on screen vet undertaken. It is not without flaws, but will clearly become an essential reference work for anyone studying the subject. There are a few errors that I have noticed while using it for just a few days. It was Dorothy Gish, not her sister Lillian, who starred in the 1927 silent film of Leo Fall’s Madame Pompadour. In the entry on soprano Ashley Putnam, Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All is ascribed to Douglas Moore (even though the opera has its own entry on another page). Mary Garden’s second and last film was called The Splendid Sinner, not Singer, an understandable mistake under the circumstances, though it’s a bit of a shock in a book published by Yale to find a reference to ‘William Randolph Hurst’. There is a 70-page index, which helps enormously in cross-referencing and searching for names that don’t have their own entry.

The way things are going in the classical music business, it seems likely that in future most of the new recordings of opera are going to be on DVD, or whatever bit of technology replaces that for our screens of the twenty-first century. One famous tenor recently demanded a top-up fee of £45,000 if he was going to allow his contribution to a new production to be broadcast worldwide. One gets his point – once it’s out there, it will be copied, burned onto discs, and on the market-stalls by the following week. As Wlaschin writes in his introduction, ‘Any opera that has been televised is probably on tape somewhere.’

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