Opera & Film: A Conversation with Dr. Joseph Attard About Opera Cinema

By John Vandevert
(Photo Credit: Ken Howard)

Does opera seen at the movies count as its own experience? With the advent of streamed opera in movie theaters, the idea that filmed opera can somehow replace or make up for the real-life experience is a touchy point. Of course, one can’t compare the feeling of being in an opera house with being in a movie theater, but that doesn’t mean some won’t try. OperaWire has brought you news about opera streaming from all across the world, like the Grand Theatre Liceu’s performance of “Romeo et Juliette” in 2018. I was curious to find out what the experts thought on the subject. 

Luckily, it’s possible to ask them. For this month’s Opera Meets Film, I sat down with Dr. Joseph Attard, author of the recently published book “Opera Cinema,” to talk about the subject. Studying the subject of opera cinema from a cinema studies perspective, Attard looked into the ways cinema has attempted to ride the divide between opera and audiences. How do you effectively translate the dramatic, multi-dimensional art of opera onto the flat plane of the silver screen? Is it really possible to capture the experience for audiences?

Attard’s view on the subject changed as he worked on his book. As he shared, “I wrote a chapter in 2014 for a collected edition called, “Live Cinemas: Culture, Economies, and Aesthetics,” and I said that opera cinema was a new medium. At the time, that’s how I thought it should be received. I thought it met the criteria to be considered a medium.” He would go on to change his perspective, however. “But, when I started doing my fieldwork I changed my position. What I came to believe is that opera cinema could be a medium but at the minute, it’s a bit of an advert for the experience of a live opera. It’s a supplementary experience.” 

There are several themes to be understood when it comes to opera and cinema, as there is more to it than meets the eye.

OperaWire: How does opera cinema play with feelings of liveness with audiences?

Joseph Attard: There’s a limit on how different it can be. There have been directors who’ve attempted to be more aesthetically daring. There is a certain aesthetic conservatism imposed on opera cinema, but I don’t think that’s inherent in broadcasting opera. Look at the National Theatre and “War Horse.” They use cranes to create much wider shots and they deliberately market these shows as something distinctive. 

There’s often a limit on what you can do with opera houses. Opera audiences are famously not shy in expressing their opinions. Plus, opera cinema goes all the way back to the development of the cultural experience and how to get more people to the theater. It was intended to be a supplementary performance and experience. It goes back to telecasting. At the minute, the institutional function of these shows is to cater to opera fans who already know what they like. There’s different kinds of pressures placed on it, resulting in it being more conservative. It’s not an inherent quality but it’s a result of the purpose it serves.   

OW: Does opera cinema pose a threat to in-person opera experiences?

JA: I draw a distinction between what I call a medium and a cultural experience. You wouldn’t call reading a Kindle a different medium to literature? For the last few years, the main way people access opera is through the screen rather than the stage. But when I was looking at the data, there’s not much evidence to show that cinema is undermining live opera. They are providing a more reliable service to a section of the remaining opera-loving audience. There are deep problems facing opera, but I don’t think they come from these stage shows. Instead, they come from funding, government, and class issues concerning training and market concerns. 

OW: Does opera cinema in a way heal the division between audiences who have the ability to attend live productions and those who can’t?

JA: There was a period at the turn of the 20th century where mediums like radio had a very important democratizing effect for access to opera. The Live from the Met series started on the radio and we know, through actual research and evidence, that there was a big expansion of interest in opera because of it. I think for opera, or any artform, to become really popular among the population you have to invest in making it something familiar and demystified. People are prepared to engage with it, then. That goes all the way down to how you make educational curriculum, public events.

I’m pretty cynical that opera cinema breaks down the attitudes around opera. On average, it’s an even older and more experienced cross-section of the existing opera audience that goes to opera cinema shows. I think opera cinema is a reflection of the state of opera today. Sadly, there is a danger of opera turning into a bit of a museum piece and I think opera cinema reflects a microcosm of that broader conundrum. It risks becoming a museum piece of a museum piece. 

OW: How useful is opera cinema for new audiences coming to the artform of opera?

JA: I think it’s potentially extremely powerful and the thing is, left to their own devices, audiences make an effort to elevate the experience anyway, by dressing up for instance. All of the shows that I’ve attended give you some sort of printed program. The more premium venues put more effort towards fostering a fancy atmosphere.


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