Opera Meets Film: Musical, Theatrical, & Cinematic Space in Derek Jarman’s Opera Films

By Gareth Mattey

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a film section or a film in its entirety and highlight the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features the work of Derek Jarman. 

Derek Jarman, one of the UK’s most important queer filmmakers, is widely respected for his confrontational and subversive work. Bringing a painterly attention to the film image and frequently experimenting with music videos and Super-8mm film, Jarman’s commitment to presenting a gay perspective found more widespread attention in his film “Caravaggio (1986),” starring a young Tilda Swinton in her first feature film role.

But throughout this iconoclastic film career, Jarman was also a stage designer for opera and ballet, most notably designing “Jazz Calendar” for Frederick Ashton and the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden in 1967 and “Don Giovanni” for John Gielgud at Sadler’s Wells Opera at the Coliseum, around the same time he was designing “The Devils (1971)” for Ken Russell.

Understanding this background in designing for both film and opera (and later in his career, directing opera as well) helps us to access Jarman’s two operatic films – the 1987 short “Depuis le jour” for the compilation “Aria,” and his 1989 feature adaptation of Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” and how Jarman thinks about film texture, dramatic space, music and opera as intricately intertwined.

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“Aria (1987)” was an attempt by producer Don Boyd (who would later also produce Jarman’s “War Requiem”) to bring cinematic vision to a series of classic opera arias. The anthology film, which managed to bring directors including Godard, Ken Russel, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Jarman together, was ultimately called “the first MTV version of opera” by Roger Ebert and found limited success.

Jarman’s contribution sets the aria “Depuis le jour” from the opening of Act three of Charpentier’s verismo opera “Louise,” where the young Louise has eloped with her lover Julien and how “since that day” she is endlessly happy. Jarman’s cinematic narrative however focuses on an older opera singer’s final performance, reflecting back a younger version of herself (played by Tilda Swinton) as she takes her final bows.

Jarman draws from the aria its happiness, its passion for love and one specific image – Louise sings “my destiny seems all flower-strewn,” which Jarman aligns with falling petals in celebration of the performer’s last performance on stage, and falling leaves linking the present moment and the remembered past. As we watch the opera singer disappear into her memories, the aria is moved from live performance to a cinematic interior monologue.

In many ways, Jarman is filming the aria very literally – a woman, using falling petal imagery, celebrates their happiness stemming from the memory of first love. But for Charpentier in “Louise,” it is focused on looking forward to a happy life. For Jarman, it is presented as a swan song, as looking back on the memories of happiness granted ‘since that day’ by the lover.

Significantly Jarman shoots these memories with a different kind of film to the present moment in the theatre. He uses Super-8mm/8mm film, drawing on his wealth of artistic experimentation with the form and also the association it has with home videos. The graininess, alternating with saturated colours and black and white, has a fragility to it, as all memories do. As the singer gives her final bow, fanning herself through the falling petals, these delicate memories are brought back to her.

The theatrical, through music, becomes the cinematic. The dialogue and contrast however between different kinds of film and different kinds of space isn’t particularly strongly felt. Jarman instead pursues a dreamy edit that blurs and overlaps the past and present, memories of her and memories of him. The emotional color of the aria brings past and present, theatre and cinema together.

War Requiem

This short film demonstrates in miniature what Jarman explores in more detail and in the longer form with the “War Requiem” – how can cinematic space and filmic texture reflect operatic structure? The “War Requiem,” though not an opera, offers many different highly dramatic and spatial structures for a filmmaker like Jarman to respond to.

The piece sets the traditional Latin Requiem Mass alongside poems by Wilfred Owen but separates the musical forces that deliver each text – Owen’s poetry emerges from a chamber ensemble and two soloists (a baritone and a tenor), while the requiem text is found in the soprano soloist, choir and full orchestra. These settings are meant to be in dialogue with one another as Britten asks whether the religious consolation of the Requiem Mass can ever satisfy the horrid brutality of war as exemplified in Owen’s poetry.

Jarman’s starting point for his own film adaptation however was a belief that Britten had failed in this and the piece smothered Wilfred Owen’s work within religious liturgy. In his shooting diary for the film, Jarman writes “Ben… papered over the hurt: Ben’s cosiness, vespers, choirboys in the great silence of cathedrals. In the trenches Owen had to reject all that; for him in the end there was no refuge.”

For him, the genuine visceral anger of Owen’s work disappears into the church. He makes a similar criticism of Britten as an individual, that he was “a queen’s man hell-bent on papering over his insecurities in the bosom of the Establishment and its Church” – a major contrast to Jarman’s own radical queer vision.

In making this film, Jarman had to use the 1963 recording and was not allowed to add any other sound, music, or dialogue, aside from a short opening prologue focusing on an elderly veteran (played by Laurence Olivier in his final film). From this starting point, Jarman sets out to offer his own version, which sets a visual narrative of Wilfred Owen on the frontlines, and similarly to “Depuis le jour,” interweaving it with memories of Owen as a young boy presented in Super-8mm film. To this Jarman adds a third kind of film as well – documentary video mixes, offering the real image of war amongst the poetic re-imagining of Owen’s life.

As in “Depuis le jour,” Super-8mm film becomes an indicator of memory and of Wilfred Owen’s youth. Unlike the previous short, Jarman emphasizes, even more, the fragility of the film’s texture. This is not just the memory of a first love, but the memory of a lost innocence, a child-like idyllic state at risk of destruction in the war to come. One scene, in particular, begins with boys playing toy soldiers, with Owen beating a drum, and ends with the room consumed in fire. These sections become even more poignant when boy’s voices singing the “Requiem Mass” weave through it – it helps us to both see and hear what is lost in this war.

The main narrative sections of the film are filmed with 35mm and here we see Owen’s journey through the war and his violent and homoerotic relationship with the German Soldier (played by Sean Bean) and his maternal relationship with the Nurse (played by frequent collaborator Tilda Swinton). Less grainy and more solid than the Super-8mm, Jarman still finds moments to offer poetic imagery despite the more realistic image. Owen’s poetry within the “War Requiem’s” libretto especially inspires Jarman with several of the poems, notably “Strange Meeting” where two dead soldiers meet in a purgatory-like tunnel and ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ where the Biblical parable is horrifically altered, and Abraham kills Isaac.

In both moments, Jarman draws on a strong sense of theatre and theatrical space to present the sung poems, with the latter turned into a darkly camp pantomime, as Owen in the role of Isaac is sacrificed to an audience of businessmen, while the younger Owen from the Super-8mm space arrives as an angel to try and save him. In an earlier moment of theatre, Jarman features drag in a performance for injured soldiers, continuing to include a queer and gay sensibility throughout. While he may disavow Britten’s politics and music to prioritize the libretto, he is still reliant on Britten selecting homoerotic aspects of Owen’s poetry and dramatizing these moments musically through the tenor and baritone singers in presenting his own mix of cinema and theatre.

The third cinematic space, a series of video mixes and montages, is the space closest to the music, where documentary footage is more actively timed with the music and where members of the choir are framed against this footage. They are not narrative (like the “War Requiem” itself) but present a kaleidoscopic mix of movement, colour, and violence that reminds us the piece we are watching began life as a work of music first.

Most notably, in the “Libera me” section, Jarman cuts frenetically, building in pace and intensity until footage of a nuclear detonation is timed to the section’s climax on the G minor chord. For all his frustration with Britten, it is in these moments where we can see the truth in Jarman admitting that Britten’s music is “the perfect foil to my more intuitive filmmaking.”

Where Britten used two musical spaces, Jarman responds with three cinematic spaces cutting across them both. Where Britten is implicit with his criticism and homoeroticism, Jarman is more explicit. And where Britten drives the music forward, Jarman listens – both to libretto and to music. As Jarman frames it: “Owen took on the war; Britten, Owen and the Mass; I’m taking on all three.”

The end result is a film like no other – a silent film/ballet choreographed to Britten’s music, a queer political condemnation of war, a long-form classical music video, and an opera film about the life and death of Wilfred Owen.

In many ways, “Depuis le jour” is the prototype for this feature-length exploration of how classical music and operatic structure can work as a narrative film, namely through allowing a theatrical sense of contrast and musical structure to be directly reflected in the contrast between different kinds and qualities of film. Unlike the use of opera in many mainstream films (which even “Depuis le jour” is guilty of), where the emotional color is all that matters, Jarman’s “War Requiem” offers a more unique and exciting synthesis of what opera, classical music, and cinema can accomplish together.

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Opera Meets Film