Opera Meets Film: The Cost of Harmony in Erick Oh’s Animated Short Film ‘Opera’

By John Vandevert

Does a film titled “Opera” have to be about opera? Moreover, does it even have to use operatic music? Have we come so far as to distinguish between opera and Opera, and is there a difference between being ‘opera’ and ‘operatic?’ While the answer does not exist per se, animator Erick Oh’s short film entitled “Opera”a Marxian look at the hierarchy of labor and leadership through animation—could provide something of an answer. Having been nominated for a Academy Award in 2021, the eight minute short documents the levels of labor and power that underscore our modern society.

With sound design by Andrew Vernon, the film reinvents what it means to do something operatically, even the very aesthetic identity of opera itself. Taking four years to produce, utilising the talents of 34 different artists, and featuring 26 interconnected corridors and rooms, the film is an extremely well-crafted treatise on humanity itself. While there is no opera in the film directly, an exploration of the details reveals a truly operatic underbelly.

The Details of Oh’s “Opera”

In just eight and a half minutes, Erick Oh presents us with a unique look at the nature of society by revealing the structure of a mystical pyramid. This unescapable and hierarchical system, as told through Oh’s signature art-style, is built upon a vast network of moving parts, all of which serve the desires of a plugged-in ‘king.’ Like a puzzle, each section of Oh’s societal pyramid operates both as an individual piece and a part of the collective. The corporate light illuminating the upper two thirds dissolves into the pyramid’s darker, ominous, and somber lower one third. While the top includes a bricolage of mini worlds including schooling, farming, religious practice, corporate meetings, and hospitals, it is the subaltern workers, those neglected by society, who generate the energy that powers their dominators.

This inescapable fate is depicted in various vignettes of factory workers, mines and miners, shafts and caverns, with a floating key taunting them as they work. Oh’s mission statement highlights this, noting, “I  realized that the pyramid is really the iconic shape that could basically capture how our civilization is structured, what our society is built upon.” Just as the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail, fulfills its own birth and death, so too does Oh see his film demonstrating a form of inescapable connection. When asked about this he noted, “The ending connects to the beginning, and everything is happening at once. That’s how I see society.” Depicting ‘all of the human race,’ each character is an aspect of our world.

Another facet of the film that exemplifies this existential, and virtually unavoidable, unification of humanity is the sound design of Andrew Vernon. Known for his work on films such as Cars 2 and 3, Toy Story 3, and Brave, Vernon works with Oh to conjour a spectral, infinitely expanding landscape rather than specific musical moments. Hues of sound come into being and vacuously dissipate, only to be replaced by undulations of atonal music and cacophony: the film’s sonic strategy is to have walls of unintelligible sound. This echoes the sense of Brechtian alienation that the film’s message is highlighting. As Oh explained, “It’s hundreds of people interacting, so the sound is designed to be chaotic at first glance.”

As the camera descends through the pyramid, the music that begins as transcendent, star-shining, and shimmering, devolves into the unintelligible squabbling of faceless masses busy at work in their designated corners of society. A remarkable element is the quasi-folk sing-shouting of the lower half of the pyramid, haranguing the upper levels. Slowly the camera pans downwards, across a square displaying a golden statue of the king where rudimentary people walk back and forth carrying coal in their hands, traveling into an unknown location deep in the heart of the machine. The voices of the masses are drowned out by the remorseful cries of a female singer, yet the camera pushes relentlessly onwards. As the camera makes it way through ‘hell’ and back up towards ‘heaven,’ the dewy music we are greeted with now feels almost sacrilegious: offensive to enjoy, but too interesting to reject. As the audio-visual journey ends with a conveyer-belt beat, the pyramid is recharged. 

The Operatic in Oh’s “Opera”

While the film itself does not seem very operatic in nature, neither using opera as a musical background nor as a structure, Oh’s varied inspirations for the work included the world of opera. Another of his inspirations was fresco paintings, particularly those of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. When asked why, he stated, “Usually those murals capture some historical moment in human history.” The film can likewise be understood as a giant fresco, with its individual moving parts all revolving around a fundamental, existentialist-tinged, narrative. Oh also drew inspiration from the interactive art of the Japanese-based company Teamlab, especially their projection-mapping installations. Creating tactile universes of light and projections, the film represents a consummative unification of art and real life. But how does Oh manifest opera in his film? As he later shared, “I do think this piece is very musical.”

Explaining further, Oh noted that his conception of “Opera” is one based in the harmonization of elements and the creation of ‘one rhythmical storyline.’ There is no clearer depiction of this harmony of the artistic spheres than in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In the 17-hour long, four opera, event, Wagner weaves together complex narratives of sound, dramaturgy, music, and story, rendering each piece but a small element of a very large tapestry. Oh argues that “there are so many different characters interacting and just living together in harmony,” yet this harmony is never stagnant and never stops. It instead continues to move, and while the repetitive movements of the pyramid’s harmony gives a false impression of immortality, for us humans we know it must end at some point. As one reviewer put it, “We see the best and worst of humanity as everything comes together only to cycle right back to the beginning at the start of a new day.” Inevitably, they cannot escape from this restricted ‘harmony.’

Two Layers to Oh’s Harmony

In the film, dissonantly situated against Oh’s surface presentation of ‘harmony’ and pervading his pyramid’s depiction of monarchistic leadership, is a discomforting look into both caste and class-based divisions. This world is ruled by a singular king who himself serves an unknown god that forms the apex of the pyramid. Flanked by ministers, priests, judges, and other sycophants, this caste are not seen to be working. Instead they sit and watch as the rest of the world contorts itself around them. Immediately under the presiding judge are worshippers of a smaller king, while surrounding him, all in their respective corners, live the aristocrats, students, athletes, love birds, and well-off bourgeoise.

They do not seem to be working too much, yet their efforts are continually expended. Jesus Christ and a reenactment of the Last Supper can be seen as the pyramid begins to grow dimmer, lit now with firelight, as the camera descends into the world of the workers. Directly above them are the hospital workers, the morgue workers, the farmers, and the public-school students. It becomes clear that there are factions even here in the working-class landscape, as one side of the pyramid is illuminated by blue light while the other side is illuminated by red. Even though they are all slaves, subjects of the state, there is no unity: only various degrees of division all the way down. Past the courtyard with the golden idol, underneath the guillotine and manufacturing plants, toil tired miners and slaves, illuminated by their torches and furnaces, surrounded by dirt and sludge. For these people, there is no escape. They lie at the bottom, derelict in the wastelands of society that we all endeavor to escape from. Oh’s operatic, cyclical pyramid is not one of harmony as we like to see it, but a ‘harmony’ of labor and servitude.We see the working worshippers pray to a golden idol; the upper-class worshippers pray to a small king; and those priests who now exist beyond worship stand side-by-side with the large king. The icon of Jesus is situated in the space below the upper-class worshippers, dining with his apostles one last time. Is this an unintentional metaphor within Oh’s “Opera?” I think so.

Oh’s film, explicitly and intentionally thought-provoking, also leads, maybe unintentionally, to subtler considerations about society. “Opera” exercises ‘harmony’ without consciousness of a forthcoming, incipient, amorphous future event that, if not heeded, could lead to the inevitable downfall of society as we know it. Many have theorized on the tenability of social structures. Notable examples include the Strauss–Howe generational theory, the Tytler cycle, the Kondratiev wave, and the Malthusian crisis. Lying at the heart of these disparate ideas is the realization that societal structures are not permanent fixtures in the world. Rather, societal structures are fickle things that require expert and continuous handling, and are always destined to fall or transform when they encounter that mysterious future event. As history has shown us time and again, however, even if societal systems are transient, effecting lasting and palpable change often comes at a price. If something is to change, then something also has to give: but what will that be?

These are questions that the film, with its inevitable and dystopian sense of ‘harmony,’ does not ask. It gives the false impression that these workers, aristocrats, students, worshippers, and priests will somehow be forever confined to their places. What is not considered is the inevitability of change, and the question of whether people will choose to change or choose to remain. French feminist philosopher Simone De Beauvoir saw the state of society as one where some individuals—women, in her case—are confined to the material world, subjected to thoughts only concerning their observable surroundings: something she called ‘immanence.’ She believe there were others in society—men—who had the freedom to search for more, seek out that which lies beyond the physical: something she named ‘transcendence.’ Oh portrays an accurate, if-not bleak, depiction of society: but does not ponder what happens when this ‘harmony’ is inevitably disrupted—he depicts the immanence, but not the transcendence, of humanity.


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