The authors of “The History of Opera” (Abbate and Parker, 2012) suggest a working definition of opera is that opera is a play in which all the actors sing for all or most of the time. How then could a movie be referred to as opera without the singing? Let me explain, but first a personal comment. Movie decisions in my family involve a lot of compromise. My wife likes foreign films, preferably ones that wrench the heart and the gut; my son likes what I will call Aristotelian movies, films that are instructive in how to make a movie or to live a life. Personally, I just want to see James Bond outwit the bad guy and get the pretty girl with a few laughs along the way. I must admit, however, that one of the many things I like about wife is her enjoyment of foreign films with feeling, and I love my son’s passion for classic movies. On many occasions I get drawn into watching movies that I would not on my own, and I am typically glad that I succumbed. So it was with my son’s insistence that we watch the silent film, The Thief of Bagdad (1924, Restored Kino Edition), which is loosely based on “One Thousand and One Nights” (a book which spawned at least six operas, though none have made it into the modern repertoire).
The Thief of Bagdad has a larger than life operatic plot: a compelling love story with a hero who, though flawed, finds redemption in love. It has a beautiful princess and suitors competing to win her hand in marriage. Our hero must overcome the intrigue spawned by an evil adversary and his spies. The plot utilizes magic objects and someone brought back to life. The exotic sets and special effects were advanced for its era. It even has sexiness with attractive main characters, and a sexy spy - a young Anna May Wong’s career in Hollywood was launched by this movie. It has excellent direction and storytelling. I have placed the Thief of Bagdad (1924 version) in my list of top ten movies, although to be honest, I’m not sure how many movies are in my top ten. After all, and even if it is a silent film, Thief eventually has James Bond outwitting the bad guy and getting the pretty girl, with a few laughs along the way.
I watched the movie by streaming it from Amazon ($2.99 for seven days use), but it is also available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1C6PutTIow.
Now, what does this movie have to do with opera: I think it offers an illustrative example that might be useful in dissecting the elements of opera. A classic scientific experiment is to take away one possible cause for an outcome and see if you get the same outcome. Let’s set aside for a moment that it is a movie and the music is recorded sound, and for the time being, I will claim that our experiment is still valid for the following reasons. The movie has a story of operatic dimensions, with big events - a passionate love story, deception, redemption, magic and intrigue. It uses intertitles (like supertitles in opera), with written dialog to clue the audience to how the story is unfolding (this actually keeps you involved in the story – there is no spoken dialog to help you keep up while checking your email), and it had music. In the Kino Edition, the music is an original score for the film, though you will recognize many of the melodies, which supports its mood and action. The one element missing compared to opera is singing, the single distinguishing feature of opera.
Without the singing, what was the production missing? I think it is an excellent movie. What was missing from this experience that singing/opera might have provided? First, what did it have going for it that staged opera does not. Let’s look more closely at the fact it was a movie and the sound was recorded. First, it has action; this is a swashbuckling action adventure, fast paced in a way that might remind one of The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Such action in opera, with chases and travel, are mostly alluded to. Film also allows the volume and rapidity of scene changes with set and backdrop changes not possible in opera. Movies can engage us with action and multiple settings and time periods, areas where opera is more limited. Movies also have the advantage of close-ups. The non-verbal communication possible with close ups can reveal much about the characters and the story; silent movies thrived on this point. I thought this was used in an extraordinary way in the movie Gone Girl. One of the criticisms of HD in cinema broadcasts of opera is that it splits the attention of the director, who must decide whether to use grand gestures to reach the back of the opera house or facial expressions in close-ups to communicate on the big screen.
Ok, we’ve designed our experiment focusing on one variable - singing, and we’ve examined some potential complicating variables - action, setting, and close-ups. Here are my thoughts on what opera brings to the table that the movie does not. It is instructive perhaps to ask what I felt watching the movie and what I learned about the characters and story, and what was revealed of importance to life. Did the movie rise above mere entertainment to somehow impact audience members in more enduring ways? Thief is largely escapist fare. I enjoyed the ride, chocked with delights. The story was told sequentially in an interesting way, and I wondered what novelty might pop up next. Dramatic suspense was only a minor factor – I always knew the hero would win – and I got a happy ending. I learned little about the characters as complex human beings or the forces that drive human interactions, or the movement of history, the human story. Even the redemption aspect which might have been interesting in a different movie was used just to allow us to feel good about the love story, yet allow the hero to brandish his bad boy charms. I suspect Thief’s enduring importance relates more to how it affected movie making in its day, rather than how it affected moviegoers, though I may be undervaluing movie magic.
If The Thief of Bagdad were an opera, how might it have been presented differently? One answer is that it would have gone more slowly. The motivations and depth of feeling of the characters would have been emphasized. The tension would have been palpable. My pulse rate would likely have been affected. The truths of human interactions would have been revealed. We might have related to the characters in perhaps uncomfortable ways. Opera also has unique ways to enhance storytelling. We are told that the critical element in remembering something is its importance to us. How is importance communicated in telling a story? The director may choose didacticism. The opening to Thief has written in the sky “Happiness Must Be Earned” and the lesson is demonstrated with the story. Ok, nice life lesson, let’s move on, and likely forget it. The storyteller can say loudly, “This is important!”. That gets our attention, but it does not necessarily make us believe it is important. Our gut collects lots of data in an instant to tell us whether something is important and relevant to us. What is unique about how opera communicates importance?
First, it does a better job of communicating with the music. The music does not just become background music following the story; it is involved in telling the story. It speaks to us in a way that only music can, using a language of its own to summon or belay our expectations and feelings. But here is what connects us with our humanity, with each other – the human voice. Think about the phrase, “The sound of your voice.” It is a phrase of enormous impact. It’s like snuggling up against your mother when you were five years old and having her sing or hum to you. Opera has voices and singing, and voices communicate relevance to humans more effectively than storytelling alone. Funny, but the words are important too, even if we don’t understand them. The History of Opera notes that no one would want to hear an opera of just la, la, la and more la, la, la. But is singing necessary. Might talking movies achieve the ends I have been describing. Yes, but singing communicates in a way that speaking does not, more deeply and effectively than dialog alone. That was the supposition of the Camerata at the origin of opera, according to Abbate and Parker, based on the endurance of Greek tragedy, incorporating song. It has been borne out by the healthy survival of this implausible art form that emerged late in human development, only four hundred years ago.
But here’s the thing. Might Thief have been better if it had been a talkie? Maybe. Film in Thief’s day was in black and white. Color might have added some of the flavor and emotional intensity of life to the movie, probably why audiences were later won over by color movies. Would Thief have been better if it were in color? Maybe. Singing, like color, adds another dimension to the storytelling. Would Thief had been better with singing? Maybe. To all the maybe’s we have to point out that each change would make Thief a different experience, and the director optimized use of the elements for what could be done at the time. The experience it offers, working with the elements it had at its disposal, is worthwhile as it is. Each dimension that an artist has to work with provides a tool to use or not, to create the effect intended by the artist. Use of different tools creates genres of art, and comparing genres gives us an opportunity to appreciate the power of those tools, and thereby reach a better understanding of the power of the various art forms.
So, while I must concede that the Thief of Bagdad is not opera. I hope, however, that considering it as such has been revealing both regarding a classic silent film and the unique features of opera and their power.