Grant me a rhetorician’s right to stretch the meaning of word about as much as clothing that seemed to fit better in the summer. Music dramas have always been popular and show no sign in disappearing.
Attendance in the nation’s opera houses may be thinning a bit. But there can be no denying that Americans might surprise themselves to be reminded they often love opera as a form. Grant me a rhetorician’s right to stretch the meaning of word about as much as favorite pieces of clothing that seemed to fit better in the summer. Music dramas have always been popular and show no sign in disappearing.
I was reminded of this recently while watching the final hour of Steven Spielberg’s much-honored E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial (1982). The last half is pretty much given over to John William’s rich score that soars as high as the kids fleeing the feds on bicycles. The music leaves us breathless, not all that different from the second act conclusion of a Puccini opera. Williams voices most of the melodic highs with lots of strings, but keeps the traditional Hollywood trope of shimmering brass puncturing through. Let’s face it: E.T. is an opera on bikes. And we’re the better for having it.
It turns out that most commercial films are scored with wall-to-wall music. A lot is what composers call underscoring, meaning music meant to be heard in a mix of voices and ambient sound. For example, the haunting Schwartz and Dietz ballad Something to Remember you By goes mostly unnoticed in a party scene of The Band Wagon (1953). It deserved a better fate. We are sometimes not fully conscious of the great stuff that drifts past our consciousness.
I was amazed recently to see a new documentary on director Alfred Hitchcock, who carried on an extended discussion with French ‘new wave’ director François Truffaut in the nineteen sixties. The book was later published as Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966). In the documentary the two auteurs talked endlessly about lighting, shots and set ups, mostly in reference to Hitchcock’s landmark films. And yet, strangely, they were unusually mute on the subject of music, even in what is often considered Hitchcock’s best film, Vertigo (1958).
No one can fault a director for being a visual person. Even so, I think of Vertigo as an opera created as much by the composer Bernard Herrmann as by Hitchcock’s relatively static shots. The film’s is not much into verbal repartee. So it’s little wonder that a full scale screening of it these days may well be in a concert hall, with orchestras like the San Francisco Symphony accompanying a showing of a pristine print. Interestingly, the music from Scene D’Amour, one of the many sequences featuring James Stewart lurking behind Kim Novak’s enigmatic character, has since shown up in films such as The Artist (below), the not-so-“silent” French film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2011.
A scene from “The Artist”
Expressions speak louder than words!
Luckily we have the recent work of the young writer/director Damien Chazelle, who is carrying the tradition forward in his new award magnet, La La Land ( 2016). In a conversation in our offices last year Mr. Chazelle confirmed that he grew up watching old MGM musicals. That seemed rare enough for a man born in the 1980s. But only then did we learn how serious he was. He mentioned that he needed to fly back to L.A. to deal with an 80-piece orchestra ready to lay down his new film’s music tracks. New directors are not usually packing scoring stages with whole symphony orchestras. Chazelle was finishing La La Land partly as a homage to larger-than-life Technicolor classics like Singing in the Rain.
American operas can show up anywhere and be embraced by almost anyone. I remember myself as a nervous new husband trying to deal with a sometimes overbearing father in law. I hated the time we spent doing illegal “drag-fishing” in the beautiful waters off of northern California’s Point Reyes. With beer and buckets we ventured forth in his too-small boat to snag some halibut. Yet I can also remember his reverie during rides back to the beach house in his beat up truck. He loved listening to his 8-track recording of the music from Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969). It really wasn’t much of a surprise that the crusty former member of the California Highway Patrol had turned himself into a lover of horse a opera.