Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Throwing the Voice, Catching the Body: Opera and Ventriloquism in Philip Glass/Jean Cocteau's 'La Belle et la Bête'

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

Throwing the Voice, Catching the Body: Opera and Ventriloquism in Philip Glass/Jean Cocteau's 'La Belle et la Bête'

Article excerpt

Philip Glass's opera for ensemble and film La Belle et la Bête (1994) was composed for his own Ensemble alongside Jean Cocteau's film of the same title (1946), which itself is based upon Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont's eighteenth-century fairy tale.1 The film in this situation resembles a ventriloquist's dummy: muted, all sound from the film removed (including the music originally composed by Georges Auric), but with a sound whose source is elsewhere - synchronised through the singers and the live playing of the Ensemble. Glass synchronises the singing voice and music to the film image of the speaking body, and he achieves an unusual operatic result that relies on the logic of synchronisation and its multiple embodiments, between what is seen and what is heard, opera and film, live and reproduced, human and animal. It is not in the singing style that a significant change is marked in Glass's piece compared with, for example, French neoclassic operas; what has changed is the status of the vocalic body and its function in the opera.2 It reveals a new methodology in the creation of operatic work that might expose the voice as a replaceable object, reinventable, and possibly 'transplantable' to another body.

The subject of this article is the operatic singing body in La Belle et la Bête. Both in opera studies and in the majority of opera productions, the relationship between the singing body and the sung voice is neglected or taken for granted. Despite being the 'blind spot', however, I think that this body-voice relation that constitutes singing corporeality is one of the major productive operatic forces. The reinvention of the body-voice construct causes opera to problematise its genre, status, and function. My investigation of how this has been done and what its consequences might be will rely on the body-voice relationship purposely obtained through (de)synchronisation. I will show that the body-voice relationship is central to this as it reworks the opera and its world.3 The (de)synchronisation of singing body and voice in this case indexes the power of opera to examine representational mechanisms of both film and opera, while using them in changing its own status and economy.

I will first show what it means to operaticise the film, to reveal the concept and procedures on which La Belle et la Bête is based and that affect the body-voice relationship. This will be followed by a discussion of synchronisation in relation to dubbing and playback: I focus on questions on the looseness of synchronisation between the operatic singing bodies and their (dis)embodied voices, and the ventriloquial dimension that exists between them. I explore (de)synchronous relations between the presence of the body and of the voice in La Belle et la Bête, and the implications that a reinvented body-voice construct produces. I also demonstrate, with the help of Giorgio Agamben's theory, how the relationship between man and animal embodied in the Beast is represented vocally, and that despite all the efforts to synchronise image and sound, the gap between the body and the voice remains. Finally, I will discuss this gap in opera in context of ventriloquism. I use Chion's theory of the acousmatic voice to show how estrangement of the voice that appears to come from elsewhere than its source produces meaning, and questions opera's potential to use other media and their mechanisms of representation (Chion 1999), and pursue this discussion in the context of the texts by Carolyn Abbate (1991), Mladen Dolar (2006, 2008), Steven Connor (2000, 2001), and Rick Altman (1980). Finally, I postulate a new model for the conceptualisation of the body-voice relationship in this piece through analogy to how Altman uses the concept of ventriloquism in film theory: the operatic music composed by Philip Glass as a ventriloquist who takes someone else's 'dummy', attaching to Cocteau's film in synchronisation to create the illusion that the singing is produced by the characters of silent film. …

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