Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

The Acousmêtre on Stage and Screen: The Power of the Bodiless Voice

Academic journal article Themes in Theatre

The Acousmêtre on Stage and Screen: The Power of the Bodiless Voice

Article excerpt

Since the emergence of motion picture, opera and cinema have been mutually attracted to each other and each has influenced the other. As early as 1904, George Méliès produced La Damnation du Docteur Faust, based on Gounod's opera Faust, and many other silent films were based on operas: Bizet's Carmen alone inspired more than thirty silent films, including Cecil B. DeMille's Carmen (1915) and Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (1915). Also, many of the Vitaphone shorts, which were popular around cinema's conversion period (19261931), were "opera shorts", as they are video recordings of single arias.2

Opera's attraction to cinema, too, has a century-long history. As early as 1928, Franz Ludwig Hörth and Emil Pirchan used a film screen in their Berlin production of the Ring cycle for the entry of the gods into Valhalla at the end of Das Rheingold. Cinematic idioms and techniques were employed not only at the level of production as stage directors' choice but also intended by the composers. One of the earliest examples is Alban Berg's Lulu (1935), in which the silent images have double functions: they provide a narrative gap between Lulu's arrest after she accidentally kills Dr. Schöne and her escape from the prison, and they also function as a visual analogy of the structure of the music-a palindrome-that accompanies the silent images.4 Sometimes, cinematic techniques are used to bring multiple and synchronic temporalities and to enhance onstage actions, as in Libby Larson's Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus (1990), in which video screens were employed to provide flashbacks, visualise characters' unspoken inner thoughts, or show the close-ups of the onstage action. There are many other effects that cinematic idioms and techniques can bring to opera's live theatre. In this essay, I explore how cinematic elements change the voice-body relationship in opera performance with particular attention to how the mediatised unity between voice and body of the cinematic apparatus has changed the "embodied-ness" of the operatic voice in live theatre.

Charles Ludlam's 1983 play about Maria Callas, Galas: A Modern Tragedy, is a dramatisation of the (in)famous "Rome walkout", Callas's cancellation of the performance of Norma after the first act at the Rome Opera in 1958.5

Mercanteggini: But you must finish the performance!

Galas: I can't! I wish to God I could. But I can't. The voice... the voice is slipping.

Mercanteggini: Slipping?

Galas: Yes, slipping! Slipping! The voice will not obey.

Mercanteggini: (Growing more and more alarmed) How can that be?

Galas: I told you, sometimes the voice obeys and sometimes it will not. Tonight it will not!

Mercanteggini: You're speaking of your voice as though it had a will of its own.

Galas: (With horror) It has! It does! Tonight it will not obey.

Mercanteggini: You've got to get hold of yourself. It's your voice. You must command it.

Galas: (In a hoarse whisper): It's no use.

(Act 1, Sc. 5) (Ludlam 1983: 88-89)

The endowment of the voice with its own will in this scene addresses the central issue my essay explores: an uncanny autonomisation of the voice in opera and film. I focus on a recent trend in operatic theatre, which explores what is known as cinema's "castration anxiety", that is, the separation of voice and body, for in cinema, voice and image are separated on physically different tracks. In psychoanalyticallyoriented film theories, cinema's castration anxiety is interpreted as the origin of its envy of a live medium where the voice is naturally embodied.6 Given these theories, the voice-body separation in recent operatic theatre-in other words, a contemporary tendency for live operatic theatre to separate voice and body through multi-casting roles, using dancers and/or masks, or other means-can be read as opera's "reversed envy": reversed in the sense that it is opera 's envy of the cinematic separation of voice and body instead of cinema's envy of a live medium. …

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