"Art is not a mirror with which to reflect the world; it is a hammer with which to shape it"

Monday, 26 November 2007

War Ensemble

So, as you may remember the other week, Muppet that I am, I managed to fall like a sack of spuds and managed to land on my wrist and give me what was a ‘minor sprain’. Unfortunately I have a high pain threshold (my 'physio' told me that a decade ago- I’ll tell you why some other time) and a relatively weak connexion to the real world so I was left with two choices… ‘A’, I rest the wrist and let it get better or ‘B’, I decide to ignore it and get on with it… well, I asked the audience and they said ‘A’ so I automatically chose ‘B’! Hoorah for sheer unrivalled pig-headed stupidity! After a day of trying to continue as normal I realised that there’s a reason the audience votes for ‘A’. So, having managed to successfully exacerbate the problem for twenty-four hours I decided to settle… now, my wrist is strapped up which at least reminds me that I really have to try and stop using it. It really is hard to avoid using your right hand! By the way, this episode made me realise I have a USP for any future spouse: I’m immune ‘man-ill’! So, if any future spouse can cope with my wonderful ability to get physical injuries that I don’t notice until they’re properly damaged they’ll discover that at least I don’t get ‘man-ill’. While I’ve been trying not to do anything, I really can’t stop my mind mulching thoughts around and I can’t stop scratching little notes on pretty much everything. So, here’s just a simple, easy-to-type, non-contentious thought I had recently before I return to my hibernation…


I found out a couple of weeks ago that Kenneth Branagh’s new film is a big-screen adaptation of Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). ‘Hoorah!’ I thought, ‘culture for the masses!’. But wait… there’s more! This is Mozart’s The Magic Flute set in the World War I trenches!.

As far I’m concerned it’s not hard:

  • Mozart on film: fine…
  • Opera on film: fine…
  • WWI on film: fine…
  • Mozart Opera set in WWI on film… conceptual disaster!

The first problem is that, while Mozart is a great composer*, opera has always had a rough time in translation to the screen. The problems are diverse but the biggest tend to be:

  • operas are often very long (Wagner’s Parsifal clocks in at just over 4 hours, Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg is about half an hour longer and Messiaen’s Saint-François D’Assise is recognized as the longest standard repertoire opera at around 5 hours); ironically, there are some short ones extant because they were commissioned for television or written for audiences of children;
  • operas are full of singing (I know it’s obvious) and while people are standing around singing they’re not actually doing very much of anything else like blowing up Mittel-European terrorists, spearing sharks or, often, even moving around very much; effectively operas are visually static and for a medium like film which thrives on visual action this is not a ‘good thing’;
  • casting an opera for the theatre is primarily done for vocal considerations rather than acting ability so opera singers are rarely any good at the acting part any way;
  • casting operas for the stage still ends up with weaker singers due to the unavailability of the ideal performer for a role- this also happens with the recordings (opera recordings are very expensive and the first recording officially topping one million pounds was Solti’s recording of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten for ‘the Opera company’ Decca in the early ’90s. It could be argued that Solti’s recording sessions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle would be more if they were adjusted for inflation.) So, if you can’t assemble the perfect cast for a run at the opera house or the recording sessions why should it be any easier to find a 6 week window for a film?
  • operas are frequently unrealistic and fantastical yet somehow get away with it, presumably due to the 'willing suspension of disbelief' that is more easily achieved in a stage setting than in more realistic film- from the destruction of Valhalla in Götterdämmerung to Violetta in La Traviata warbling on over-dramatically for 10 minutes about how she’s dying from consumption when in reality she’d mainly be lying back on the bed coughing up blood while people poked her with sticks from quite a long way away.

Die Zauberflöte is one of the most fantastic and unrealistic of all operas and features a story which nobody has ever quite untangled which goes on about ancient figures from Persian and Egyptian mythology coupled with a narrative primarily revolving around some kind of expression of the various Masonic trials**. I can’t recall ever reading anybody actually having fully deciphered it though some people have suggested that it may well just have been nonsense that Mozart and his librettist, Schikaneder, cooked up as a mickey-take. The opera has a very bizarre complicated story which has much to do with symbolism, mirroring and a symmetry of structuring and characterization.

The First World War, for those who live on Mars or are Rachel and Joey from Friends, was a nasty incident that occurred from 1914 to 1918 and primarily involved aristocrats ordering heavily laden soldiers to walk slowly through thick mud towards heavy machine guns. Less frivolously put, it was horrendous and even ITV’s otherwise excellent My Boy Jack, I suspect, downplayed the truth considerably. The First World War was true horror. On the notorious first day of the Somme some 19,000+ British soldiers were killed in about 12 hours: this works out around one death every two seconds for half a day. These figures don’t even include 38,000+ British casualties; 7,000 French and 10,000 Germans. Is it really appropriate to set a light, essentially frivolous opera amongst this misery and suffering?

The Magic Flute project has apparently cost some £13million (or £27m on The Late Review although I suspect they meant dollars). You can see the trailer on the official site and there gaze in bemused awe at the bizarre nature of it all… nuns dancing in the middle of the battlefield, soldiers tied to burning windmill sails, giant lips, bad CGI… it is actually quite hard to work out where the money went. Lengthier sections were shown on The Late Review complete with a stylized (idealized?) version of the First World War complete with pastel uniforms. Through these excerpts it also seemed to be somewhat kitsch, quite ‘camp’ (for want of a better world) and very ‘eccentrically’ directed with wild camera movements and angles of such a hallucinatory feel as to make Apocalypse Now look sane. To me the key to filmed opera is surely to prevent the audience from thinking that what they’re looking at is of an essentially theatrical or artificial origin, to make the whole thing become so immediately alive and real as to distract from the peculiarity and no matter how light the opera may be it should be made in all seriousness- as they say comedy is a serious business! Consider how many film-makers deal with the fantastic without making the audience step out of the reality of the fantastic: Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, Tim Burton, etc. It would be intriguing to see what they might do if filming an opera! More worryingly, from looking at the clips one questions recurs, who is this expensive creation aimed at? People who don’t like opera won’t go; people who do may well be put off. This would make it seem like work done solely for the benefit of a select few (mainly the creators): certainly it’s not an attempt to disseminate culture to the non-opera house masses^. Of course it’s always possible to make strange elements work, Cabaret shouldn’t work and does so amazingly well^^ and if you compare it to the straight dramatic version, I Am A Camera (1955, Henry Cornelius), it’s possible to see how well Cabaret really does work.

The Magic Flute libretto has been re-translated from the German by Stephen Fry so will be nothing less than literate (even if, in my not-so-humble opinion, he did completely miss the point of Vile Bodies- Waugh didn’t like the rich fly-by-night lifestyle and satirized it while Fry seemed enamoured of it and content to lionize it, this may not have been his intention but it’s certainly how it comes across to me) but I fear nothing will save a creation, a Frankenstein’s monster if you will, born of such disparate and jarring elements. The whole conceit of the film seems to be wilful, elitist and borderline offensive.

They’ll be doing musicals of singing nuns and Nazis before long… just you wait and see!

*Mozart worked bloody hard at his work and his scores are over-written with a large number of corrections despite what that Schaffer wrote in Amadeus. Amadeus is a rather good film but it’s so factually inaccurate it might just as well have called the composers Pinky & Perky. To paraphrase ‘Shattered Glass’… ‘is anything accurate here?’ ‘there was a Mozart apparently’.
**For a good starter you could try watching Inspector Morse: The Masonic Mysteries… it’s shown on a TV channel somewhere often enough!

^Which certainly excludes me: the tickets are excruciatingly expensive!
^^One of the best films ever made… see I do actually like some films!


CyberScribe said...

God has sent me to comment on your blog and He says 'If you have faith and believe your wrist will be healed'

Actually, in response to your question on 'My Forehead is Bleeding' there are a few believers/Christian blogs about. I know of at least 5 or 6 Northern Irish ones that are readable.I find it hard to read overly religious type blogs and blogs by bloggers who suffer from obsessive political blogging disorder.If you really want a few links to some of these blogs I'll share them with you.

Jon Peacey said...

I think I may have proffered the wrong end of the stick (if that's a phrase!). You may well have read my newer comment on My Forehead Is Bleeding by now so this may be superfluous.

I was specifically thinking of Belief within the Writer's area of the Blogosphere. I've seen a number of scriptwriters on here happy to share their Atheism and none, so far, prepared to propose a countervailing point of view.

I too find overly religious things hard to read (one of which became the first book ever to fly from my hand into a wall).

The bit about 'obsessive political blogging disorder' did make me wonder, 'does that mean me?' I certainly seem to take life a little seriously at times!

CyberScribe said...

I'll have to give up speed reading blog posts and my other bad habit of reading only selected sections.
The 'obsessive political blogging disorder' from what I've seen of your blog doesn't refer to you.The bloggers that term refers to are likely to post about what type of biscuit Gordon Brown had with his afternoon tea.