Great post, as ever, from Matthew, this time on the subject of remaking films as operas.
[F]ilm, with its complete Gesamkunstwerk of word, image, sound, and editing, crowds out the possibility of dramatic (though not necessarily semiotic) re-interpretation.
More crucially, I think, duplication and distribution of film universalizes the public image of a particular movie in a way that doesn’t happen with plays or novels, no matter how popular. Take On the Waterfront, a movie that’s burned its way into our collective artistic memory in a remarkably specific way: even people who haven’t seen the movie already have Brando in their head ruminating how he coulda been a contender. Same with Brokeback Mountain: the notoriety (and countless parodies) have created a particular mental image and memory of that story for almost everybody.
It’s not that operagoers will be coming into the show with a pre-existing, personal interpretation of the story they’re about to see—that happens with any adaptation—but that the pre-existing interpretation will be the same one across the board.
I suspect Matthew’s analysis of the difficulties this presents for any composer working with such material will ultimately be proved correct, but the points he makes also raise of interesting problems for the composer wishing to confront them.
I don’t know if Wuorinen’s that man (maybe he is), but it seems like his is the best opportunity to make some play out of those expectations. For a start, all the brouhaha about his getting the commission only demonstrates how fixed our expectations of what a Brokeback Mountain opera should be in the first place (and, as far as I can tell, pretty much everyone had their expectations challenged on this one). And secondly, isn’t half the point of BM that it throws a whole bunch of preconceived ideas about, eg, the ideal of American masculinity, into the air? It’s a story about challenging preconceptions, and Wuorinen’s association has challenged a whole bunch more preconceptions; will the opera itself go that final step and weave all that into itself? I hope so.