By now, everyone in the opera world has absorbed the news that Charles Wuorinen is working on an opera based on Brokeback Mountain. I was less skeptical about this idea than some—I thought some of the best, most startling parts of the last Wuorinen piece I heard, his 8th Symphony (“Theologoumena”), were the most delicate moments—and I just make it a rule to try and reserve judgment on any piece until I actually hear it. (I’ve been surprised, pleasantly and unpleasantly, far too many times.)

But then I read that David Carlson (whose Anna Karenina was premiered in St. Louis last season) was working on an adaptation of On the Waterfront (scroll down to the bottom) and I started to think about Wuorninen’s efforts as part of a mini-trend of film-based operas: William Bolcom already saw the premiere of A Wedding, based on the Robert Altman film; Poul Ruders is composing a version of Lars von Trier’s Dancer In the Dark; Howard Shore is mutating David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

On the face of it, this might not seem like news: opera has always plundered other art forms for subjects and plots, far more often, in fact, that it’s generated them itself. But cribbing from film changes the dynamic in a fundamental way. The previous motherlodes of operatic adaptation—theater and literature—are both re-creative media. Plays require live interpretation by actors and directors, with the varying personnel producing equally varied versions of the source material, while literature is dependent on the creative complicity of the reader—everyone who cracks the cover is his or her own producer/director, on the stage of imagination. But film, 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. Everyone will be comparing it to the same experience: a formidable challenge for anyone wanting to translate the material. I could see how Bolcom sould get away with it: The Wedding is something of a cult film—how many people have actually seen it? Or even had heard of it before the opera came out? Far fewer than Brokeback Mountain or The Fly, I’d bet. But with a popular movie, something that immediately latches onto the zeitgeist, I would think that the universality of the filmgoing experience puts the opera at a disadvantage. My sense is that the bar will either be set too high—anything less than an utterly convincing and completely contrasting illumination of the story will be a failure—or too low—simply not alienating the audience’s existent relationship to the material will be sufficient success (you’re terrific if you’re even good, in other words). Either way, there’s a danger of shrinking the artistic space for opera to work its own, idiosyncratic magic.


  1. There’s a previous example of this–Britten’s Death in Venice (which for my money is his best opera), which followed close on to the Visconti movie, which had, as it were, come out to enormous attention. Whether the opera initially suffered from comparison to the movie I’m not sure. In that case the movie had already altered certain aspects of the story (or at least one, making Aschenbach a composer rather than a writer, so the opera was sort of a return to the original.

  2. These questions about interpretation are probably best directed at the tribute bands, jukebox musicals and stage musical re-enactments of movie musicals that are spreading through theatres these days. In all these cases people are bringing a shared experience (through movies or records) of the original to the stage imitation, re-imagining, whatever you want to call it.For Broadway and bar gigs, sometimes they sell, sometimes they don’t. You can’t help feeling that opera companies are hitching themselves to this bandwagon without much further thought, except perhaps that thought of “let’s give ’em new music, but in a way that promises to add nothing to what they already know. Nothing challenging here!”And if the punters don’t like the music they can ignore it by following the familiar plot and tell themselves after that they “got” the opera.

  3. Good points, guys. I missed the brouhaha over the Visconti movie, so I came to Britten with a more virgin mindspace (and yes, I think it’s his best opera, too), but I wonder if the previous fame of the novella had in a sense inoculated Britten’s audience—the Visconti movie could still be seen as just another interpretation (albeit a powerful one) and the real comparative experience was with reading the original. (I suppose you could make this argument with <>Brokeback Mountain<>, although I don’t know of anybody who read the story before the movie came out. I mean, of course, people did, but not that many.Ben’s point may explain why <>A Wedding<> seems to work, since the movie’s already a kind of <>opera buffo<> without music, so Bolcom is not so much reinterpreting the material as gilding the lily in a way that reinforces the experience of the original instead of contradicting or reimagining it. Tribute bands and musicalizations are far more apt to aim for the goal of reminding the audience how much they liked the original rather than engaging with the source material in a different and new way. I suppose you could do that reminder operatically, but it seems a rather difficult way to do it.

  4. Britten famously didn’t see the (IMHO, ghastly) Visconti movie when he was working on his glorious opera and I think that was a smart move on Britten’s part. BTW, part of Gerard Mortier’s first season at the NYCO will include Debra Warner’s astonishing production of <>Death in Venice<> with Ian Bostridge reprising his Aschenbach from ENO. I saw it in London a few months ago and it was a shattering performance.Anyway, I look forward to the news stories of people showing up at Charles Wuorinen’s opera, expecting some faux-Copland Americana and getting vocal lines with b13th leaps in it instead, causing them to flee. Unless Mr. Wuorinen is entering a new phase of compositional life, I can’t imagine there’s going to be much folksy material in his new opera!As for tribute bands, there’s one that’s head and shoulders above all others and that’s The Muscial Box from Quebec. They do *exact* replications of Genesis’ <>Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound<> and <>The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway<> shows, down to using the exact same guitars, keyboards, costumes etc. I saw <>The Lamb<> show twice and they were two of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.

  5. I’m don’t want to make many claims for the movie of Death in Venice, which I haven’t seen in years, and I don’t remember much about. But, one or two things…Many more people saw the movie, I’m sure, than ever read the book. When the movie came out, it was very very big and got lots and lots of attention. It doesn’t surprise me that Britten made sure he didn’t see it while he was working on the opera, and clearly it’s a very individual and personal take on the book. Of course the number of people who saw/heard the opera, at least initially, may well have been smaller than the number who had read the book, and it’s probably certain that the percentage of the original opera audience who had read the book beforehand was greater than the percentage of the movie audience who had done, so it’s hard to know…

  6. When Lotfi Mansouri was the General Director of the San Francisco Opera during the 1990s, we were served up a trio of premieres which tended to be Lotfi’s favorite movies turned into mediocre operas, and all of your objections applied. First it was “The Dangerous Liaisons” composed by Conrad Susa, which was amazingly dull for such an interesting story, followed by Andre Previn’s take on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which was also amazingly dull for such an interesting story, and finally “Dead Man Walking” by Jake Heggie, who had never written an opera before. The latter was actually the best of the bunch although its finest moments sounded like ersatz Britten.Things have improved considerably in the 21st century, with the world premieres of John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” (which is a masterpiece), and last night Philip Glass’ “Appomattox” to an original libretto by Christopher Hampton, which was surprisingly good.By the way, not only did the Visconti movie of “Death in Venice” suck big time, almost ruining the Adagio from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in the process, but there’s no such thing as Britten’s “best opera,” just like there’s no such thing as Verdi’s or Mozart’s best opera. There are too many riches to choose from, and it really does come down to personal taste.

  7. Those may have been Mansouri’s favorite movies, but they had pre-operatic lives as a novel, a play, and a book, after all. I missed “Dangerous liaisons” but have heard that the libretto preserved the epistolary structure of the novel, which sounds like a fatally bad decision to me. It is a great story, and I wish a more competent composer/librettist team would do an opera of it. Too bad Christopher Hampton has already done his time in the barrel with “Liaisons.”

  8. David Lynch’s <>Lost Highway<> has also been reinvented by Olga Neuwirth, who takes her libretto straight from the movie, in many instances. She’s more like Bolcom, in that she went back to a movie without any literary antecedent, unlike Wuorinen and Britten. Maybe we need two schools of criticism, one for operas based on movies based on books or short stories, and one for operas based on movies.

  9. I could of course be wrong about this. But it strikes me that faux-Copland Americana is precisely what an operatic Brokeback Mountain needs except for in the sex scenes, when maybe you need something from Wozzeck or Pierrot. In fact, it’s a shame that Copland would have been 106 years old because for obvious reasons he might have been the opera’s perfect composer. But who knows, maybe that’s all too obvious and Proulx does in fact know what she’s doing by giving it over to Wuorinen.

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