Ken Wlaschin and the silent opera


Sadly the death has been announced of Ken Wlaschin, a major figure in American and British film culture for many years. Born in America, Ken came to prominence as head of the National Film Theatre in London, also serving as the director of the London Film Festival from 1969 to 1984. He returned to the States and revived the Los Angeles International Film Festival, serving also as director of creative affairs at the American Film Institute and vice chairman of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation. He was an author of great distinction, writing not only on film (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the World’s Great Movie Stars and Their Films, The Faber Book of Movie Verse) but fiction, travel books and poetry.

Obituaries to Ken Wlaschin have been published elsewhere. This post will pay a different kind of tribute by concentrating on one particular area of interest to him. Perhaps Ken’s most notable publication was Encyclopedia on Opera on Screen: A Guide to More Than 100 Years of Opera Films, Video and DVDs (2004). This stupendous publication (all 872 pages of it) is a comprehensive, cultured and engrossing guide to the alliance of opera and the screen, a history that goes back into the silent era, when opera was a remarkably popular subject for filmmakers.

Indeed the alliance is not merely as old as cinema itself, but older. In his caveat of 15 October 1888 Thomas Edison wrote the following famous words about the motion picture device that he was setting out to invent:

I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope ‘Moving View. In the first production of the actual motions that is to say of a continuous opera the instrument may be called a Kinetograph buts its subsequent reproduction for which it will be of most use to the public it is properly called a Kinetoscope …

Edison repeatedly cited opera as the prime example of what his motion picture invention was meant to achieve, his vision having always been to combine motion pictures with sound. In 1894 he wrote:

The kinetoscope is only a small model illustrating the present stage of progress but with each succeeding month new possibilities are brought into view. I believe that in coming years by my own work and that of Dickson, Muybridge, Marié [i.e. Marey] and others who will doubtless enter the field, that grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House at New York without any material change from the original, and with artists and musicians long since dead.

So it was that opera was embedded into the consciousness of film from the very outset, and if the precise combination of vocal music and film proved a challenge for three decades (though never an impossibility), filmmakers in the so-called silent era turned to opera again and again – for its stories, its scores, its kudos and its stars.

All of this is documented in fascinating detail in Wlaschin’s Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen. As well as entries on silent cinema and opera and on first opera films, he includes sections on their early film productions of every opera imaginable. How many? Well a quick thumb through the book reveals early film productions of Aida, Un ballo in maschera, Il barbiere di Siviglia, The bartered bride, La boheme, Carmen, Don Giovanni, Faust, Fra Diavolo, Lohengrin, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, Martha, The Mikado, Le nozze di Figaro, Pagliacci, Parsifal, Rigoletto, Thaïs, Tosca and many more. The exact number is impossible to determine, partly owing to problems of definition, but it undoubtedly runs into hundreds. ‘Silent’ operas films were of various kinds, of which these are the main types:

Synchronised sound
Edison hoped to marry the Kinetoscope to his Phonograph, but the Kinetophone did not have much of a commercial life and never featured any opera. But synchronisation of gramophone recordings with films to give a semblance of the full audio-visual experience began in 1900 with the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the Paris Exposition, for which Clément-Maurice filmed Victor Maurel singing arias from Don Giovanni and Falstaff and Emile Cossira an aria from Roméo et Juliette. A second wave of synchronised (or sound-on-disc) films from around 1907 onwards led to numerous films of scenes or arias from operas, usually with actors miming to the recordings of the genuine opera singers. Systems such as the Cinephone, Cinematophone, Vivaphone, Chronophone, Cinemafono and Biophon were a common feature of cinema programmes for a number of years up to the start of First World War. Although some attempts were made to encompas an entire opera in this way (in 1907 British Gaumont issued a complete Gounod’s Faust in twenty-two separate film/sound recordings), the vast majority of these films were single-reelers of three minutes or so, lasting the length of a single gramophone recording. The greatest exponent of the form was the German producer Oskar Messter, who produced around 500 song, opera and operetta sound shorts using his Biophon system, and even opened a spcialised Berlin cinema dedicated to opera films (one or two other such cinemas opened around Europe at this time).

Georges Mendel’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1908), from the Lobster Films DVD set Discovering Cinema

The most joyous of all synchronised sound opera films is a 1908 production by French producer Georges Mendel of the sestet from Donizzetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, sung by Enrico Caruso Marcella Sembrich, Antonio Scotti, Marcel Journet, Barbara Severina and Francesco Daddi. The performers who appear on the film are actors miming to the recording, but the spirit in which the music is relayed is truly uplifting (the film – only recently discovered and not correctly identified in Wlaschin’s encyclopedia – can be found on the Discovering Cinema 2-DVD set, for which see below).

Filmed performance
Among the most prestigious, though controversial, of early cinema productions was Edison’s Parsifal (1904), a near-literal recording of the Metropolitan Opera production filmed by Edwin S. Porter, whose exhibition was hampered by a lawsuit preventing Edison from screening the film alongside Wagner’s recorded music.

Operas as films
Operas conceived of as films are a rare breed. There are two examples from the silent era. Rapsodia Satanica (Italy 1915) was an avante garde work directed by Nino Oxilia, which starred Lyda Borelli and had music that accompanied screenings by Pietro Mascagni (composer of Cavalleria rusticana). The peculiar Jenseits des Stroms (Germany 1922), directed by Ludwig Czerny, has music composed for singers and orchestra by Ferdinand Hummel, which had musical notation running along the bottom of the screen throughout the film. A print is held by the BFI National Archive.

Related to this, one composer among the greats was able to have a say in how a film of one of his operas transfered to the silent screen. Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, written in 1911, was filmed in 1926 in Austria by Robert Weine. Strauss provided new music and arranged the film’s live score, while his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote the screenplay, with new scenes added for the film.

Another way of bringing together opera music with silent film was through lives of composers. Examples include opera enthusiast Oskar Messter’s feature-length The Life of Richard Wagner (1913), directed by Carl Froelich, and the 1921 Austrian film Mozarts Leben, Lieben und Leiden, on the life of Mozart, while Verdi was the subject of a 1913 Italian production, Giuseppe Verdi nella vita e nella gloria.

Geraldine Farrar in Carmen, from Flickr

The leading opera singers of the period were earnestly sought as film actors. Among them were Mary Garden, who appeared in Goldwyn’s Thaïs (1917); Lina Cavalieri, who featured in Italian and American films in the ‘teens (none directly based on operas); and Enrico Caruso, who starred in My Cousin (1918) for Famous Players-Lasky and, less successfully, in The Splendid Romance (1919). The outstanding crossover star was Geraldine Farrar, who had a huge hit with Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen in 1915 and went on to enjoy a five-year film career with titles (such as the classic Joan the Woman) which owed little to the opera repertoire but demonstrated her powerful cinematic appeal.

Often the stories from operas were used for silent films that had no allegiance to the music, often because they based themselves on source novels or plays rather than the opera. King Vidor’s La bohème (1926), with Lillian Gish as Mimi, is probably the most notable example (MGM were forbidden by the publishers from using Puccini’s music to accompany the film).

British producer Harry B. Parkinson was responsible two film series which boiled down opera stories to twenty-minute shorts. Tense Moments with Operas (1922) produced digests of Martha, Rigoletto, La traviata and others. Cameo Operas (1927) did the same, except that these were exhibited with live singers and orchestral accompaniment. Parkinson directed and John E. Blakeley produced. Examples included Carmen, Faust and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Opera music accompanying silent films
Opera themes were used to accompany silent films, notably Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ which perhaps almost inevitably was used to accompany the ride of the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.

Silent films about opera
There are numerous examples of silent films set in the world of opera. Best known is the Lon Chaney vehicle, The Phantom of the Opera (1925), but other examples listed by Wlaschin are Clara Kimball Young in The Yellow Passport (1916), Tom Moore in Heartease (1919), Betty Blythe in How Women Love (1922) and Greta Garbo in The Torrent (1926).

Operas based on silent films
Wlaschin records that the first film to be the inspiration for an opera was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), which served as the basis of French composer Camille Erlanger’s 1921 opera Forfaiture. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin was made into an opera in 1937 by composer Oles Semenovich Chishko, while William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992) is based on both the Erich von Stroheim film and Frank Norris’ original novel.

Operas about silent films
Finally, there could be operatic works about film. Germany composer Walter Kollo came ujp with Filmzauber (Film Magic) in 1912, with libretto by Rudolf Bernauer and Rudolph Schanzer, which was shown in London and New York in 1913 as The Girl on the Film. It told of a film company producing a story about Napoleon in a small village. Other examples include German composer Jean Gilbert’s operetta Die Kinokönigen (1913) and Carlo Lombardo’s La signorina del cinematografo (1914).

Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen (from which much of the information above derives) exists both as a book and as a word-searchable CD-ROM.

I’ve not found any silent opera films or synchronised opera films from the silent era online (at least not legitimately so), but here’s a listing of some of the DVDs available:

Obituaries for Ken Wlaschin have been published by the Guardian and Variety. His silent film intersts extended beyond opera by the way – among his other publications are The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896-1929: An Illustrated History and Catalog of Songs Inspired by the Movies and Stars, with a List of Recordings and Silent Mystery and Detective Movies: A Comprehensive Filmography.

7 responses

  1. Thank you for the great survey of the ties between opera and cinema. I have observed from reading newspapers and magazines of the era that people, in big cities at least, were much more aware of opera than most of us are now.

    The title “Tense Moments with Operas” makes me think of someone speculating how many minutes it will be till the end of the act and how long the line will be at the restroom.

  2. I think it does show how much of a popular art opera was at that time. It’s something that doesn’t turn up in the usual film histories, bar a mention of Geraldine Farrar. The hundreds and hundreds of sound-on-disc shorts made before 1914 just don’t get accounted for when people thinking about the so-called silent cinema.

    I should imagine Tense Moments with Operas was pretty unbearable. I’ve seen or two examples of H.B. Parkinson’s similar series, Tense Moments with Great Authors, and the results are truly excrecable.

  3. Does the Tense Moments with Operas series survive? I wonder if they would be so unbearable, as Parkinson’s film of the song ‘Barcelona’ is truly wonderful – maybe he had a talent for working with music, which may not have been the case in dealing with novels.

  4. So far as I know none of the Tense Moments with Operas survive. I have to admit my adverse opinion of the Great Authors series is based on one example, Vanity Fair (1923), which went immediately into my top 10 worst films ever made when I came across probably 20 years ago now. But Harry B. Parkinson is an intriguing character, certainly an enterprising one, and I am pleased to hear about Barcelona. He produced a series of short films on London, entitled Wonderful London (1924) (held by the BFI National Archive) which are observational gems.

  5. Thanks to Luke for this great summary of opera and early film, and for the dedication to Ken Wlaschin. I worked with Ken on a bibliography of film fiction (in Film History journal, 20/2, 2008). While I did a large chunk of the entries to 1914, he did most of the rest, and Ken proved to be a master at writing short plot summaries. This bibliography was but one of his many projects in film history, and his publications were coming thick and fast in recent years, as Luke has noted. I should add that one of Ken’s first books (a pamphlet really), the ‘Bluffer’s Guide’ to the cinema (Wolfe, 1969, 1974) was one of the first film books I ever owned and is still one of my favourites.
    Oh, and I agree with John S re ‘Barcelona’ which was shown at this year’s Pordenone. It’s a hilarious piece of oddball filmmaking, and was made even better by John’s boistrous and perfectly synchronised accompaniment: the audience loved it.

  6. Thank you for the tribute, Stephen. I only knew him slightly myself, but I’m continually amazed by the breadth of his interests and the knowledge that he brought to those interests. Aside from the opera book, a long-standing favourite of mine is the cultured and illuminating Faber Book of Movie Verse, which he co-edited with Philip French.

    And now I am really keen to see Barcelona (which the curious can find described here:

  7. Yes, Stephen, Ken’s “Bluffer’s Guide to the Cinema” is one of my favorites, too. I was given it as a traditional gift in a grad student pre-Master’s orals ritual at film school and it did, indeed, help get me through the test. This was about a year before I met Ken. He was an extraordinary man and we remained friends for over 35 years. I am so glad that I reminded him a few weeks before he passed (when he seemed as incredibly vital as ever) that his little book got me through grad school.

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