Big Voices on the Silent Screen

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With the Oscars a month away and ten nominations to its credit, winsome silent film The Artist seems poised to walk away with a few more trophies for its already overcrowded mantel. To say the work is not without merit is perhaps the understatement of the year; not even a controversy initiated by Kim Novak, who sharply criticized the film’s use of a clip from Bernard Hermann’s score to Vertigo, can sink this ship.

Perhaps most poignant—in light of this weekend's opening of Götterdämmerung at the Met—was perhaps Rick Groen’s assessment of the film in The Globe and Mail. He stated that The Artist "uses old technology to dazzling effect to illustrate the insistent conquest of a new technology.” And while the Met invades cinemas across the globe with its eye-popping sonic spectaculars, there are even firmer operatic ties to The Artist and films of the silent era.

In fact, the matinee-idol looks of Jean Dujardin may have easily been substituted 100 years ago for tenor Clifton Webb, who started as a singer with the Boston Opera Company and appeared in over 20 operettas on Broadway before turning toward Tinseltown (he hit celluloid stardom after the transition to talkies and played John Philip Sousa in the 1952 biopic Stars and Stripes Forever).

“Opera, the semaphore art form, was an ideal subject for early film, relying, as it did, on the melodramatic storyline, and grand pantomimic acting,” writes Paul Fryer in The Opera Singer and The Silent Film. “Even deprived of their principal glory—the sound of their voiced—operatic stars were amongst the first recognized and recognizable screen stars.”

Perhaps one of the most famous examples was the 1918 film My Cousin, starring Enrico Caruso and featuring him "singing" his landmark aria from Pagliacci, “Vesti la giubba.” Like the following year’s The Splendid Romance, also featuring Caruso, the film was a box office flop.

Other singers, like Geraldine Farrar, fared much better. In fact, her life—which included affairs with Toscanini and Germany’s Crown Prince Wilhelm, an alleged affair with Caruso and a tempestuous marriage to film star Lou Tellegen, plus a famous feud with Puccini—was the stuff tabloid dreams are made of. She traded stage costar Caruso for film stud Wallace Reid and made over a dozen films between 1915 and 1920, citing among her highlights no less a role than Joan of Arc. Among her coworkers was Cecil B. De Mille, who directed Farrar in a 1915 adaptation of Carmen. Her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame resides at 1711 Vine Street.

In fact, enough opera singers fueled Hollywood in between opera house seasons to help the fledgling art form achieve genuine traction. The allure of taking an isolated performance and bigging it up to a point where far-flung audiences could see the stars of the Met and Europe up-close (or, indeed, see them at all) is certainly nothing novel with today’s HD simulcasts. Even when the talkies began to take over for silents, there were plenty of singers to fill in for Farrar, Caruso and company. The 1935 Grace Moore vehicle One Night of Love led the nominations pack for the seventh Academy Awards. Lily Pons tried her hand at the talkies opposite Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball and who could forget New Yorker Risë Stevens playing Carmen in Bing Crosby flick Going My Way?

As seen with luminaries like Korngold (who fled the Anschluss in Europe and found greener pastures writing both classical and film scores out west), the age of film also fostered extensive and diverse careers for operatic composers. The score for D.W. Griffith’s 1914 opus The Birth of a Nation, for example, was penned by Joseph Carl Breil, who in 1918 saw his opera The Legend performed at the old Met. It starred a soprano in her debut season with the company by the name of Rosa Ponselle. Unfortunately, the soprano was not too keen on the part: She burned the score and snipped that it would "would stink up a cat box.”

Hey, they can’t all be winners.