Martin Scorsese's 3-D film Hugo, based on Brian Selznick's 2007 novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret opened a few weeks ago to critical acclaim. If you haven't seen it yet—go right away! Why I feel this work is so important, and what relevance it has for opera, will come in a moment.
Hugo incorporates historical details based loosely on the life of film pioneer Georges Méliès, who made more than 500 short films between 1886 and 1913 before his business failed and he was forced to work selling toys in the Gare Montparnasse in Paris. In many ways, Hugo is a love story, with multiple facets: love between a lonely young man and a dejected older one; between two precocious children; between an ailing husband and devoted wife; and between an adopted daughter and her parents, among others. The film creates a stunning world of clocks and machinery in Montparnasse even as it recreates Méliès's film studio to showcase his unique visual and dramatic approach. And, it skillfully references Méliès's most famous film, Voyage to the Moon, inspired by the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Commenting about Hugo in the New Yorker, distinguished film critic David Denby writes, "Reality, filmed illusion, and dreams are so intertwined that only an artist, playing merrily with echoes, can sort them into a scheme of delight."
The original book, too, blends several intriguing elements: traditional printed text; many pages in the style of a graphic novel; drawings of an automaton that can reproduce a picture; and stills from Méliès's work. Even the incorporation of the automaton into the novel is based on fact; Méliès donated a collection of sophisticated automata to a museum where they were neglected and ultimately discarded.
What is the link between Hugo Cabret and opera, you might ask? As I see it, time and the flow of history. Opera, because of its unique creative process, usually sits at the intersection of three, and sometimes four, distinct time periods. It, too, draws on many layers of history —some real, some imagined—to generate its artistic impact.
Consider an important opera such as Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. The opera premiered in the 19th century (1868 to be exact), yet is set in 16th-century Nuremberg. The bungee cord effect doesn't end there: As a 21st century audience, we bring our own very different perspectives on love and art to every performance. Likewise, Verdi's Il trovatore premiered in 1853 but the action takes place 400 years earlier. Naturally, many operas have a much shorter gap between the composer's period and the setting. Bizet's Carmen, for instance, is set around 1820 and premiered in 1875.
In an opera world premiere, there is rare synchronicity between the composer and the audience's era. But even then, if the work is adopted and becomes part of the core repertoire, future directors and conductors must be sensitive to the passage of time. John Adam's minimalist masterpiece, Nixon in China, premiered in 1987. China has now become an economic powerhouse far removed from the xenophobic Communist world portrayed in this opera.
Even short periods of time can bring extraordinary changes in technology and the arts. Who could have predicted the stunning rate of change in a 25-year-period between 1927 and 1951? In 1927, Fritz Lang released the silent-film classic Metropolis. Another groundbreaking film, The Jazz Singer, released that same year, astounded audiences with brief interludes of spoken dialogue. By 1952, the swaggeringly self-confident Singin' in the Rain was released, starring Gene Kelley, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds. Set back in 1927, the film incorporated not only lavish production numbers, but also both color and black and white footage (sometimes of the same scene), as the characters came to terms with the challenges of producing the new "talking pictures." It, too, is a scheme of delight in its own way—an improvisation on love, dance, movie-making, time and technological change—and this is one of the many reasons for its enduring impact and appeal.
This brings me to the issue of "updating" opera performances—i.e. changing the period in which the opera is set. When opera performances are updated, performing artists and audiences must now navigate up to four different historical periods. Some of these updates can be very effective. The Dallas Opera's performances of the Monte Carlo / San Francisco Opera production of Mozart's Così fan tutte, for example, shifted the dramatic action from the 18th century to WWI. This time shift drove some memorable changes to the visual design and character portrayals, without doing harm to the original dramatic framework. Dorris Dörrie's intriguing production that I saw in Berlin last year moved the setting to the 1960s, complete with "flower power" period costumes and hair styles, and a reconstructed airport ticket lounge. This production was highly visually inventive, but stretched the libretto much more than the Monte Carlo production.
As productions diverge farther and farther from the original time period, there is an important risk that any opera impresario or director must acknowledge: when the audience navigates between their own time, the composer's era, the original setting and the updated setting, it can demand so much of their attention that it detracts from the music and storyline. Also, some operas do not lend themselves to updates at all. It is difficult to imagine resetting an opera based on specific historical events—such as John Adams' opera Dr. Atomic, which portrays the development of the atomic bomb—into a radically different time period.
Nonetheless, time-shifting and shaping provides material that will provoke an unlimited source of ideas and inspiration for opera directors, designers and conductors, and is one of the aspects of opera that I most enjoy. It also probably explains why I found Hugo so compelling, and so relevant to the world on which I am most focused—the world of opera.
◊ Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of the Dallas Opera, took the helm of the largest opera company in North Texas in the spring of 2010. The former Executive Director (COO) and CFO of San Francisco Opera and CEO of Sheet Music Plus launched TDO's first public simulcasts, the General Director's Roundtable, a new chamber opera series, multiple artistic collaborations, and a host of groundbreaking, strategic initiatives and successful fundraising campaigns during his first year-and-a-half on the job.
◊ Editor's Note: This is the first in a new series of columns, called Off the Cuff, that Cerny will write for TheaterJones in 2012, musing on pop culture and current events through the language of opera. Off the Cuff will appear on a monthly basis.
And just for fun, here's Georges Méliès' short film Voyage to the Moon (also known as A Trip to the Moon):
And here's a trailer for Scorsese's film Hugo: