About the Project

The project PROPERA aims to shed new light on the relationship between opera and film. It draws on the hypothesis that the mediation of film displaces, broadens, and enriches our experience and understanding of opera in ways that have not yet been fully explored in their aesthetic and political potential. To fill this gap, the proposed research on the interplay between the two genres and media over the last hundred years will focus on a variety of objects including not only opera-films, but also feature- and short-length mainstream and experimental movies that incorporate opera in relevant and thought-provoking ways. The ultimate goal of looking at opera through the lens of film is to develop and refine a “profane” approach to a “sacred” genre – that is, to challenge the identification of opera as a live performance art belonging to an inherently conservative tradition so as to reimagine the past, present, and future of the operatic genre in a media-saturated world. Based on an interdisciplinary approach at the crossroads of opera and film studies, musicology, and philosophy, the consequences of this shift of perspective will be explored from the standpoint of production and spectatorship, with regard to traditional and contemporary repertoire alike. Globally seen, the project – to be carried out at the University of Chicago and the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, but involving several non-academic institutions – also seeks to create bridges between scholarly research, artistic practice and public engagement.


Theoretical Description:

  1. Introduction

The encounter between opera and film dates back to the birth of the motion picture at the dawn of the 20th century. Indeed, from the silent era until today, many films were made of operas, from Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (1915) to Kasper Holten’s Juan [Don Giovanni] (2010), including classical renderings such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute (1975), or Hans Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal (1982). At the same time, the history of the encounter between the two arts cannot be restricted to the various stages in the development of the hybrid genre of “opera-film” (i.e. a filmed version of an entire opera). On the one hand, opera incorporated the medium of film in itself: the use of a screen in a staged production occurred as early as when a silent film was made to accompany the orchestral interlude of Alban Berg’s Lulu (1937). On the other hand, cinema has long encompassed opera in many different ways: not only when an opera is transformed into a film, but also whenever a movie includes operatic music in the soundtrack (e.g. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia [2011]), features a character obsessed with opera (e.g. Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo [1982]), or plays with both operatic and cinematic conventions in an experimental manner (e.g. Mark Rappaport’s Mozart in Love [1975]). In all its complexity and ambivalence, the historical interplay of opera and film is a fascinating topic unto itself. The aim of this project, however, is not to rewrite the history of this relationship, but rather to reassess its aesthetic and political aspects, especially those related to the filmic representations of opera, in order to rethink the role, place and uses of the genre within the current cultural landscape.


  1. State-of-the-art

Despite its relative youth, the scholarly debate on the interrelationships between opera and film has been profoundly rich and strikingly interdisciplinary (scholars participating in it come from a variety of research backgrounds, ranging from opera studies, musicology, film studies, to philosophy, psychoanalysis, comparative, media and gender studies). Jeremy Tambling, to begin with a major reference in the field, wrote a pioneering book, Opera, Ideology, and Film (1987), whose relevance remains intact due to his illuminating discussion of the political and ideological dimensions of the encounter between opera, film, and new media. The latter’s impact on opera is also the main concern of the book he edited a few years later, A Night in at the Opera: Media Representations of Opera (1994). Shortly after, taking the affinity between Wagner and Lang as a point of departure, David J. Levin’s Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, and the Nibelungen: The Dramaturgy of Disavowal (1998) draws attention to how the aesthetic claims of both opera and cinema may be inextricably linked to totalitarian ideologies. Although other authors addressed the topic as early as in the 1940s, but increasingly in the 1990s (especially in relation to the influence of opera on film music)[1], only after the turn of the century did the interest in the relationship between the two genres reach its culminating point. Marcia Citron’s two full-length books on the topic, Opera on Screen (2000) and When Opera Meets Film (2010), are now major references: the first focuses on opera-films and offers a critical framework for interpreting them, whereas the second broadens the scope of inquiry to embrace other uses of opera in film. Taking a different path, David Schroeder’s Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure: The Operatic Impulse in Film (2002), and Michal Grover-Friedlander’s Vocal Apparitions: The Attraction of Cinema to Opera (2005) discuss the manifestations of cinema’s attraction to opera, and suggest, in the wake of Stanley Cavell[2], that cinema somehow replaces opera in contemporary culture. Jeongwon Joe recently added to the debate with a book on Opera as Soundtrack (2013), a study of the use of operatic music in cinema[3].


  1. Objectives

Clearly, while until the turn of the century the focus was mainly on the contrast between staged and filmed opera and on the impact of film and new media on operatic staging, new studies emerged in the last fifteen years that further investigate the appropriation of opera by cinema in order to discuss the consequences of the encounter between the two genres within a culturally broader context. In the wake of these studies, yet going beyond their scope, the present project pays special attention to how the mediation of film unsettles the understanding of opera as a genre that may reinvent itself and its legacy. Hitherto, the interplay between film and opera has been interpreted as providing the latter with an opportunity of renewal (Tambling), survival (Citron), or rebirth (Grover-Friedlander). While engaging in a critical dialogue with these approaches, this project draws on the alternative hypothesis that the way in which the new medium encompasses the old genre yields what might be evocatively characterized as a “profanation of opera”. This notion is to be understood in a positive, thought-provoking sense, one that binds together production and reception, and applies to both traditional and contemporary works: such a “profanation” would correspond to a new “use” of opera, thanks to which the genre is dislocated from the “sacred” stage of the opera house to a “profane” screen that is bound to no determined place or occasion nor favours any type of spectator over the other. Crucially, thanks to the potentialities inherent in film language – from the use of close-ups to cross-cutting, flashbacks, and outdoor filming, not to speak of unconventional strategies of sound synchronization – such a profanation can lead us back to concrete operas with new paths for creation, recreation and criticism. Thus, it also forces the debate about the destiny of the operatic genre beyond the trope of the alleged death of opera as it has developed within the context of the modern/postmodern debate. In line with this guiding hypothesis, the research comprises six major theoretical objectives:

  • to map the relationship between opera and film over the last hundred years through the identification/characterization of five stages (taking into account competing attempts of periodization of opera and cinema during the 20th century against the backdrop of the modern/postmodern debate): 1) Silent period (1915-1930); 2) Classical period (1930-1945); Post-war period (1945-1970); 3) Opera-film’s golden age (1970-1990); 4) Beyond the postmodern (1990s until today);
  • to develop and refine an analytical and critical approach to “opera-films”, taking into account the contrast between staged opera and filmed opera, as well as the differentiation, within traditional and contemporary repertoire, between operatic sub-genres (such as “seria” and “buffa”, “grand” and “comique”, “oratorio-like”, “Singspiel”, etc);
  • to investigate the cultural and political meanings or assumptions conveyed by cinematic representations of opera, both explicitly (i.e. whenever opera is relevant for the action of the film, regardless of whether the focus is on artistic practice or aesthetic experience), and implicitly (i.e. through the non-diegetic use of operatic music in the soundtrack);
  • to recast in a more coherent manner the discussion on the interplay between opera and cinema against the backdrop of concerns regarding the interrelationships, hierarchies or transitions between the arts within the broader context of the modern/postmodern debate and its aftermath;
  • to examine the interaction between the remediation/representation of opera on screen and the reinvention of opera on stage (i.e. to discuss whether and how film, as a medium and as an art, informs or enhances contemporary opera and musical theatre);
  • to bring the discussion on the encounter between opera and cinema to bear on the overestimated polemics over whether opera is a living or dead genre (in dialogue with authors for whom film provides opera with an opportunity for renewal, survival or rebirth)


  1. Overview of the action

Theoretically, the project PROPERA aims to shed new light on the encounter of opera and cinema (a topic of unquestionable timeliness in the fields of opera and film studies today). Globally seen, it also intends to reinforce the link between scientific production, artistic practice and public engagement. Concerning the outcomes, they include 1 monograph, at least 6 articles, 3 workshops, 1 international conference, 1 film & opera festival, 1 conference cycle, 1 collaborative on-line platform, and 1 international network for the study of “opera, film and new media”. The MSCA fellowship will demonstrably enhance the scientific career of the candidate and strongly contribute to the internationalization of the host institution.


  1. Research methodology and approach:

For the purposes of this study the candidate will draw on methodologies from different disciplines including musicology, film and opera studies, media studies and philosophy, in the service of an approach that besides being inter- and multi-disciplinary may be characterized as historical-analytical (1), theoretical-philosophical (2) and comparative (3).

  • The operas discussed (those turned into films as well as those alluded to or quoted in movies) will be analysed, with similar attention being paid to their musical, dramatic and scenic components, as well as to their socio-cultural context, immediate and longer-term reception and criticism. Operatic conventions will also be taken into account: from the contrast between different sub-genres (e.g. “opera seria” and “opera buffa”, “grand opéra” and “opéra comique”, “Singspiel” and “Musikdrama”, etc) to the differentiation of vocal styles (e.g. coloratura, lyric and dramatic soprano; lyric and dramatic tenor; “basso buffo” and “profundo”, etc.) without forgetting the distinction between recitatives, arias, choruses, ensembles and dance sections. The score will be taken into consideration, not as an alleged “original”, but as a textual point of departure. Incidental cuts shall be debated whenever relevant to the critical commentary and analysis of the opera-film (or, if relevant, the movie). By the same token, both films and opera-films will be analysed as films. Technical aspects, especially those related to sound-image synchronization (the famous topic of lip-synchronization) and editing/montage (the use of close-ups, slow or fast cutting etc.) will be taken into account as well[4].
  • As for the theoretical-philosophical dimension, the researcher will draw not only on authors who have focused on the opera-film encounter (notably those mentioned in the state of the art), but also on those who deal with topics of relevance to the research (albeit indirectly linked to the opera-film encounter) in a particularly illuminating way. Walter Benjamin’s approach to technological reproducibility of the artwork[5], reframed by new approaches to the topic[6], will be crucial to deal with filmed opera from a critical perspective. Similarly, Jacques Rancière’s more recent attempt to reconceptualise spectatorship and to rethink artistic modernity beyond modernism and postmodernism[7], along with Agamben’s reformulation of the notion of profanation[8] – which so far have barely been discussed with regard to music and opera – will provide a framework within which to discuss the encounter of opera and film in a broader, both politically and aesthetically challenging way.
  • A strong emphasis will be placed on comparative analysis (whereby the historical-analytical and theoretical-philosophical aspects of the inquiry are brought together in the service of the research objectives in an innovative way). Particular attention will be paid to a) different filmed and/or staged versions of the same opera (e.g. to Joseph Losey’s, Peter Sellars’s and Kasper Holten’s renderings of Mozart’s Don Giovanni), b) the various ways of drawing on one work and/or composer/librettist (e.g. to how the Wagnerian dramatic/musical referent is used and/or manipulated in recent films including Lars von Trier’s Melancholia [2011], Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder [2012], or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained [2012]), c) contrasting filmic representations of technical reproduction of opera, via a gramophone or a tape player (e.g. in movies such as Beineix’s Diva [1981], Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo [1982], or Fellini’s E la nave va [1983]), d) the different theoretical accounts of the same filmic/operatic object (e.g. Jeremy Tambling’s, Marcia Citron’s and Michal Grover-Friedlander’s readings of Zeffirelli’s Otello), or even e) heterogeneous scenic approaches by prominent filmmakers (e.g. Tarkovsky’s Boris Godunov [Royal Opera House, 1983] Herzog’s Lohengrin [Bayreuth, 1987], or Michael Haneke’s Così fan tutte [Teatro Real, 2013]).


  1. Originality and innovative aspects of the research programme

Although the interest in the intersection of opera and film has unquestionably grown in recent years, the fact remains that the consequences of their encounter for a reappraisal of the place and role of opera in the 21st century has not been explored fully. On the one hand, the question as to whether and how the mediation of film challenges stereotypes about opera as a conservative genre have not received enough attention in relation to the debate on the erosion of the modern/postmodern dichotomy. On the other hand, the extent to which the inquiry into opera and film provides a better understanding of new trends in contemporary opera and music-theatre, or contributes to overcome the debate about the so-called “death of opera” have not been properly discussed either. The present research project aims at giving decisive steps in both directions.

Building on Rancière’s hypothesis that the relationship between different arts may shed light on the mutability of their aesthetic and political valences – and unconvinced by the notion that the collapse of the “great divide” between “high art” and “mass culture”[9] suffices to understand such a mutability in all its complexity and ambivalence – it will be argued that the opportunity inherent in the encounter between opera and film will be missed unless we move beyond the alternative between the modernist obsession with the autonomy and reflexivity of each art/medium and the postmodern enthusiasm for hybridization. In this regard, the interplay between opera and film will be viewed as a possible vehicle, rather than as a necessary and sufficient condition, for a contemporary reappraisal of opera. Bringing together Benjamin’s famous insight on the emancipatory potential of art’s technological reproducibility and Agamben’s thoughtful reconceptualization of profanation, such an opportunity will be discussed in qualitative rather than in quantitative terms. If, on the one hand, it is true that the proliferation of the experience of opera resulting from the technical reproduction of image and sound enlarges the scope of potential spectators of opera, on the other hand, a genuine democratization would not consist in rendering opera available to a larger audience alone. The true emancipation from tradition and conservatism would also – in fact crucially – entail a change in terms of production strategies, listening and viewing habits, and critical sensitivity. It is the aim of this project to employ a comparative methodology in order to bring to light the concrete works in the filmic-operatic corpus in which such a profanation becomes visible, audible and thinkable.

Conversely, it might be argued that opera has already overcome tradition for a long time now. From Schönberg’s Moses und Aron (1937) to Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (1977/96) or Michel van der Aa’s One (2002), opera has turned into “anti-opera”, “anti-anti-opera” or “post-opera”. This is certainly true from the perspective of artistic production. Moreover, it is clear that the medium of film paved the way for the reinvention of opera as post-dramatic musical-theatre[10]. This fact notwithstanding, the relevance of film also involves the renewal of the relationship of spectators and artists with repertoire from the past. In fact, although both staged and filmed versions of traditional opera may challenge this relationship, the latter changes the very conditions of visibility and audibility of the work in a way that deserves further consideration in its specificity, radicalism and influence on contemporary creation. The mediation of film thus provides a vantage point from which to critically deal with the topic of the alleged “death of opera” (in dialogue with Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar[11], as well as with Michal Grover-Friedlander[12]). The main question would no longer be whether opera is a living art from the perspective of either modernist or postmodernist appraisals of history, but rather whether it is possible to develop a living relationship with it, involving both artists and audience, and admitting that both the past and the present of opera as it were belong to its present.

In short, the innovative aspect of the present project lies not only in that it brings a comparative approach to bear on the analysis of a wide range of filmic-operatic works in the light of the hypothesis that the mediation of film revolutionizes our understanding of opera in a thought-provoking way. It also consists in the attempt to account for the encounter between the two genres and media beyond both the trope of the death of opera and the modern/postmodern dichotomy that informs it, while emphasizing that reinventing the present and reimagining the future of opera is inextricably linked to rethinking its past.


[1] See, for instance, Theodor W. Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (London: The Athlone Press, 1994 [1947]); Royal S. Brown, Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1994); Michel Chion, La musique au cinéma (Paris: Fayard, 1995); along with more recent essay collections: James Buhler, Caryl Flinn and David Neumeyer (eds.), Music and Cinema (Hanover, NH and London: UP of New England, 2000); Daniel Goldmark, Lawrence Kramer, and Richard Leppert (eds.), Beyond the Soundtrack: Representing Music in Cinema (Berkeley: U of California P, 2007), and Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell, Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-existing Music in Film (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

[2] Stanley Cavell, “Opera and the Lease of Voice,” in A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 129-169.

[3] In addition to these references, it is worth mentioning the following historical/encyclopaedic surveys: L’Avant Scène Opéra: “Cinéma et Opéra” (May 1987); Ken Wlaschin, Opera on Screen: A Guide of 100 Years of Films and Videos (Los Angeles: Beachwood Press, 1997); and Richard Fawkes, Opera on Film (London: Duckworth, 2000), as well as two essay collections: Jeongwon Joe and Rose Theresa (eds), Between Opera and Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2002), and Jeongwon Joe and Sander Gilman (eds), Wagner and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010).

[4] See, with regard to these technical issues, Michel Chion, L’audio-vision. Son et image au cinéma (Paris: Armand Colin, 2013 [1990]), and John Buhler, David Neumeyer, and Rob Deemer, Hearing the Movies: Music and Sound in Film History (New York and Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009).

[5] Walter Benjamin, “Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit” [1936], Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. I., 2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 471-598; “Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers” [1921], Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. IV. 1 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972), 9-21.

[6] See, for instance, Robert Philip, Performing Music in the Age of Recording (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004), and Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).

[7] Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scènes du régime esthétique de l’art (Paris: Galilée, 2011), and Le spectateur émancipé (Paris: La fabrique, 2008).

[8] Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007 [2005]).

[9] Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986).

[10] Jelena Novak, Postopera: Reinventing the Voice-Body (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

[11] Slavoj Žižek, and Mladen Dolar, Opera’s Second Death (New York: Routledge, 2002).

[12] Michal Grover-Friedlander, Operatic Afterlives (New York: Zone Books, 2011).