A QUESTION OF FOCUS, Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 29th November 1958

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The Italians are quite right when they call opera a spettacolo. We go to see it rather than to hear it, and the visual spectacle is supposed to be wedded to the music so that the one enhances and illuminates the other. Any inadvertent or irrelevant event will divert attention, and a man with his attention elsewhere might as well be deaf and blind. Everyone is familiar with the disruption caused by late-comers at a theatre, or by one’s neighbour twitching at a concert. And on stage, how often does an important soliloquy go for nothing because the lovers in the background are miming their unheard whispers. The slightest fidget can ruffle the quicksilver of our focus.

In America some years ago, a conductor lifted his arms in mighty gesticulation to elicit a sforzando from his players, when his braces snapped, and amid orchestral thunders his trousers fell about his ankles. In the G.P. (general plaudits) that ensued he could retrieve his modesty, but the composer had lost his all.

I recall a performance of Rigoletto in Lugano at which the party in our box could see into the orchestra pit. After a while we were astonished to observe that the two clarinettists sitting side by side spread a large dark handkerchief, or square, so that it covered both their laps, beneath which they appeared to hold hands during their rests. This delicate behaviour mystified us so much that Verdi could not entirely keep grip of our attention.

On the whole, composers have always known that their music would be up against certain natural difficulties in transmission from the conceiving mind to the listener’s ear. But the hazards of the medium are increased beyond all bounds when a concert is filmed or televised. In addition to such factors as the acoustical properties of the place of performance, the idiosyncrasies of the performers, the inaccuracies of copies, the varieties of interpretation, the infelicities of context and of programme-planning, we now have to contend with the vagaries of the producer and camera-man, who can with one false flicker obliterate an apotheosis, emphasize an insignificance, and generally contravert all our hopes or intentions.

It is difficult to concentrate on two things at once, and visual stimuli seem to gain our first attention, hence film-music is seldom noticed during a film, unless it is thrust at the audience by repetition (La Ronde, or Round the World in 80 Days) or by device (Bridge Across the River Kwai [sic]) or by publicity (Henry V).

But because of the very attention that a film visually receives, our concentration must be refreshed by continual change and novelty. Filming and televising appear to be an endless fidget of cutting, dissolving, close-up and long-shot. Such a fever of changing viewpoint is at odds with the what the concert music of yesterday and today requires of its listeners, repose.

Still, there is hope. The composer of tomorrow will write his music with a film-script of it at the same time.

His work will be conceived as specially to be watched by remote-control on a screen. So that when you see the horn voiding its condensation you will know this was in the score, timed to the second; the trombone-oil applied in bar 504 was for getting the player as oiled as the instrument for his glissandissimi to come in bar 704; and the close-up of the first viola’s neck, with a spider dancing its way over a bumpkin, will remind you that both viola and spider were chosen at auditions by the composer or conductor, and their concatenation carefully rehearsed according to the score and script.

It is this element which ensures that we shall never have robots instead of instrumentalists. Machines, however electronic, are always less interesting to watch than human-beings.

But while concert music is at present unsuitable for visual listening, opera (if the time and money were spent that is needed in the preparation of any artistic venture) might well gain by it. The human face is not of great beauty while it is singing, which is the best reason for approving of “dubbing” in films and television. But many songs and operas have a quantity of narrative. Sometimes this narrative is very important; sometimes it is less important, but we miss much when we fail to grasp it. I can imagine the most thrilling “realizations” of narratives in such cases as the opening of Il Trovatore, many long sections of Tristan, the Lord Chancellor’s nightmare in Iolanthe, the Mikado’s song about crimes and punishments, and so on. During these passages, a “flashback” would be shown depicting the events or items mentioned by the singers, so that the song becomes not a vista of different aspects of an actress pretending to sing, but a flow of visual illustrations with the song as a delectable commentary. The first scene of Götterdämmerung is musically very exciting, but on stage it suffers from that very longeur which film or television technique might relieve.

There has been much talk of “Television Opera”, but its future must surely be along these lines.

Peter Tranchell