Listening with the Eyes – Interview on “Belcanto”

Film: » Belcanto – The Tenors of the 78 Era «

Author Georg-Albrecht Eckle and director Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Rebecca Fajnschnitt, December 1996

The Tenors of the 78 Era – the title indicates that the films address the ear more than the eye.

Schmidt-Garre: They adress the eye as well. During our research we were surprised by the amount of film material that exists of the great singers from the first half of the century. Producers’ euphoria about the invention of sound film at the end of the 1920’s led to search for subject matter that would demonstrate its value. Films about music were the ideal topic. And you also shouldn’t forget the star status that these great singers, above all the tenors, enjoyed at the time. The distinction between opera and popular singers only developed over time, stimulated by another revolutionary invention – the microphone. Singers such as Richard Tauber, Beniamino Gigli, Joseph Schmidt represented a combination of Pavarotti and Michael Jackson. McCormack sold 4 1/2 million 78 recordings of "I Hear You Calling Me"! And that was a very delicate, introverted song, sung with the most beautiful intonation and phrasing, without the least bit of compromise for so-called popular fashion. Alone in the 1930’s in Europe there were at least 200 films made about singers which contain wonderful examples of the art of singing.

Despite the large quantity of film material from this time, you also use purely audio recordings, which are often even more interesting.

Eckle: That is what is perhaps new in this experiment; a significant accent was placed on seeing the act of listening. We listen to a recorded document and see someone knowledgeable who provides a ‘running commentary’ about the characteristics of the voice and the interpretation; the viewer can thus listen attentively while receiving analytical insights both optically and acoustically. I think that is crucial for today; we have forgotten how to listen deliberately, knowingly and with focus due to the all-pervasive presence of music wherever you go. Moreover, viewers will experience and remember singers in a completely different manner when based on criteria that go beyond ‘beautiful’ and ‘not beautiful’. We were surprised again and again, especially given the amount of undiscovered film material, by how seeing can make something heard. That is, we listen differently, understand differently, comprehend on the basis of subtle differences transmitted more through the personality than in the purely auditory process.

The films seem to do without many of the common techniques employed in documentaries. There is no commentary, no documentary material such as still photographs, no pictures of important places, etc.

Schmidt-Garre: We wanted to bring the historical material to life, to give it the same vitality that the voices have for us. Photographs, e.g., are employed, but not as lifeless pictures that are merely blended in. They are presented in a situation, e.g., in the hands of a person who had a special relationship to the protagonist, perhaps through family ties or friendship. This is also the case with the original locations such as opera houses; they are not merely pictured but are employed as scenes for what we filmed. We also treat quotations of the protagonists in this manner; they don’t sound off-stage but are read by the people we interviewed as they appear in the film. And we have already spoken about the most important documents, the historical recordings. They do not merely sound, but they are listened to and commented by experts, most often Jürgen Kesting, in front of the camera, that is, as if together with the viewer. And then there are those parts of the project which we describe as scenes which convey an atmosphere. We have tried to create a scene for every singer that directly conveys the atmosphere of his world and his art. We had a bit of luck with the very first episode about Caruso. We were wondering what location we could choose. It didn’t make any sense to try to recount his whole life’s history in just thirty minutes. We therefore had to set a point of focus. We found an old grocery store in Little Italy in New York which had preserved the atmosphere from the beginning of the century when a hundred thousand Italians set off to discover their luck in New York. Caruso was the man who bound these Italian immigrants together, he was their idol. We thus decided to add a scene to the film with old New York Italians in Mr. Rossi’s Grocery Store. Based on this experience, we searched for a specific color for each following episode, and it is interesting to note in hindsight how closely the color of each of these scenes corresponds to the singer featured. The world of these strong individuals lives on in the ambiance and in the personalities of their family and friends in a mysterious and telling fashion – their good as well as their bad sides.

The use of historical audio and film material raises the question of the adaption to contemporary standards. What guidelines did you employ?

Schmidt-Garre: A severe modernization is avoided nowadays when making the transfer from old 78 recordings; instead, the typical sound of the recording is preserved. The film material was much more of a challenge. Nearly every old film is played too quickly in television. In the case of music films, this leads to the music sounding a half tone higher. And what is even worse in the case of singers, not only is the pitch altered, but also the timbre of their voice. We were able to calculate the correct speed of the film material, so that all the music is heard the way it sounded in the studio at that time. Gigli, for example, had transposed the aria "O Paradiso" down a half step because he had trouble with the high register – thus the aria, which opens every episode of the series, sounds a half step lower in the Gigli episode. Another problem was the proportions of the picture frame; old films employed an almost square format. When these films are transferred to contemporary standards without any special correction, then you get the cut-off heads that are often seen in television. This does not take place in our films.

The preoccupation with historical recordings often leads to a transfiguration of the past. Are you nostalgic by nature?

Schmidt-Garre: Everyone who critically deals with history will at first make the discovery that things that appear natural today actually have a historical development. The high C sung from the chest, e.g., was an invention in the 19th century that had a shocking effect on Rossini and his contemporaries. Or that the purist style of singing that conductors such as Levine or Muti assert to be the only thinkable one arose only at the beginning of this century as a reaction to the Art Nouveau style of singing, such as Fernando De Lucia. Our series will hopefully lead to something other than nostalgia, i.e., to a historical consciousness. Every musician has to solve the contradiction between historical relativity and absolute aesthetic ideals for himself.

If we are not able to discern critically what the art of singing was beginning with the earliest recordings of Fernando De Lucia, then we will never be able to establish a personal art of singing that is. And that is what this is about. There is good singing nowadays, but very few good singers. A few titans at the end of their careers form the exception. Music is often sung well, precisely, often more precisely than before, but rarely does it convey a personality. But compositions were written with a progressively subjective character with the appearance of the verismo, the repertoire which is still popular today. What to do? Can you learn to have a personality? The series will also show that the courage to have a subjective personality must be developed, just as bel canto techniques must be practiced in their objectivity. Our goal was to promote progress rather than to convey nostalgia with this film.

Film: » Belcanto – The Tenors of the 78 Era «