"Opera Fanatic" – Interview
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Rebecca Fajnschnitt, December 1999
Your "Belcanto" series dealt with the tenors of the age of shellac. In "Opera Fanatic", the subject is Italian singers of the 1950s – is the new film a continuation of the series on the tenors?
It is more a satirical postlude to the series. After dealing with the aesthetic phenomenon of bel canto in a serious, almost scientific way, as I consider it represents the central point of singing, I felt a desire to concern myself with the periphery, with the coarse and grubby aspects of singing and opera. And, after all those short portraits, I felt like returning to the cinematic form of the documentary film.
In contrast to the series, in this case there is an interlocutor between the singers and the audience, who is unmistakably asking his own, highly personal questions: Stefan Zucker. Is he the opera fan, the "Opera Fanatic"?
Perhaps not the actual "Opera Fanatic" as such to whom the film is addressed, but in any case an extreme example of this type. I met Stefan Zucker while shooting the Caruso episode for “Belcanto” in New York. It was initially very difficult to contact him because he never answered the phone or the letters we wrote him. When I finally reached him, our first telephone conversation lasted three hours. He is one of these extroverted yet shy people, like Glenn Gould, who love the phone. I interviewed him about Caruso’s place in the history of singing since the invention of the high C. The interview was extremely unusual and bizarre, but also quite fascinating. So we met again and did more interviews, and Stefan suggested a project to me that he had been dreaming of for years: to visit the great ‘verismo’ divas of the 1950s whom he had listened to as a child, when his mother, who was also a singer, was touring Italy.
So it was all his idea?
His idea was simply a series of interviews with legendary singers such as Anita Cerquetti, Magda Olivero, or Giulietta Simionato on singing, and he wanted me to produce and direct it. I told him that the project would only interest me if I could film it as an entity: the journey of this eccentric New York intellectual through Italy, from one diva to another, with his comments on the meetings, his expectations, and so on. The interviews were to be his films, so to speak, and I would film the ‘making’ of it.
Is that why you shot on two different film stocks?
Yes. The journey through Italy was filmed on Super 16 and the interviews on video. In order to emphasize the contrast even more, we filmed the interviews with a tripod, with soft lighting and classic composition, but we filmed the rest with a hand-held camera and used a technical process that produces high grain and extreme colors. This was intended to evoke the look and the colors of the 1950s and 1960s, such as in the films of Rosselini and Visconti, the era when these singers were stars, so that we had two levels and a strong contrast between then and their lives now in present-day Italy.
A third level is created by the exerpts from historical opera films, all veristic operas (except for Verdi): Cavalleria, Tosca, Adriana...
I love these operas and enjoy playing with with the poor taste they are accused of having. Composers such as Mascagni, Cilea, Zandonai, and to a certain extent Puccini, had the bad luck to become prominent and popular in an era which is now regarded almost exclusively as one of revolutionary discoveries and changes. Looking back, music historians today only give credit to the innovative work of Debussy, Janacek, and Stravinsky, and regard the veristi – who considered themselves innovators, the giovane schuola, ‘young school’ – as the reactionary establishment. In terms of harmonic boldness, Mascagni can easily compete with his contemporaries; it is his pathos that is hard to take, which bothered the critics even back in 1915, and people today, in these pragmatic times, all the more so. But this pathos seems to me to be the main point: the divas made everything too big, too proud, too capricious, they made emotions superhuman. The modern viewer would turn away in embarrassment and ask for a greater sense of distance.
On the other hand, Stefan Zucker seems to be interested in very carnal matters, and makes lewd remarks about the sex lives of mezzo-sopranos.
That is the opposite pole. Stefan’s obsession with gossip and sex represents the crude, vulgar, fairground dimension which opera has always had and which has been blanked out by modern intellectualisation and purification. This stretches right down to the singing style; Stefan misses the ordinary breast voice nowadays, the direct, crude expression which our divas were able to use, even if most of them do not actually admit it in the film. In his opinion, singers today model themselves on the ideal of instrumental music, instead of the rich possibilities of the human voice, from screaming and swearing to the high stylization of Bel canto. For a while we even wanted to call the film "Deep Throats", after the famous porn film, because this dimension belongs to opera just as much as etherealness – and humor!
Because you show the interviews with the singers as a film-inside-a-film, the viewer experiences the encounters as something very personal and seems to be getting a look behind the scenes. On the other hand, you show how artificial the context is in which they’re talking by showing the entire film crew and equipment set up in their homes.
What’s normal about the statement, taken out of the context of the interview situation, simply gives the illusion of directness. The context is absolutely artificial; the interviewee is sitting between cables and tripods with the light behind her and tries to react to unexpected questions gracefully, spontaneously and intelligently. The only ‘genuine’ aspect of this situation, if one would like to refer to the cinéma vérité goal of trying to capture the unvarnished truth, is the interview situation itself, with all the cables, all the artificiality, all the nervousness. How does Giulietta Simionato react to Stefan Zucker? We turned her home upside down, she cannot quite make head or tail of him, and he asks her in meticulous Italian and his castrato-like voice: "Let us assume that we are back in the 1930s and you are at the beginning of your career. What would you do differently?" You see her sitting there between the cables and the lamps, you see Stefan Zucker, the sound engineer, and you see the video camera waiting for her answer. She thinks for a moment and says: "I wouldn’t do it again". This sentence, in this situation and after this pause for thought, comes fairly close to the directness and authenticity cinéma vérité in the Sixties strove for. But I only get there by way of a detour. Taken out of its context, which I reveal, or to put it more honestly, the one I have artificially reconstructed with lighting, different stocks, and editing, this ‘true’ sentence would have been fake.