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  • Moulin Rouge! and the Boundaries of Opera
  • Elizabeth Hudson (bio)

The love of the familiar infuses a vast range of cultural forms: just think of the reliance on remakes and sequels in Hollywood film. Critics of "serious" art scorn popular culture's addiction to repetition as debased, yet a similar dynamic also reigns in the field of classical music. Although the historically contingent nature of the composer-performer relationship within the modern concept of the musical work has been thoroughly elucidated, the classical music industry still largely sees it as the performer's job to interpret the composer's work: that is, to rearticulate the familiar.1 On a basic level, then, the much decried emphasis on a solidified classical repertory of works functions as another version of popular culture's obsession with repetition. Inasmuch as this tendency in both the popular and the classical spheres is an essential by-product of a thoroughly mediatized and commercialized culture industry, it has become a fundamental feature of cultural forms of expression today.

In terms of operatic performance, a wide range of interpretive approaches has been characterized in relation to two opposing camps: the naturalistic or "faithful" productions, and the more challenging reimaginings often referred to as Regietheater.2 But the passionate debate about the relative strength and weaknesses of these approaches and their myriad variations, whether articulated in scholarly or more journalistic terms, merely masks the ways in which these supposedly opposing tenets of operatic production are at root deeply similar, and can be understood as versions of an elementary contract of operatic performance today: namely, to repackage in various forms our experience of familiar musical texts.3 In this context, Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, itself unapologetically based on the recycling of familiar plots and music, offers intriguing insights into the possibilities of the creative co-option of repetition. What's more, it focuses attention on the ways in which repetition itself can reposition creative engagement for performer and audience alike—especially when constituting performance as enactment mediated through multiple layers of technology and explicitly functioning within systems of commodification. While the film can be fruitfully critiqued in relation to various traditions (film, Bollywood, popular music, the musical), I am interested in one strand as central to the film: I would [End Page 256] contend that at least some of the essential tools in Luhrmann's creative tour de force are borrowed directly from opera.4 The film's constructions thus have the potential to contest our notions of the boundaries of opera, and to invite us to engage with these limits in ways that may constitute a transition in the very terms of opera's trademark emotional immediacy, through a mediatized performance that ceases to try to evoke the metaphysics of presence.5 In other words, while not claiming that the film itself can be understood as opera per se, I suggest that Moulin Rouge! engages with operatic norms and in the process offers an intriguing conceptual framework for reorienting our thinking about current modes of operatic performance.

Musical, Film, Opera?

To discuss Moulin Rouge! in relation to operatic performance invites some explanation. On Oscar night, February 22, 2009, eight years after the initial release of Luhrmann's film, a song and dance medley unfolded on the stage of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, led by Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé and featuring the requisite cameos by a string of stars and celebrities. At the set piece's conclusion, Jackman triumphantly proclaimed, "The musical is back!" and turned to acknowledge Luhrmann, in the audience, as the author of the medley.6 The homage to Moulin Rouge! was clear, cementing the film's iconic status and its perceived influence in igniting a resurgence in a genre many had thought to be passé.7 The movie's often bewildering cacophony of referents, its seemingly confused and undisciplined disjunctions of styles and contexts, has famously invoked a greatly polarized critical and popular reception. Above all, though, the film set out to reinvent the genre of the Hollywood film musical.

And yet, as various commentators have recognized, opera was also clearly being invoked. The referencing of opera within a film musical...


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