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  • Lost in Spaces:Recovering Schreker's Spectacular Voices
  • Peter Franklin (bio)

My underlying concern here will be with the relationship between physical and discursive space in opera and film; between what and where we see and hear things happen and what one might nervously call the "meaning" of such placement, or perhaps critical constructions of that meaning. For example, Marguerite, in performances (and later film versions) of Gounod's once popular 1857 opera Faust, was often relegated to a special backstage area in a narrative stage-managed by Mephistopheles, who was then able to "reveal" her in a beguiling spectacular vision for the benefit of Faust. Need that interest us? If that is how the opera was conceived, constrained by the limitations or locations of stage machinery, then we need hardly concern ourselves about it. Or was this arrangement also a theatrical trope that communicated with other stories and carried other baggage? Might recognizing that help us to understand the power the effect seems to have exerted over audiences, by giving us a critical tool with which to examine it? My specific examples will relate to Franz Schreker's operatic practice and reputation in the early twentieth century, but I shall be pleased if what I offer is also taken as an argument for more engaged critical attention to original designs and stage directions, in the light of the disproportionately and often exclusively visual and spatial license unquestioningly granted to the directors of Director Opera by nearly all but nostalgic reactionaries.1

In fact the starting point for this paper was a dialogue between two voices—the voices of two theorists, two women: the first addressing film, the second opera, or rather early films based on operas. In her fine essay in the 2002 volume Between Opera and Cinema, which she edited with Jeongwon Joe, Rose Theresa takes as her starting point Laura Mulvey's famous 1975 article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."2 Theresa accepts Mulvey's analysis that isolates two distinct, interacting forms of visual pleasure in film. The first Mulvey found in spectacle—in structural terms regarded by her as an essentially static mode of presentation whose "passive" qualities have often attracted supposedly "feminine" epithets and associations in critical discourse—particularly in comparison with narrative. This second source of cinematic pleasure Mulvey characterized as active. Narrative creates continuity and [End Page 19] forward momentum that has attracted more "masculine" epithets linked to rationality and power.

These two—"feminine" spectacle and "masculine" narrative—Mulvey saw as working together to structure filmgoers' pleasure to the end of supporting patriarchy. By gendering the camera's eye as male, film positioned embodied spectacle—specifically its central female stars and characters—as objects it controls and manipulates. The 1970s feminist message here can perhaps seem dated and incomplete, though I suggest we dismiss it at our peril. Theresa herself nevertheless reminds us that Mulvey's critical dualism was productively reappropriated and historicized by subsequent film theorists. Thomas Elsaesser and others, for example, have considered how the nascent film industry, as its power and aspirations grew, sought precisely to control and rationalize through narrative the types of spectacle that had been the primary subject matter of the earliest film entertainments.3

I speak of power and aspirations here in order deliberately to associate the early film industry's developing socioeconomic power with its desire not just to control, but specifically to bring film more directly into alignment with "Art": something decent and respectable and validated by high-status European cultural history and cultural practice. By the time we get to the early sound era, films such as the 1934 Warner Brothers version of Max Reinhardt's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream provide richly interesting models of this kind of thing.4 But that film was in reality a complex product of competing European schools and styles of design, music, and theater that were otherwise struggling to negotiate and critically reshape not just the modes but also the very ideology of "Art" as a form of cultural practice that some Americans (let us not dismiss them, either) have often regarded as a dubious tool designed to maintain an alien class...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1476-2870
Print ISSN
0736-0053
Pages
pp. 19-30
Launched on MUSE
2013-12-10
Open Access
No
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