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Reviewed by:
  • Sounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz by Jennifer Fleeger
  • Katie Beisel Hollenbach
Jennifer Fleeger. New York: Oxford UP, 2014, 197 pp.

As a musicologist, I frequently work to negotiate through the field's tendency to study genres that are viewed as significantly different from one another separately, despite the possible benefits of considering them together as cultural interactions. An example of this is the academic division between jazz and music of the western European tradition, such as opera. Because these divisions exist in the field of musicology, it is unsurprising that they also are present in other fields that consider music, which can lead to narrower understandings of music's role in cultural production and society. Jennifer Fleeger, however, has succeeded in revealing the significance of both jazz and opera together in the context of film studies, providing a comprehensive look into the crucial role each genre played in the development of classical Hollywood cinema in her book Sounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz. Through thorough exploration of a variety of case studies—most notably, examples of conversion to sound-era short films—Fleeger demonstrates how jazz and opera not only should be considered as complementary genres in the development of sound film, rather than distant relatives, but also should be given due credit for forming much of the foundations of current Hollywood film music.

Sounding American holds a unique position within the current literature on film music in that its treatment of jazz and opera as genres to be addressed together proves equally significant for both musicology and cinema studies, not only because the two styles are generally separated in scholarship but also because Fleeger does not neglect either field in favor of the other. Musicologists, film scholars, and film-music enthusiasts in general are all provided with significant and engaging material that enhances the current state of scholarship for all. For instance, Fleeger combines discussions of music and sound technology in a way that effectively demonstrates how each worked together to define the ideals and practices of individual Hollywood studios during the conversion era. This is most evident in the first and third chapters, where Fleeger distinguishes between the major Hollywood studios (including Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, and Fox) by indicating which sound system each was using and then proceeds to explain how each studio developed an individual definition of jazz based on how that studio interacted with the genre using its method of sound technology. This interaction between studio, music, and sound technology forms a base for Sounding American, which Fleeger then expands from to include such topics as how the conversion era approached women, African Americans, and European immigrants on film.

Notable in Fleeger's discussion of European immigrants in America is the consumption of Italian versus German opera during the conversion era. Fleeger explains how during the early twentieth century, professional opera companies such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York favored German-language operas over Italian, which can likely be attributed both to German opera's heavy canonic status and to the resentment many New Yorkers felt toward the increasing immigrant population from Italy. This [End Page 63] preference for German opera was not shared nationwide, however. Early on in Sounding American, Fleeger emphasizes the important point that as opposed to the musical climate in America today, both jazz and opera were considered part of popular rather than "high" culture during the conversion era. More so than German opera, Italian opera contained short, tuneful arias that focused on the individual singer, which were easily recognizable and perfectly suited for short films and popular consumption. This explanation of Italian opera's prominent role in Hollywood short films as well as popular culture is both important and overlooked in much of current film and music scholarship, making Sounding American a necessary read for scholars working in this time period. There is another factor outside of the scope of Sounding American, however, that could also provide explanation for Italian opera's victory over German opera in Hollywood short films that may be fruitful for future investigation. That is, to what extent did the political climate of the interwar period...


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