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  • From Operatic Stage to Silent Screen:Casa Ricordi and Film d'Arte Italiana's 1911 Aida
  • Christy Thomas (bio)

For both artistic reasons and on principle, we absolutely cannot permit the cinematic reproduction of the subject of Il Guarany.1

—Casa Ricordi, August 19, 1910

By now the film industry has achieved such a degree of perfection in combining action and music in marvelous synchrony that today some reproductions of operas can be considered true and complete artistic spectacles.2

—Casa Ricordi, April 11, 1914

As early as the first decade of the twentieth century, film companies were expressing interest in adapting operas to the screen. At first, Casa Ricordi—the foremost Italian music publisher of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—did not look favorably on such endeavors. However, in the space of just a few years, Ricordi went from espousing a "principled" refusal of any requests to adapt their operatic repertoire to enthusiastically praising the astonishing synchronization that such cinematic adaptations could achieve. This seemingly abrupt policy reversal was partly the result of a change in managerial regime: Tito Ricordi had taken charge of the firm in 1911.3 Under his direction the music publisher embarked on a number of partnerships with film companies, marking the first times that the Ricordi company began investing its own expertise, repertoire, and reputation in joint endeavors with the film industry.

In contrast to his predecessor Giulio Ricordi, who was skeptical about the nature of cinema's impact on the opera industry, Tito Ricordi saw great financial and artistic potential in the prospect of adapting operas to the screen. The first years of his direction at the publishing company were marked by a range of projects with film companies, through which he sought to develop an effective approach for dealing with the film industry while also exploring the different forms that opera on film [End Page 192] might take. These ventures were highly innovative. At that time, there was no set pattern for how an opera should be represented in a film or adapted to the screen. Tito Ricordi referred to the company's partnerships with the film industry as "a combination made for experiment," and these experiments would help lay the groundwork for interactions between the opera and cinema in the future.4

However, Casa Ricordi's cinematic collaborations and their material products are virtually unknown in musicological scholarship, despite widespread scholarly interest in the intersection of opera and cinema more broadly. Investigating Casa Ricordi's experiments sheds light on the degree of productive interaction between the Italian opera and film industries during the early twentieth century, and on the valuable exchange that occurred between the two art forms. As such, my discovery and interpretation of these historic trans-industrial collaborations expose the impact that the burgeoning film industry had on the opera industry as well as the role that music publishers played in the world of cinema during the early portion of the silent era.

Revealing new insights into some of the earliest operatic encounters with cinema, my material and institutional history both engages with the growing discourse on opera and media technologies and reframes current historiographical constructions of their relationship. In musicological circles, opera scholars in particular have been among those recently turning their attention to issues of media and remediation—for example, the circulation of opera via DVD, HD broadcasts, and internet streaming on mobile devices.5 Driving questions behind such scholarship often relate to the compatibility between opera—rooted as it is in live performance—and media—dependent on technological reproduction. Yet these questions are typically applied back no further than the 1960s—that is, to the emergence of television opera and then to the later availability of the videocassette. Pushing this line of inquiry further back in time, I have unearthed a lost history surrounding opera's remediation by silent cinema, one of the key emerging media technologies at the turn of the twentieth century. In spite of the relative scarcity and ephemerality of primary source materials, which have undoubtedly impeded research, interest in the early relationship between opera and silent cinema has grown in recent years. To date, scholarly investigations into the intersection between opera and...


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