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  • The Labor of Liveness:Behind the Curtain of Opera Cinema
  • Sarah Atkinson (bio)

The broadcast of live opera to cinema constitutes only one strand within the ecology of what has become known as "event cinema"—a term that encompasses, in addition to opera, theater, sport, dance, and music. With a few notable exceptions, there has as yet been little scholarly engagement with these specific strands and their place within the wider ecology of "event cinema." Paul Heyer, for example, takes the narrative dimension of cinema as the basis for a collective definition he terms "digital broadcast cinema" (DBC): "the broadcast into movie theatres, either live or recorded (some Met broadcasts are repeated as encores), of various arts and entertainment productions that, like cinema, have a narrative format. Besides opera, this would include ballet, musicals, and theatrical productions; it would exclude sports, concerts, and newsworthy public events."1

Here, Heyer makes a useful distinction between narrative forms and factual genres. This distinction is also key to the discussions that follow, which are specific to the paratextual dimensions of narrative-based content. Martin Barker, who refers to event cinema as "livecasting," makes a further distinction.2 Through close readings of "livecasts," he offers insight into the distinction between the stylistic conventions and aesthetics of opera broadcasts, on the one hand, and theater broadcasts, on the other. In his extensive study, Joseph Attard goes a step further toward defining the genre in its own right. Attard proposes the term "opera cinema," arguing that it should be regarded as a distinct art form "with particular aesthetic, technical, and experiential characteristics."3 I have chosen to adopt the term "opera cinema" in what follows because I believe it usefully suggests the bringing together of two mediums into a hybrid formation. "Opera cinema" also allows for the opening up and interrogation of the liminal space between the two forms, although, as we will see, "opera cinema broadcasts," as opposed to opera "cinecasts," might better acknowledge and open up the significance of the televisual influence within this intermedial tripart.

What is clear from this body of work is that opera cinema presents a multilayered aesthetic experience; it is a complex form that poses a challenge to critical [End Page 306] interrogation thanks to its highly convergent nature, incorporating and combining aspects of theater, cinema, and television. The scholars mentioned above have focused on the formal qualities of opera cinema and the question of audience engagement and reaction. Comparatively little critical attention has been afforded the content of what I will call, drawing upon the term coined by Gérard Genette, the "paratextual" surround of opera cinema. Genette defines paratexts as "liminal devices … that mediate the relations between the text and the reader."4 In cinema, the term might be applied to the staple marketing materials of prerelease trailers, posters, title sequences, merchandise, and websites, and to the more expanded and imaginative uses of digital and social media including fictional websites and social media accounts. These materials can become expansive and highly complex (consider, for example, the Star Wars franchise). In discourses of "transmedia storytelling,"5 these paratextual elements are interconnected and interwoven into a complex narrative system that cannot be confined within one single media form.6 Jonathan Gray, whose work on paratexts in film and television initiated a stream of critical studies, asserts the value of attending to these supposedly supplementary elements. "The sometimes 'invisible,' 'peripheral,' 'ancillary' entities," he writes, "are as intrinsic a part of a text's DNA as are the films and television programs."7 As this rich vein of research has demonstrated, the concept of the paratext offers a valuable critical tool to facilitate analysis of the generic distinctions and characteristics of the form and consideration of evolving understandings of marketing imperatives and insights into labor practices, hierarchies, and the politics of production.

Opera studies has not ignored the concept of the paratext. In his analysis of opera on DVD, Carlo Cenciarelli considers the mediatized framing of opera in graphics, titles, and menu systems.8 While acknowledging the importance of the question of liveness in literature on opera on video, Cenciarelli seeks to move on to other issues, above the visual remediation...


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pp. 306-323
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