time to change the way we view music and the arts

Love and Death: That’s No Child’s Play …or is it?

Winter is approaching at a somewhat lackluster pace on this side of the world. Temperatures aren’t what most New Yorkers would expect for what is nearing the middle of December. Cold air and frequent snow often see people staying indoors and frequently burning logs in the fireplace. Though this scenario might not be happening quite yet, early darkness does lend to more low impact activities, like movie going for example.

Recently I watched the preview for an upcoming film due out the summer of 2012, based on the tale of Snow White. The re-interpretation being prepared by Hollywood this time around is titled “Snow White and the Huntsman” and delivers a much darker and more serious narrative tone than that of the internationally revered “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which started the Disney animated film franchise back in 1937. See the official trailer below to know what I mean.

Disney, known for its targeting of juvenile audiences and family-friendly focus, certainly has its share of scary villains. (Personally I used to have nightmares about Ursula from The Little Mermaid, despite that being one of my favorite Disney films.) However, when it comes to the movies they made that featured any kind of ‘princess’ protagonist, a male co-star and falling in love, these stories would stick to the same recipe and formula of “good guys, bad guy, girl meets guy, falls in love, gets the guy at the end, everyone is happy.” The point being, though conflict in these stories was necessary, it never lingered to the end and children would see the good characters rise above all the evil and wrong doing. Though I clearly don’t know how this 2012 Snow White re-make will end, I’m not necessarily thinking, based on the preview, that this perfect ending formula will be used. Disney took a version of a story by the German Brothers Grimm and made it approachable for a young audience. “Snow White and the Huntsman” seems to have gone in the opposite direction, more toward the original violence and grisly action of the Grimm tale (The Grimm’s version recalls the Huntsman being asked to cut out Snow White’s lungs and liver.)

This adult natured transformation for Snow White seems to be falling in line with a trend that has been on the rise for a few years now and as of late, has burst on the scene even more. 2010’s Alice in Wonderland by reputably dark producer, Tim Burton, saw a more twisted and complex telling of the Lewis Carroll story, which was also made a friendly pop-culture piece through Disney. Then this year, American television has seen the debut of two prime time series, “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm;” both of which center around characters and stories which are commonly known for their “happy endings” but are re-written to cater to older viewers in a more interconnected story format with openly discussed and observable themes of complex (sexual) relationships, corruption and brutal murder among other things.

Now, if originally gruesome tales can be made iconic by Disney for children, without making the characters lose their integrity and without losing appreciation of the story, and these G-rated versions can then be re-dressed to appeal to adults again, why can’t the same principle apply for opera? This thought occurred to me after coming across an interesting piece posted yesterday by a writer from the Chicago Reader, (Ben Sachs) titled, “Opera in the Movies and Vice Versa.”

While Mr. Sachs’s main focus is to talk about an opera based film series currently playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, some of the points he makes about “A traditional opera spectator experienc[ing] nothing like editing or close-ups,” and how “the art of opera is one of totality—the fusion of music, theater, literature, and visual design” and that watching an opera though film presentations can serve as “superior introductions to the form” got me thinking about younger generations and a possible ‘Disney effect,’ if you will. Classical composers and opera companies are dealing with a struggle to even appeal to young adults, let alone very young children who have less of a grasp on complex story structure and even shorter attention spans, for what is on the average, three of four hours of time required in one place –quiet time to boot.

Though there are many reasons why opera struggles to maintain and grow its audience demographics, keeping younger children in mind, the nature of operatic vocals, long programs and (often joked about) expectation that the main protagonist dies at the via murder, suicide or illness doesn’t equate to a very child-friendly arrangement. It’s true that there are some operas that leave a less depressed taste in your mouth; meaning no one dies. However, if this were the majority case, it wouldn’t be such a popular joke –even among regular opera goers. There are some endeavors that have already been taken up by the likes of The Metropolitan Opera that cater to families and kids for the purpose of introducing the musical medium without an alternate form or re-interpretation. English-sung, short-form presentations of operas like Hansel and Gretel and The Magic Flute and the internationally broadcast “Live in HD” series do so respectively. The latter even eliminates what Mr. Sachs referred to as, “fixed perspective” in watching live productions without re-imaging to a movie format.

All the same, Disney provided a lasting example, for how children could easily make an entire shelf of stories, themes and characters easy to remember and enjoyable to watch. This on top of integrating a heavily applied musical aspect, as breaking out into song was, for a long time, a staple of the animated films, and film adaptations of opera story lines could serve as another method of introduction and memory for kids. I don’t happen to have the perfect plan myself, but, just in theory, why couldn’t this be a plausible idea? If not for fully illustrating operatic scores but more so for character and plot introduction. In fact, Disney’s balance of narrative and music aligns well to adapt an opera without completely eliminating the musical element.

Then again, to play my own devil’s advocate, Mr. Sachs dictates something lost in the Gene Siskel series, which could ring true for anything that attempts to adapt opera without full exposure to the score alongside the plot, no matter how family-friendly it is or could become. I suppose it all would depend on what the most crucial element would be for a parent: whether it’s the story, the the characters, the music or the faith that their kids might come to appreciate all three simultaneously without gradual progression, as going to an opera house and sitting through the whole package, can optimally achieve.

“Never in these recordings does one feel like the experience has been given shape, physical or otherwise. In fact, their aesthetic (for lack of a better word) is based on an intractable paradox: the reductive depiction of outsize emotions. People who are intolerant of opera often gripe that they can’t take its emotional content seriously—and if you were to read the libretto of Tosca (whose narrative depends on seemingly adjusted people regularly driven to murder or suicide) without any knowledge of Puccini’s score, you might concede that the naysayers have a point. Of course, looking exclusively at the libretto would deny Tosca the interaction between form and content, which gives its emotions a sense of mythic inevitability.”

…Perhaps I’m just amused by the idea that Armida could be an icon of childhood storytelling.

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