Opera is often ridiculed for the plot and dialogue. The repetitions; the clunky all-too-obvious lines; the clues sewn all too heavily into the fabric that set up situations that you can see coming a mile away. People dredge up their favourite examples as ways of proving that opera is ‘past it’, that it is no longer a relevant artform. Seasoned opera-goers have probably all had the experience of taking a novice along to a performance, and slightly wincing at some of the more clunky bits of dialogue. “Das ist kein Mann!” springs to mind from Siegfried, or perhaps “Mia madre / Tua madre? / Sua madre!” from Figaro – comic, but startlingly far-removed from the all-too-real sadness in ‘Dove sono’.
Well, now we opera-lovers have a belter of a weapon with which to retaliate. The second biggest grossing film of all time (according to every lazy writer’s best friend, Wikipedia), has the sort of plot and script that makes the double-crossing of Così, the barminess of Zauberflöte or the spontaneously melting heart of Turandot look like storycraft of the quality of Dostoevsky or Dickens. Avatar is the clumsiest, worst written drama I think it has been my pleasure to endure, despite repeated acquaintance with Il Trovatore. In its defence are the 3D CGI effects, which create a magical world that allows us to suspend the sharpest of our critical faculties. At least in opera’s defence, we have music of a richness and complexity that lays bear the emotions of the tortured human soul. Yes, in Così it is difficult to accept the ‘mix-up’ of lovers, but as compensation you get ‘Soave sia il vento’. Avatar provides us with a short, clumsy treatise on how the Sky People (that’s you, as long as you have an American accent) have no green left on their world because they destroyed it, and now they want to do the same to the world of Pandora (you know, ‘er with the box… it’s symbolic, do try to keep up). In return for this, the audience gets an insight into a world of tall blue cat people and nasty creatures with teeth. Oh, and villainous Americans that are so entertainingly villainous that one keeps looking for the moustache waiting to be twirled. It’s not all negative: it is, for example, interesting (in these war-obsessed times) to be asked as the viewer to side with the insurgency, but this is at the expense of any shades of light and dark to the characters. There are very bad baddies and very good goodies, and never the twain shall meet. Ho hum.
And opera is long, isn’t it? It takes so long to get through the clunky dialogue and the basic plot. Well, newsflash: Avatar is 162mins long. That’s two hours and 42 minutes. It’s the uninterrupted running time of Das Rheingold or the no-interval version of Der Fliegende Holländer. It adds a full hour on to Elektra or Salome, and only shaves 10mins off of the ROH’s La Bohème, which includes an hour of intervals for changing sets, etc.
The 3D effects actually provided another parallel with opera. Do you sometimes have that sense that you are watching the mechanics of the sound being produced by an opera singer? You know, the times when s/he is working so hard and it’s so near the knuckle that you become overly engaged with the marvels or the risks or the technical wonders/deficiencies, and so that you realise you’ve forgotten to pay attention to the story? Well, Avatar’s 3D is a bit like that: on a normal cinema screen, you are constantly distracted with thoughts about whether the 3D is ‘working’. Is it adding anything? The little floaty things are immediate and exciting, but bigger things don’t quite lift off the screen in the same way. Things fly at you, but seemingly never away from you, and you puzzle about it and wonder to yourself about it and… oh, wait, what just happened? Oh well, don’t worry your pretty little head about it: nothing happened that has any significance in a plot so flimsy a secondary school with a mediocre Ofsted report could mount a production with the minimum of rehearsal.
I’ll take my 17th century artform, with all its later permutations, over that kind of populist contemporary film-making any day and I take comfort (not being a regular at such films) that there are major milestones in popular culture (allegedly, if money is taken as the marker which it seems to be) that have not advanced one jot in sophistication over the great milestones in the long history of music drama. As someone said to me about it, if you want to go and see people in 3D acting out a drama, it’s called theatre.
There are many, many people involved in the production of an opera – which is what makes it expensive – and there were doubtless many hundreds of thousands more hours of people’s time taken up in the development of Avatar. The latter is permanent, whilst opera performance (setting aside DVD recording for now) is a thing that lives only for those who experience it in that moment in the theatre. That comparison is instructive: I think we are entitled to expect that a ‘permanent’ product receiving so much input should do better justice to the core values of dramatic structure and conviction. With all the effort that is put in, it is interesting that the result can miss something so essential. Perhaps we opera-goers should remember that when we are tempted to join a chorus of boos at the end of a new production. Much, much more has been lavished on considerably less in the case of films such as Avatar, and the results are far less significant an experience than even the most excessive ‘konzept’ production of an operatic great.