by Sara Halprin
Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 115-119
For the past five years I have been a friendly witness to the laborious construction of a feature-length documentary film about the lives of choristers in the San Francisco Opera, called IN THE SHADOW OF THE STARS.[open notes in new window] STARS, which will be shown on PBS following its first theatrical run, is of interest to opera-lovers and non-opera-lovers like myself, offering a humane and lively perspective on opera as an art of and for the people.
There is something that seems paradoxical about making a documentary on opera that focuses on the choristers' working lives. Opera is commonly thought of as "high art," the kind of art which gets funding, along with ballet, when most other forms we severely limited or repressed. Yet, as the film shows, opera has a history and a present reality of broad-based appeal to working people, an appeal reflected in the contemporary popularity of opera's electronic cousin, the soaps. The subject matter of opera is often melodramatic, emphasizing intense emotion, sexual passion, jealousy, revenge, embodied in the stars and witnessed and reflected in the massed chorus.
In a collage approach appropriate to a film about opera, which itself combines music, theater and visual art, IN THE SHADOW OF THE STARS uses dramatic footage of opera performance, cinema-verité style footage of rehearsals and backstage life, direct to camera interviews with choristers, and scenes, informal or staged, realistic or abstract, from the choristers' offstage lives.
Opera music, dialogue and visuals are juxtaposed in such a way as to draw attention to the ways in which the choristers' lives reflect and resemble the operas they love. When Sigmund, a tenor who was once committed to a mental ward and who continued to practice music over the objections of his doctors, tells his story, the visuals cut from his face to the exterior of a psychiatric hospital to the Bedlam scene from Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress, as the music fades up over his voice.
The choristers rise from rows of boxes, in a surreal set designed by David Hockney, no more surreal than the visuals of gaping windows and wrecked buildings in the south Bronx today, which accompany Sigmund's account of his childhood with a crazy mother in a south Bronx tenement. Claudia, a mezzo who works to become a soprano, is seen singing in the chorus and talking about her life directly to the camera in a very theatrical manner, then joking with other choristers as she makes up in the dressing room. When she tells her story of breaking up with her husband over an opera audition failure — a fight that took place alongside the river in Florence, the visuals are abstract, broken reflections of a man and woman reflected in water, gesturing strongly. The soprano's tea party is a stylized scene, very like a stage set, of a group of sopranos eating together in a lavish setting, served by waiters, with fancy tableware and linens, as the women talk shop. Christine's account of her travels in Europe in search of operatic employment is accompanied by abstract visuals of scenery seen through train windows. When Frederick, a strong baritone, speaks of his anger at discrimination against blacks and of how he would love the role of Rigoletto, the hunchback, we see colorful designs for the opera, Rigoletto, and dramatized images of the hunchback, as well as Frederick singing solo and in the chorus with full dramatic affect.
The film is unabashed as a construction of its subject. Like an essay in written form, it doesn't hesitate to use stylistic devices to make a point, and it makes no assumptions about the inherent "truth" of its portrayals. Singers speak about the enormous work involved in becoming a star, about their own ambivalence at putting everything else on hold, about discrimination, about luck. More rarely, they speak of conscious choice. One man says that when he met his wife he realized that she had the determination to become a star, much more than he did, so he quit his job as soloist and went back to the chorus in order to support her career. A truck driver, who practices singing with sheet music propped on the dashboard of his rig, explains that his father was also a truck driver who loved opera. As a child he hated opera, but changed as he grew older. Sigmund says that music was his ticket out of the Bronx. Shelly and Carl practice a love duet from Don Giovanni as their young son competes with the music by screaming for attention.
There is a central tension in the film between individual expression and fulfillment, and the needs and pressures of the collective. In dressing-room discussions and directly to the camera, choristers speak of the need to simultaneously blend in and stand out, to harness their artistic temperaments and yet use all the energy of those same temperaments, to support the collective scene and the performances of the soloists, all the while dreaming of themselves stepping forward individually to receive thunderous applause. The dilemma is one well-known in independent film, which is so often a collective creative enterprise undertaken by chance gatherings of strong personalities and therefore plagued by strife, especially when profit is not, realistically speaking, a strong motive. Choristers discuss the difficulties of relating intimately on stage to a person they dislike strongly, of creating convincing fight scenes without allowing backstage tensions to erupt into onstage brawls, of standing behind a soloist while feeling they themselves could finish the aria better, all this in addition to the usual demands of singing, acting, behaving in accordance with high theatrical standards, usually after a full day of other work.
Money, the need to work for it, the limitations of not having enough of it, the hierarchies created by unequal possession of it, becomes a strong recurrent motif in the film, which is at once critical of the contemporary situation and celebratory of the creative will which prevails even under strong pressure and injustice. An issue which is not raised in the film is the stardom created by the filmmaker's selection of each chorister, the influence on each of them of the presence of a camera crew, the knowledge that what they are doing and saying is being recorded. While this is an issue in any documentary film utilizing direct footage, or in any interview situation, it is especially important in this film because of the centrality of the issue of stardom.
As a viewer unfamiliar with opera, and as a documentary filmmaker, teacher, and therapist used to working with people who are shy of cameras and unconscious about their own "presence," I was especially struck in this film by the strong presence of the choristers, their relationship to the filmmakers, to the camera, to each other. When I asked the film makers how they selected among the many interviews they filmed for the final cut of the film, they responded that they chose those choristers whose lives were "most operatic," who could therefore best stand for many other choristers and many of the viewing audience. I think this helps to account for a certain compelling quality the film has. I find myself glued to it, finding parts to identify with in each character. That is to say, the film itself functions like the opera it is about, in the sense that its stars, people who are not scars on the opera stage, constellate the range of intense emotions in the film's viewers that the main figures in the opera constellate in the opera's audience. At the same time, by interweaving so many main characters, and by bringing in the whole subject of choristers' lives and ambitions and struggles as specifically different from those of stars, the film creates a detachment and reflexivity not often seen in opera (Brecht's Threepenny Opera is a clear exception).
The choristers, as a group, come across as people with a common link of passion for their art and also their craft, and a wide diversity of personal experience and character. They are specifically contrasted in the film with the stars, whom they idealize, envy, gossip about, and do not identify with except ironically or in dreams of the future. The working choristers featured in the film are also contrasted with the rich members of the audience who arrive dressed in costumes no less elaborate or fanciful than those worn on stage by the chorus.
On the other hand, the choristers are linked closely with the audience in the lower-priced seats, which includes their own family, lovers, and friends. One man's lover tells of how the difficulties of being an "opera widow" are offset by the pleasures of going to the opera and watching his lover perform; the singer-partner responds that on the nights his lover is present he knows at least one person is watching him. Christine, the hopeful soprano, is shown watching a video of her giving a solo performance, fascinated by the image on the screen which she does not quite identify as herself. A meticulously constructed documentary with a social conscience, STARS includes the range of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation of the chorus. This was done consciously by the filmmakers, who used dramatizations and extensive interviewing until they achieved representation. The issue of age is not strongly addressed, although it is felt as a pressure in the background.
Communications and systems theories stress the importance of the unidentified or disturbing element, the carrier of new information which may, by its refusal or inability to be assimilated, force change of the entire system. As STARS fades to black on my video screen (I've been writing from a video copy of the film), I wonder what its entry into the perilous world of independent documentary will be, for the film, for the choristers, and for the directors. Allie Light and Irving Saraf, and the somewhat mysterious Chas, Allie's first husband, an opera chorister to whose memory the film is dedicated, are the most shadowy and tantalizing stars of the film, the artists whose presence is indicated but never clearly delineated.
I asked Allie Light to send me any journal entries she wrote about the production of the film. Here's one about a very strong but virtually unrepresented element of the film, the inspiration which led to its making:
In 1958, as a young chorister Charles Hilder smuggled an 8mm camera onstage under his costume and filmed silent black and white performances of the stars and backstage activities of the choristers. STARS incorporates this footage as a testimony to the love of choristers for opera stars, and as a commentary on backstage tradition. As radicals, both Light and Saraf believe in the importance of making connections between art and people's lives, and this belief has been a priority in the construction of STARS. As humane people, they are deeply interested in others, and form lasting friendships with their subjects and fellow workers. As experienced filmmakers, they know the importance of reflecting, in a detached and compassionate manner, on the self-presentation of their subjects. This then allows us to reflect on what we see, hear, and feel. In each of the choristers' portraits there is more than one message being given at once. There're a primary identity of being a chorister, which varies for each individual, and a more secondary identity, even more varied, perhaps to be a star, or to be a chorister in a particular way, or something else, only hinted at nonverbally. Both identities demand attention and support. Each chorister is a star and a non-star, and displays some ambivalence about each role. The complexity of that double message is carried in many different ways by the film, which itself reflects some of that same ambivalence.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE STARS: THE LIVES OF SINGERS is an apt title, evoking the shadowy aspects of U.S. culture which the film illuminates and asks us to reflect upon, essential questions for each of us about the purpose of our lives, where our passions reside and how we express them, what place creativity has, and how it is defined and recognized. If the singers in this film stand for a cultural chorus, how does their (non)relation to the stars reflect upon our (non)relationship with our stars, those whose pictures look back at us from magazine covers and TV talk shows? What exactly is it that we dream of, yearn for, when we dream of stardom? What isn't happening in our lives right now? What is? The film's open, questioning structure, which begins in shadow, as the camera pans over hooded and robed silhouettes of the chorus in the "Patria Oppressa" scene from Verdi's Macbeth, holds right through the end, which is actually the beginning of a performance we never see, the entrance of an actor upon the stage filmed as his exit from backstage, hopeful and nervous, seeking recognition from another audience.
FROM ALLIE LIGHT'S FILM JOURNAL
"Cutting the folks going to the opera in their fancy clothes: We pulled the shots we liked the best and strung them together, saying, 'Don't worry about the order.' We started with the last footage where Michael had put the camera on the ground. The angle makes the sidewalk look like a raked stage and the people, hurrying through the carriage gate in the twilight hour climb up and away from the camera POV, the long dresses of the women-longer and more flaring looked at from below-float out behind. We added a pan of animal rights people holding signs, and then more shots of opera-goers. We dropped in footage of a wandering opera singer with his sign, 'Help me get to Rome for an audition on Sept. 27th.' The carriage entrance filled up with people coming from dinner and they were like a thick swarm. Michael was very bold and he literally swam through the mass of ladies and gems, so we have our pick of marvelous shots: A woman at the top of the stairs is like a preening bird and, as she strikes a pose, a man in a top hat with a large pipe joins her. A very old couple start up the stairs and she stumbles in frame left. A beat later he stumbles in frame right The camera circles a young woman with lots of hair; an old man steps into the shot and says, isn't she nice?' and they walk away."
"We spend a day stringing these shots together. The sound is all over the place and we finally turn it off to see if our cuts work. The next day we look at the segment-it's too long, it doesn't work. What was it we had in mind? These people are putting on their own show — this is opera, too. The same thing here as on the stage — another performance. We start cutting. Out goes all but one animal rights sign. We keep, 'People wearing fur go home.'
"Out goes the stumbling stair climbers — too subtle, you'd have to look at the shot at least twice to notice them. We add an extreme CU of feet with the dress hem in the top of the frame. This goes in at the head. We cut the itinerant tenor to a third of what he was. We add a walking shot of a woman in a sparkly dress. She walks, walks, walks, until a flash bulb goes off beside her."
"Today we like our segment better. It holds. What sound should go under? Natural sounds — footsteps, street singer, shouting protesters? Music? We throw ideas. What about a march? Aida? Wagner? The flight of the valkyries — these strutting women are certainly one type of Wagnerian maiden. 'How about a Mozart opera where everyone sings at once,' I say. That could be either wonderful, or just plain stupid — ensemble singing behind people greeting one another, kissing cheeks, etc. But then for any of these ideas, we'd have to buy needledown [fee for using music, determined by each time the needle on the record player touches down]. Or what about the witches' music from Macbeth? We've used it, but only the second entrance. Their opening music is a little different.
"Irving says, let's try something.'He puts a second soundtrack on the Kem and begins to fiddle with it — moving it back and forth to fit the feet CU. Suddenly the feet are taking steps that were never intended — not marching or dancing, but a magical walk out of the frame. We let these people play out their dramatic moment, their cultivated gesture to Verdi's Macbeth overture. It's all here in this music — a little 'witches,' a hint of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, the foreshadowing of the rise and fall of tyrants and the unbelievable Patria Oppressa.
"Now we're hooked in like a trolly on a track. We've got the basics, we're not going to lose our creation — now we can play. This is the fun part of editing — the tightening, the throwing out of all but what hits in the gut. We're going to shape this scene into a little jewel. The music rises for the feet, the raked street, and dips under at the fur sign as the VO shouts, 'There are no new furs, somebody wore it before!' As the music crescendos, the man with the pipe turns to the pigeon woman and the old couple start for the stairs. Macbeth is dipped again for the street-tenor's aria lost in mid-phrase as the camera moves on to the sparkly woman whose footsteps disappear as the rising overture mimics her walk. She never makes it to the exploding flashbulb — we cut her in half — because a line of people suddenly floats sideways on violins and violas so light as to be their personal dream. Tears spring into my eyes; this is the transformative moment. The music rises, the camera swings to the girl-the maiden-and the man leers, isn't she nice?' As the kettledrum pushes the music over the edge, she flashes a look at the camera and they sweep out of the frame."
"We play it over and over-fanatic about getting it right. For now this is my favorite scene. This is my favorite child."
1. IN THE SHADOW OF THE STARS is distributed by First Run Features, New York.
2. Melodrama (from Greek melos, music + drama, the original opera) has implications of intensity, even exaggeration, often seen pejoratively, as a vulgar (i.e. popular) tendency, just as soap operas are often considered vulgar. Opera, music drama, lends itself to the intensity implied by melodrama. Even a drama such as Shakespeare's Macbeth, when translated to opera, becomes melodramatic.
3. STARS supports a long-standing U.S. tradition of doing honor to the ordinary person's extraordinary dreams. It is very well made by people with excellent track records. And yet it required heroic efforts to obtain funding to make this film. Eventually, funding was obtained from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEAX and private donors. As usual in independent film production in this country, a significant portion of the work and technical services were donated by friends; in the industry. Light and Saraf were not able to pay themselves for their own work, and they had to stop production several times to work at paying jobs in the industry, not just to support themselves but to contribute to the expenses of the film. In this way, their story as filmmakers closely reflects the situation of the auxiliary choristers in the film, people with talent and dedication, who love their art and work at other jobs so that they can also sing. (Most of the choristers in the San Francisco Opera now work there fulltime, a comparatively recent development.)
4. Allie Light directed SELF-HEALTH, which has strongly influenced feminist documentary work, and she has worked for many years as a filmmaker, writer, feminist activist, teacher, photographer; artist. Irving Saraf founded the film unit of KQED in San Francisco, managed the Saul Zaentz Film Company for ten years, and has collaborated as cameraman and as editor with a number of radical documentarians. He and Light taught film at San Francisco State and influenced many younger filmmakers. Together they have made a series of documentaries on U.S. folk artists (VISIONS OF PARADISE), and a film about Asian American women poets (MITSUYE AND NELLIE). Both have been very supportive of other filmmakers' work in many different capacities. Thinking about the "missing" piece, which I identified as Mile's relationship with Chas, I realize that in fact it is also my relationship with Allie and Irving, not Light and Saraf the filmmakers, but Allie and Irving my friends, which is my own motivation for writing this review, and which I want to use to imbue the writing with a feeling something like the feeling I find in the film STARS. The trust in the filmmakers which allows the choristers to be so much themselves in front of the camera, the trust in our friendship which led the filmmakers to show me footage at so many different points in the filmmaking process, and to share theft worries, fears, troubles as well as their triumphs — this is an element which is traditionally ignored by critics for fear theft writing will be dismissed as biased. I hope instead, by making my personal bias clear, to open the way towards greater freedom of decision by the reader.