Opera is going high-definition. La Scala, the Met, and other eminent opera houses are beaming live performances to movie theaters around the world. To some critics, this can only mean the death of opera. Associate Professor of Italian Studies Bernhard Kuhn is less pessimistic.
"I think that opera going high-definition can, if it's done responsibly, enrich the art form immensely," he says. "It can create a new boom of opera in the 21st century because it makes opera accessible to a lot of people." Several factors are wrapped up in what Kuhn means by "done responsibly." For example, camera close-ups are far less forgiving than opera glasses. "If you put too much emphasis on the physical appearance of singers, the best voices might oftentimes not be selected for the roles because, sometimes, voice and ideal physical appearance don't coincide," he says.
The choice of which operas are selected will also affect the influence of this new technique. As much as Kuhn loves Puccini, Verdi and the other familiar 19th-century operas, he hopes that more difficult and experimental pieces will also continue to be broadcast, to keep the art form alive and vibrant.
Kuhn will be watching how the history of screen opera progresses. "I am looking at what the screening of operas does to opera, the performance aspect of opera, as well as to the art form itself - how it changes opera, how it impacts it, and what it means for the singers and the performance on stage," he says.
Kuhn is also interested in the inverse relationship a century earlier - how opera influenced silent film in its early days. "At the beginning of the 20th century, cinema incorporated opera to raise the prestige of film," he says. "At the time, film was often not well regarded by critics or intellectuals."
Rather than adapting or blatantly mimicking opera, Kuhn notes, silent film employed more subtle references to opera. For instance, the film's action often stopped for a few moments while the lead actress dramatically gestured and moved across the screen - an effect reminiscent of an opera's story coming to a halt while the soprano sings an aria.
Even as a child, Kuhn loved everything about Italian culture, a fascination he enjoys sharing with students. In his foundation seminar, "Mamma, Macaroni, Mafia? Introduction to Italian Culture and Film," he tries to counter stereotypes, especially romanticized notions of the mafia or the Italian family. In another course, Kuhn taps into his interest in migration to go beyond media portrayals of immigrants, both in the U.S. and in Italy. "I try to bring in a human perspective," he says. "We are not just talking about masses or illegals; we are talking about people here. Let's look at what people think and what their lives are like."
Kuhn has found a receptive audience for sharing his passion for Italian studies. "I find a great deal of enthusiasm here at Bucknell for Italian language and culture," he says. "Students are in general very excited to study Italian and learn about Italian culture and everything related to it."
Posted Sept. 20, 2010