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At the Margins of the Televisual: Picture Frames, Loops and ‘Cinematics’ in the Paratexts of Opera Videos

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 June 2013


This article focuses on the paratexts of opera DVDs as a route into the status and cultural placement of opera videos in contemporary visual culture. In particular, it analyses the picture covers, menus and openings credits of four productions of Verdi's Don Carlo, arguing that, although the videos fall within the broader discourse of the ‘televisual’ (a discourse that encourages the viewer to conceive the image as a transparent document of the performance on-stage), these paratexts put forward alternative ways of conceiving the relationship between medium and subject matter, imagining opera's materials, however briefly, in terms of narrative cinema and music video, video games and computer loops.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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1 For a famous discussion, and defence, of methodological fetishism, see Appadurai, Arjun, ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1988), 364Google Scholar. In particular, I am here taking heed from recent media scholarship that tries to account for the specificity of the medium and its multiple materialities. For a critical overview of these theories, see Parikka, Jussi, What is Media Archeology? (Cambridge, 2012)Google Scholar. My attempt is to combine a study of opera videos as ‘representations’ with a consideration of their defining features – their distinctive temporalities, their physical boundaries and technical limitations.

2 Auslander, Philip, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, 2nd edn (London, 2005), 2Google Scholar. (Emphasis in the original.)

3 See, in particular, Senici, Emanuele, ‘Porn Style: Space and Time in Live Opera Videos’, The Opera Quarterly, 26 (2010), 6380CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 At the time of writing, the high-definition cinema broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House are arguably the most popular example of this ‘ideology of authenticity’. The phenomenon would deserve a separate analysis, but here it will suffice to say that the broadcasts' reliance on Auslander's ‘televisual’ paradigm is complicated by the fact that they are projected in cinema theatres and framed by traditionally cinematic paratextual materials such as posters and trailers. To the extent that the MET broadcasts show traces of competing televisual and cinematic discourses, they could be discussed in keeping with the broader argument of this article. For an ethnographic study of the ‘live in HD’ broadcasts, and an assessment of their spectacular success, see Steichen, James, ‘HD Opera: A Love/Hate Story’, The Opera Quarterly, 27 (2012) 443–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Senici, ‘Porn Style’, 64–5.

6 Emanuele Senici discusses the emergence of this visual rhetoric of ‘reproduction’, focusing in particular on the case of Italian television. See Senici, , ‘Opera on Italian Television: The First Thirty Years, 1954–1984’, in Opera and Video: Technology and Spectatorship, ed. Pérez, Héctor Julio (Bern, 2012), 5470, at 66Google Scholar.

7 Melina Esse, ‘Don't Look Now: Opera, Liveness, and the Televisual’, 81–95; Christopher Morris, ‘Digital Diva: Opera on Video’, 96–119; Senici, ‘Porn Style?’; and Roger Parker, ‘Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo(s): “Live” on DVD’, 603–14: all in The Opera Quarterly, 26 (2010); and Senici, Emanuele, ‘Il video d'opera dal vivo: testualizzazione e “liveness” nell'era digitale’, Il saggiatore musicale, 16 (2004), 273312Google Scholar.

8 Esse, ‘Don't Look Now’, 81.

9 Senici, ‘Porn Style?’, 63. See also Senici, ‘Il video d'opera dal vivo’, 273.

10 Complaints about the added ‘realism’ of the camera's eye and its (negative) effects on theatrical illusion have a long history, one that precedes the deployment of moving images and which, as Sylviane Agacinski's work shows, can be traced back to the nineteenth-century practice of photographing tableaux vivants. While intending to generate a form of photographic fiction, the photographed tableau was reproached by many critics for drawing attention to the singularity of things and faces. As Agacinski shows, because of its strong association with scientific, documentary and legal applications, photography was seen as unsuitable for allegorical topics – being unable to shed off its indexical function and to do justice to the mimetic and idealising world of the tableaux vivants. Drawing on Barthes, she locates the grounds of these complaints in the difference between authentication and representation. See Agacinski, Sylviane, Time Passing: Modernity and Nostalgia (New York, 2002), 122–31Google Scholar.

11 Barthes, Roland, La Chambre claire (Paris, 1989), 139Google Scholar.

12 ‘Paratexts’, as Genette puts it, surround and extend the text ‘precisely in order to present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text's presence in the world, its “reception”’. Genette, Gérard, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (Lincoln, 1997), 1Google Scholar.

13 I am here using the Italian title (even though the opera was originally written in French and Verdi wrote his later revisions to a French text) because this is by far the most common for videos, used on all but one of the DVDs (that from the Théâtre du Châtelet) analysed here. There are four main versions of the opera: the five-act French-language version from the 1867 Paris premiere (which already contained some amputations with respect to an earlier 1866 conception); a five-act Italian-language version used for an 1872 production in Naples (with relatively minor alterations aimed at correcting problems created by the 1867 amputations); a four-act Italian-language version for a production that took place in Milan in 1884 (where the original Act I is eliminated, in addition to other major changes) and a five-act Italian version for an 1886 production in Modena (which essentially uses the 1884 version with the reinstatement of the first act). For a detailed discussion of Don Carlo's textual history, see Budden, Julian, The Operas of Verdi, 3 vols. rev. edn (Oxford, 2002), vol. 3, From ‘Don Carlos’ to ‘Falstaff’Google Scholar; and Powers, Harold, ‘Verdi's Don Carlos: an Overview of the Operas’, in The Cambridge Companion to Verdi, ed. Balthazar, Scott L. (Cambridge, 2004), 237–56Google Scholar.

14 On the video covers of Don Carlo we find two main strategies at play. Mid-shots of the love duet are used for performances based on five-act versions of the opera. Long shots of the auto-da-fe scene tend to be used for performances based on the four-act version. This is the case in the 2002 Sony Production of a 1986 staging at the Salzburger Osterfestspiele (part of a DVD collection of Karajan's ‘Legacy for Home Video’) and in the aforementioned 2009 DVD from La Scala, which featured Stuart Neill in the title role, a last-minute choice after tenor Giuseppe Filianoti was controversially removed. In these instances, the focus on public ritual, with the protagonists dwarfed by the mise-en-scène, has the dual effect of foregrounding notions of operatic spectacle and of drawing attention away from the singers, ensuring the prominence of the conductor or side-lining a problematic casting choice. In this sense, the poles of public and private and of pageantry and intimacy so often invoked when conceptualising Don Carlo and its relationship to Italian and French conventions go hand in hand with the establishment of hierarchies between the personalities involved in each production, and receive different emphasis depending on the version of the opera that is being employed.

15 For an example of the use of ‘convergence’ as ‘an umbrella term that refers to the new textual practices’, as well as to ‘technological synergies’, see Kackman, Michael, Flow TV, Television in the Age of Media Convergence (New York, 2011), 110Google Scholar.

16 See Bryan Sebok, ‘Convergent Hollywood, DVD, and the Transformation of the Home Entertainment Industries’, Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2007, 226–7. As Bolter and Grusin show, this promise of immediacy is characteristic of the history of remediation, and particularly strong in the case of digital media. See Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA, 1999), 60Google Scholar.

17 As Sebok discusses, in the early 1990s press coverage about the DVD focused on the friction between two industry factions, broadly associated with Toshiba/Time Warner and Sony/Philips, who promoted different format standards for the new technology. This ‘format war’ was eventually swung by the Hollywood majors backing Toshiba. See Sebok, ‘Convergent Hollywood’, 227–36.

18 For a manifesto of post-digital artists, see Cascone, Kim, ‘The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music’, Computer Music Journal, 24/4 (2000), 1218CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 See Budden, The Operas of Verdi, III, 55. For Budden, ‘the introduction to this scene establishes the opera's “tinta” in a most uncompromising way’.

20 Manovich, Lev, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA, 2001), 46–7Google Scholar.

21 Sebok, ‘Convergent Hollywood’, 224. Sebok talks about an early split in the market between ‘enthusiast’ and ‘casual’ DVD consumers.

22 During what could be called the first wave of ‘opera and screen’ studies, scholars such as Jeremy Tambling looked at the filming of opera (at the distribution of opera on-screen) as one of the ways in which opera could, potentially, be freed from the constraints of a ‘bourgeois construction of operatic experience’ that he saw to be drastically limiting the music's political and semantic horizons. See Tambling, , Opera, Ideology and Film (Manchester, 1987), 111Google Scholar. At the time of writing, Tambling was particularly interested in the ‘democratising’ powers of cinema. For a critique of this ‘first wave’, see Leicester, Marshall, ‘Discourse and the Film Text: Four Readings of Carmen’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 6 (1994), 245–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Small, Christopher, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Hanover, NH, 1998), 23Google Scholar.

24 Jürgen Kühnel, quoted in Senici, ‘Porn Style’, 64–5.

25 Zeffirelli's La traviata and Otello are two examples of the typical convergence of operatic and filmic texts. Even in opera films that do include the approach to the opera house such as, most famously, Bergman's The Magic Flute and Ponnelle's La Cenerentola, the music's overture typically starts with the film's opening.

26 For a theorisation of narrative gaps, see Bordwell, David, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison, WI, 1985), 55Google Scholar.

27 These shots also have the effect of adding a monumental quality to La Scala, thus aligning the eighteenth-century Italian building with the prevailing popular iconography of the opera house as grand and imposing (epitomised by nineteenth-century buildings such as the Paris Opéra or the Bayreuth Festspielhaus). In this sense, at least to the extent that it tries to exploit the building's dramatic potential, Carmine's video can be compared to the beginning of Large's videos for the famous Chéreau Ring Cycle where, as Senici notes, ‘each day starts with a tracking shot of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, without any trace of human presence and in total silence’. Senici, ‘Il video d'opera dal vivo’, 20.

28 See Vernallis, Carol, Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (New York, 2004), 411Google Scholar.

29 Manovich, The Language of New Media, 83. As Manovich explains, by the 1990s, game designers were increasingly drawing on cinematic language, and, particularly, they started to incorporate ‘lavish opening cinematic sequences … that set the mood, established the setting, and introduced the narrative’.

30 Ibid., 78–9.

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