Why directing opera is like directing music videos (sort of)

Why directing opera is like directing music videos (sort of)

Jenna Simeonov

It occurred to me that directing a music video has a lot in common with directing an opera. The music video director starts with basically the same tools as the opera director: they’re working with music and words. There are endless ways a director can visualize a song, and music videos have evolved from relatively simple videorecordings of an artist playing (think an in-concert opera), to full-on short films, born out of a great song (a little bit like opera directors who stage oratorio or song cycles).

Good music videos have the same stuff about them as good operatic productions. They start with inspiration from the song (or score), they allow for the artist to bring his or her personality to the mix, and the end result should be greater than the sum of its parts (the parts being what we hear and what we see).

Bear with me, readers, as I show you a few more examples of the common roots in opera and music video direction.

Organic surrealism

So, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is objectively an awesome song, and Queen is the real deal in terms of musical chops and creativity. So, director Bruce Gowers was right on the money when he decided to make it all about Queen, doing what they do best. We go back and forth between catching a close-up of Freddie Mercury sing a live show, to those eerie, surreal shots of the four of them.

Best of all, every shift in focus happens at a musical event; when a solo voice goes to a chorus, or at that great “will not let you go (let you go!)” bit into the guitar solo. Everything comes from the song, and the stuff of the music is put in the forefront.

Another great example is the video from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Same deal, 90s-style.

Weird for the sake of weird

Let’s face it, sometimes you can catch a super weird L’elisir d’amore or a baffling Lohengrin. I’m not equating Hans Neuenfels’ work with the Talking Heads, but it’s definitely weird, perhaps for the sake of it. The Talking Heads do weird, à-la-80s.

So mesmerizing, you don’t care what’s going on

When I saw Daniele Finzi Pasca’s production of L’amour de loin at the COC, I felt this way. The music and text of the opera were unfolding, but in a way that allowed for abstract, visually arresting scenes onstage. I feel the same way about Christopher Walken in this Fatboy Slim video by Spike Jonze:

The additional story that still works

Sometimes an opera is old enough, or non-specific enough that a director finds a new story to tell. It’s not quite superimposition of a story, because it comes from details in the text, but it’s still a surprise, making the listeners think, “I didn’t know that’s what it was about.” Kind of like the video for Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” Remember this one?

Going with the flow

The best opera productions are the ones that go with the flow. That means that if the music is fun, they make fun happen onstage. If a singer kills it with her aria every time, a good director will let her have downstage centre and get out of her way. Kind of like Robert Carsen, and exactly like Jake Nava did with Beyoncé in this classic.

Or if the music has something weird about it, like Prokofiev or Britten always do, the director lets it happen onstage, too. I always loved this Missy Elliott video for “Work It.” It’s got the stuff of classic hip-hop videos, but everything is just a little bit wonky.

What did I miss? Opera lovers, leave your favourite music videos in the comments below!


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