By now, everyone in the opera world has absorbed the news that Charles Wuorinen is working on an opera based on Brokeback Mountain. I was less skeptical about this idea than some—I thought some of the best, most startling parts of the last Wuorinen piece I heard, his 8th Symphony ("Theologoumena"), were the most delicate moments—and I just make it a rule to try and reserve judgment on any piece until I actually hear it. (I've been surprised, pleasantly and unpleasantly, far too many times.)
But then I read that David Carlson (whose Anna Karenina was premiered in St. Louis last season) was working on an adaptation of On the Waterfront (scroll down to the bottom) and I started to think about Wuorninen's efforts as part of a mini-trend of film-based operas: William Bolcom already saw the premiere of A Wedding, based on the Robert Altman film; Poul Ruders is composing a version of Lars von Trier's Dancer In the Dark; Howard Shore is mutating David Cronenberg's The Fly.
On the face of it, this might not seem like news: opera has always plundered other art forms for subjects and plots, far more often, in fact, that it's generated them itself. But cribbing from film changes the dynamic in a fundamental way. The previous motherlodes of operatic adaptation—theater and literature—are both re-creative media. Plays require live interpretation by actors and directors, with the varying personnel producing equally varied versions of the source material, while literature is dependent on the creative complicity of the reader—everyone who cracks the cover is his or her own producer/director, on the stage of imagination. But film, with its complete Gesamkunstwerk of word, image, sound, and editing, crowds out the possibility of dramatic (though not necessarily semiotic) re-interpretation.
More crucially, I think, duplication and distribution of film universalizes the public image of a particular movie in a way that doesn't happen with plays or novels, no matter how popular. Take On the Waterfront, a movie that's burned its way into our collective artistic memory in a remarkably specific way: even people who haven't seen the movie already have Brando in their head ruminating how he coulda been a contender. Same with Brokeback Mountain: the notoriety (and countless parodies) have created a particular mental image and memory of that story for almost everybody.
It's not that operagoers will be coming into the show with a pre-existing, personal interpretation of the story they're about to see—that happens with any adaptation—but that the pre-existing interpretation will be the same one across the board. Everyone will be comparing it to the same experience: a formidable challenge for anyone wanting to translate the material. I could see how Bolcom sould get away with it: The Wedding is something of a cult film—how many people have actually seen it? Or even had heard of it before the opera came out? Far fewer than Brokeback Mountain or The Fly, I'd bet. But with a popular movie, something that immediately latches onto the zeitgeist, I would think that the universality of the filmgoing experience puts the opera at a disadvantage. My sense is that the bar will either be set too high—anything less than an utterly convincing and completely contrasting illumination of the story will be a failure—or too low—simply not alienating the audience's existent relationship to the material will be sufficient success (you're terrific if you're even good, in other words). Either way, there's a danger of shrinking the artistic space for opera to work its own, idiosyncratic magic.