Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Feminine Stars and the Cultural Heritage of the Opera in Early Italian Cinema
Elena Mosconi

Last modified: 2010-05-28


It is well-known that the term “diva” was first employed in the theatre, referring both to stage players and to opera singers. It is also well-known that this was a term later imported and applied to the nascent cinema. In the second half of nineteenth century, the body of the opera diva was indeed an expressive vehicle for a complex language, which traversed and included most aspects of the ‘culture industry’. In other terms, the diva’s body was polymorphic, referring at once to voice, gesture, character, stardom, economic values, national characteristic, and advertising (this list could continue). This type of body enriched the opera and, in its turn, went on to (differently) define the cinema. To date, few scholars have looked at the movement of the female body from opera to film. Star studies isolated a few famous examples, but never asked if the two media were interconnected, or how it was that the lyrical theatre productively engaged with film and vice versa. In my intervention we will attempt to redress this situation.

 In my intervention I will begin by assuming that the feminine body – as a polysemic construct - could be seen as the better way to explore the connections between opera and film. As a premise, I will attempt to theorize that opera and early cinema are both discursive art forms, which share a complex and articulated way of communicating. In other words, they are both 'metamedia', which gather the heritage of former cultural forms. Lyric opera knows its best development at the end of nineteenth century and brings together all the performative arts. Cinema, in its turn, tries to recollect all the new 'mediated' technologies (photography, recorded sound). It is the female body, moving from one re-collection to another, which highlights significant overlap. The opera diva was not, therefore, just a familiar name used to sell film, but a complex body of meaning newly relevant to the motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Lastly, I will focus on the Italian tradition of the “bel canto” and its stars, reconstructing as well the cultural panorama in which opera become the late nineteenth century’s 'metamedia'. Thus, I will show  how many of its traditions, gestures, stories and marketing strategies made their way (through the diva’s body) into early Italian cinema.


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