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

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The Italian Tradition of 'bel canto' in Early International Cinema
Victoria Duckett

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. Indeed, in the second half of nineteenth century, the body of the opera diva was an expressive vehicle for a complex language which traversed and included most aspects of the “culture industry.” That is, the diva’s body was polymorphic, referring at once to voice, gesture, character, stardom, economic values, national characteristic, and advertising (this list could continue). It was this body which enriched the opera and which, 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 have 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.

 I will begin by assuming that it is the feminine body – as a polysemic construct -  which is the better way to explore the connections between opera and film. We will also begin with the understanding that opera and early cinema are both discursive art forms that share a complex and articulated way of communicating. In other words, they are both “metamedia” that 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.

 “The Italian Tradition of bel canto in Early International cinema” will instead explore the circulation of Italian opera into other national cinema’s.  Paying particular attention to early French cinema (used as a case study), I will explore how it was that the diva referenced Italian opera whilst becoming lynchpin for a new process of mediated recollection. 


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