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

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Metropolitan Women: Geraldine Farrar and Marion Talley Silence Opera on Screen
Jennifer Fleeger

Last modified: 2010-02-27


Making their screen debuts little more than a decade apart, Geraldine Farrar and Marion Talley reveal the degree to which changes in the cinematic representation of the opera diva can be traced to larger cultural and technological shifts in the reproduction of sound.

Farrar’s association with the Metropolitan Opera Company could suggest that her 1915 appearance in Carmen was but another attempt by Famous Players to raise the artistic status of the film industry. Yet the specificity of her operatic origins insisted that Farrar’s five-year film career would resonate differently than those of theatrical imports like John Barrymore or Sarah Bernhardt. The Vitaphone’s first opera star, Marion Talley infamously derailed the illusion of synchronous sound in 1926, causing a critical uproar that would have been far less significant were she not a representative of the Met.

This paper reads the screen personae of Geraldine Farrar and Marion Talley as responses to two significant performance trends that spanned the decade between their respective film premieres: Edison’s popular Tone Tests and the movement to standardize film music. Both of these practices imply the cinema’s capacity for wholeness, the first through a technological impersonation of physical presence that could be applied to cinematic space, and the second by weaving the film text into a cohesive score. It is strange, then, that Farrar appeared on film at the moment when cinematic references to opera as a gesamtkunstwerk would have seemed likely to fade in the face of the industry’s assertion of its own self-sufficiency. Warner Bros’ strategy seemed equally excessive, foregrounding Marion Talley as evidence of both its professionally recorded accompaniments and the phonographic perfection of its Vitaphone system.

In light of these similarities, I maintain that the differences between the reception and representation of the two stars can be attributed not to the sudden audibility of the diva, but to these gradual transformations in the presentation of music and the voice that extended beyond the space of the theater. In contrast to traditional theoretical arguments about film sound’s increasing drive toward unity and containment of women, I claim that the opera diva on screen exposes the fetishization of the female voice such that the desire not to hear becomes the motivating factor in both the editing of her body and the characterization of her parts. 


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