Monday, May 31, 2010

Terrifying Donkey Music

I'm sure this has been featured elsewhere, but it's the first time I saw it: the transformation scene from Pinocchio with only the music, no sound effects or dialogue.

What we learn from the scene in this form is pretty much what we knew before: it's terrifying even without Lampwick's cries of "mama!" (though the dialogue and effects certainly do make the scene even scarier) and Leigh Harline was good at writing horror music, as he would prove when he moved to RKO and scored some of their horror and noir films (including Val Lewton's Isle of the Dead). I've always thought of him as one of the best of the "utility" composers in Hollywood, the guys who were not assigned to big projects and had to work -- sometimes uncredited -- on anything that wasn't handled by the department heads or the more in-demand composers (like Herrmann or Rosza or Waxman). At Fox, for example, he doesn't seem to have been first choice for anything, but on a modestly-budgeted movie like Pickup On South Street he turned out a score whose nervous energy matches the director's.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Show With a Spin On It

Those who read this blog know I'm a fan of Hugh Wilson, who is sort of a more humanistic version of the man who brought him into MTM, Jay Tarses -- a very personal style, a tendency to make shows that don't go quite the way networks or audiences expect them to, and an unusual, off-center take on the classic MTM comedy style. Some of his stuff is outright great, like WKRP and Frank's Place, and some of it doesn't really work but is a wonderful experience if you're in sync with his style, like Rustler's Rhapsody. (That movie is so arch and self-conscious that it violates every rule for making a good comedy, yet there's something about it that I find fascinating -- maybe because the script is so clearly the voice of one writer working out his feelings about Westerns, movies, and drama in general.) From the '90s onward, except for his brief success with The First Wives' Club, he's mostly done movie projects that didn't get made and pilots that didn't get picked up -- none of which I've seen, though I heard at least one of them (The Contender, a boxing drama set in Baltimore) was good. And of course an additional bit of bad luck is that his two best pieces of work, WKRP and Frank's Place, are impossible to re-release in their original form because of all the music issues.

All this is leading up to the fact that Wilson was apparently the big hit of a recent New Orleans Frank's Place event. It was put together by Tim Reid, who was there filming a guest role on Treme, and the producers of Treme, who know that Frank's has a reputation as the most authentic Hollywood show about the city. Reid, who bought the master tapes to keep them from being destroyed, screened three episodes -- "Frank Returns," the first show after the pilot (good move: the pilot is good, but it's very exposition-heavy and a little slow; the second episode is a better introduction), "The Bridge," and "Dueling Voodoo." The event was sold-out even though the auditorium seated 600, and as the comments to that article show -- and backed up by other comments I've heard on Twitter and elsewhere from people who were there -- Wilson did a lot of the talking about the show, and impressed almost everyone by how funny he still is.

I hope the renewed attention given to Frank's Place will lead to some kind of home video release; it's marginally easier than WKRP because, a, there's only one season and b, the original master tapes at least exist. (WKRP not only has the problem of paying for the music, but the problem that no one even seems to know where the uncut masters are.) I could see it happening if Treme goes on a few more years -- and I like Treme a lot, so I hope it does.

Good as Frank's Place was, the most disappointing thing about its early cancellation is that it actually had a lot of room for improvement. (Even Wilson's The Famous Teddy Z, which was not in a class with his other two shows, seemed to be finding itself when it was canceled, in comparison to its disappointing early episodes, and probably would have gotten good if it had had a second year.) There were a number of things that I think kept it from taking off, and it wasn't just the lack of a laugh track or the fact that audiences didn't know if it was a comedy or a drama. A number of the characters were a bit vaguely sketched (not Tiger or Bubba, but some of the others), so that after 22 episodes you still didn't know exactly who they were beyond a few basic quirks. (Daphne Maxwell-Reid's character was particularly ill-defined; even though she got billed pretty high, she didn't appear in all that many episodes, presumably because it was hard to find excuses to get her over to the restaurant.) And Frank spent maybe too much of his time doing bug-eyed reactions to whatever was going on; it was clearly a star show rather than an ensemble show, yet the star didn't always seem to be in control the way he was on Bob Newhart's shows.

That would have been ironed out in a second season, presumably. Which means that like most comedies that lasted only one season, Frank's Place is as much about its potential as its achievement; the episodes that exist are great enough, like "The Bridge," but another 22 episodes would have been even better.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Count Zarth Arn, Watch Out!

Starcrash (or Star Crash, or Stella Star, or whatever you want to call it) on DVD. On Blu-Ray, yet (part of Shout! Factory's deal to release films owned or distributed by Roger Corman). The bad hair will look even better in digital clarity, and John Barry's score will blast from our speakers, and the very experience of watching it again will... all together now... "halt the flow of time!"

Monday, May 24, 2010

The German Movie Musical, Circa 1961

Warning; the following post is for those who, like me, watched the "Yes, we have no bananas" scene in One, Two, Three and wondered what they were singing on the other side of Berlin.

I don't have a lot to say about these clips from a movie called So liebt und küsst man in Tirol, a German (West German) movie musical from 1961; I don't know if it's typical of the German film industry at the time, though the print looks surprisingly well-preserved. But here they are anyway. I came upon them while doing some Google-based research on René Kollo, a moderately successful German pop singer who used his earnings to take operatic voice lessons, and became a highly successful Wagnerian tenor in the '70s and '80s. And this appears to be one of the few movies he ever appeared in during his pop years, but he has two numbers in this film.

The first, which is more or less normal, is a heavily reverb'd pop song about how great love is, lip-synched by Kollo, playing the singing bartender.

The next one is Kollo performing his most successful record, a German-language cover of Ricky Nelson's "Hello Mary Lou." I don't know who the blonde dancer is, and having only read a brief plot synopsis, I don't know who the generic Sheiks are supposed to be. The director appears to lose all interest in Kollo midway through the number and devote himself to close-ups of the dancer and the guy ogling her.

And finally, weirdest of all, is the film's title song, performed by the star, Vivi Bach, sometimes known as "Die Dänische Bardot" (the Danish Bardot). (That might also be her dancing in the other clip, but I'm not sure and I'm not going to watch the whole movie to find out.) The song itself isn't weird, it's the frequent cutaways to guys in lederhosen slapping each other. I honestly wasn't aware this was done in a movie outside of the famous stock footage.

I'm not really intrigued enough to learn more about the West German movie musical in the early '60s, but if this was what it was like all the time, it's... actually, not that far from what I would have imagined, given the era's combination of Old German nostalgia and U.S. pop influence, like a combination of Franz Lehár and Pat Boone.

Anyway, here's the last clip I could find, from what was apparently the biggest name in the movie, singer Fred Bertelmann (a big name in West Germany, I mean; I can't find an English-language bio). He comes off as somewhat frightening.

Update: Thanks to "Jim," in comments, who has some great information about German movie musicals and performers, both the low-budget quickie musicals of the '50s and '60s and the more elaborate (and memorable) productions of the early sound era, like this elaborate production number of Lilian Harvey singing "Das Gibt's Nur Einmal". One thing I notice from that 1931 clip is that UFA already had developed the technique of post-synched musical numbers -- though the technique of lip-synching was not yet perfected -- whereas in U.S. musicals, they were still mostly shooting musical numbers with direct sound. Jim notes that a Hollywood musical would never have had such an elaborate tracking shot at the time, but that's because they hadn't yet figured out that you could shoot a whole musical number without sound (and therefore a freely-moving camera).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Producers, Do Your Job

You may have already seen William Martell's much-discussed post on how the intriguing script "Nottingham" became the unintriguing movie Robin Hood. It's a classic showbiz story where an idea starts as one thing and winds up as something totally different; Ridley Scott plays the Jack Buchanan role from The Band Wagon, the director who listens to the writers' pitch, claims to love it, and then takes a lot of time and money to do something else.

What I like about the post is that while it can be seen as a "protect the writer's vision" argument, and a lot of screenwriters' advocacy groups (the ones that sometimes seem strangely wrong about what screenwriters actually do) are framing it that way, it's not really that kind of argument. Well, it is to a certain extent, since he talks a lot about movies he wrote that didn't wind up on screen the way he wrote it, but let's say that's not the only argument he makes. The interesting part is the argument that the producer of a movie should do his job and not let the production get out of control.

A producer's job is vaguely-defined, but it definitely involves putting the project together and making sure it doesn't end up being worse, or more expensive, than it should have been. The story of how Nottingham became Robin Hood appears to be that the producer was so deferential to the star and director that the movie got delayed for years, went way over budget, and wound up with a script that was completely different than the one the producer bought.

Traditionally, on a big Hollywood blockbuster movie, that's not supposed to happen. Once the producer has the script he wants and casting has been done and pre-production has begun, it becomes very expensive to make big changes. Which means that either the director figures out how to make the script work for him on the sets and locations that have been agreed upon, or he gets fired and replaced by another director. It's one thing if the director is attached to the film during the development of the script, and can make or suggest changes then. But in the case of Robin Hood, Scott came in with a release date already set by the studio, meaning that the project was at a point where delays are expensive. And at that point it becomes the producer's job to stand up for his judgment about whether a script is ready to shoot.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Past n' Present

While still on the subject of past vs. present, I thought I would transcribe the opening of maybe the definitive essay by my favorite living critic (of anything), Conrad L. Osborne. This is "A Plain Case For the Golden Age" from the October 1967 issue of High Fidelity, and it was and still is a controversial piece, because he does something I probably would never have the nerve to do: argues openly and at length that artistic standards have gotten worse. (Of course he can get away with this partly because he's talking about an art, classical singing, where the style and most of the actual music was very remote from his own time. When it comes to movies or books, I don't think an argument like that is legitimate, unless it's applied to specific genres.)

But in the opening of the piece, he rather charmingly anticipates the main argument against him: that he's just being nostalgic, like those old sports fans who insist -- with no proof whatsoever -- that the players of their time were better. And he not only anticipates it, he sort of embraces it. But then he makes a crucial distinction between nostalgia and criticism: nostalgia is based on fond memories, but his essay is going to be based on recorded evidence and analysis of good technique. But mainly the passage is a look at a New York adolescence, and the link that exists between sports fandom and opera fandom, with a mix of nostalgia, especially for the old Met that was torn down, and self-mocking irony. He conveys more in these few paragraphs than most critics could convey in a life's work. I have been using the term "garrulous old dribbler" for many years, thanks to CLO.

When I was a stripling in the lower right-field stands of Yankee Stadium, my compatriots always advised me to stay away from the garrulous old dribbler who sat up near the back, burbling about how Billy Johnson wasn't fit to soap up Tony Lazzeri's glove, or about how Bill Bevens' sore arm wasn't no excuse -- in the old days, a man'd pitch a doubleheader with a sore arm, no whines or alibis.

And I always planted myself alongside the old bore, because he didn't bore me. I liked hearing tales of baseball when it was baseball, and I more or less believed them, too.

In those days a stripling could lead a sensible stripling existence. The baseball season was 154 games, not 162, and didn't keep you up nights, and the opera season was twenty weeks, not thirty; the two dovetailed, and didn't stumble and sprawl all over each other as they do now. So when the World Series had ended and there had been a short period for the application of one's thoughts to things like first-year algebra, I moved from the lower right-field stand to the left-field upper deck (alias Family Circle standing room) of the Metropolitan Opera House -- the one, you remember, down near the Crossroads of duh Woild, where for so many years it impeded the Progress & Development of the Borough of Manhattan, Inc. And there would be another garrulous old dribbler (or mayhap the same one, I couldn't be sure), burbling about how Stella Roman didn't deserve to powder Elisabeth Rethberg's wig, and about how things were in the days when opera was opera. And there was everyone else, moving on down the rail to get away, and me, sitting there listening and believing.

When it comes to opera, you can be reasonably sure that it wasn't all fantasy. It is just possible that Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb weren't a whit better than Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, but Pinza and Chaliapin were sure as hell better than (enter name of your favorite bass), and all that is required to prove it is the lowering of a stylus into a groove. That proposition is, approximately, the subject of the present article.

It is tiresome, of course, to listen to someone who merely prefers the way it used to be. I crave your indulgence, and confess my bias: I was dragged up on the records of Caruso, Chaliapin, Galli-Curci, Gigli, Ruffo, Battistini, Pinza, Ponselle, and a few others, and it always hit me as sacrilegious that when music could be sung that was, it could also come out sounding as it did on the radio at two o'clock on Saturday afternoons. You might with some justice say that I was a garrulous old dribbler at the age of twelve.

But a lot of hot air has blown through the tunnel since then, and here I am, a little punchy but possessed of a certain queasy equilibrium, and still getting a stronger signal from (see above) than from (enter names of your favorite singers). There have been times, especially since I began my career as Keeper of the Flame and Upholder of the True and Living Art, when the goggles have fogged over a bit. A few months of new record releases in tandem with live performances can truly make it seem as if it has always been this way, is now, and ever shall be. Then I will dig through the pile to an LP of re-pressings from the Messrs. Rococo, or Olympia, or Eterna, or Odeon, or RCA Victor, and plunk it on. A couple of seconds of scratch, and then -- Qual lampo! -- it comes to me again: the incredible expressive capabilities of the human voice, as developed in Western Europe in the last couple of centuries -- its capacity for a true legato that cannot be obtained by any instrument, its wealth of emotional color, its extraordinary power and flexibility.

Later, in the more in-depth and technical section of the article, Osborne also gives his simplest and yet fullest explanation of what good singing and good criticism are about:

Speaking broadly, vocal training has two goals. The first is to cultivate a desirable combination of tonal beauty, range, flexibility, and size. The second is to create a functional situation that will serve the singer well over a period of many years. Although the two things are of course interrelated, this does not mean that a singer who succeeds in one area will necessarily succeed to the same degree in the other; we can all think of singers who produced attractive, large, and exciting tone, whose voices were wide-ranged and capable of certain technical feats, but whose singing prime was of short duration. And none of us is at a loss to call to mind singers whose voices seem to endure forever without marked deterioration, but who have never produced truly beautiful sound or astonished anyone with bursts of technical brilliance. The very greatest singers, of course, combine exceptional achievements in both areas — these are the artists who sing unusually well for an unusually long time.

Still, keeping in mind that, like all generalizations, this one has its exceptions, the voices that sound best are the ones that tend to endure the longest. Our reasoning becomes a bit curved here, for the more one learns about singing, the more one tends to listen to the way a voice works; consequently, sounds that one might have accepted and even cherished lose much of their appeal if they are functionally precarious. That is true in any discipline: one's taste is strongly influenced by the state of one's knowledge. And that is why mere taste, however refined, is a poor guide in such matters. One can say (on grounds of taste) that a wobble is not really so offensive; some people can't stand it, others are willing to put up with it in the presence of other virtues. But the matter does not end there, for a wobble represents a malfunction as well as an unfulfilled musical possibility. The casual listener may ignore it if he chooses; he will not be hearing it for long.

There are, of course, many factors influencing vocal longevity, among which the most important is health, mental and physical. That is why it is a bit dangerous to inflate the importance of longevity as a standard of technical perfection. What can be said is that any audible perfection stands for some technical malfunction, and that whenever a voice does begin to deteriorate, early or later, the deterioration will almost invariably take the form of an intensification of that imperfection.

And how do we decide what constitutes an imperfection? I suppose we must answer, by a combination of imagination and cumulative hindsight, plus the context of European musical culture. (I append this last simply to acknowledge that we are not dealing with an absolute. The artists of the classical Chinese opera, for instance, cultivated a kind of sound and technical capability markedly different from that demanded by Western operatic music, and worked out functional systems that supported those requirements.) That is, the technical method which enables a singer to operate to the greatest effect for the longest time within the framework established by our active literature is the one we would call closest to perfection.

These requirements have not led to a universally agreed-upon method, but they have led to a set of descriptive rules which more or less summarize the goals of such a method. This working description has not altered much since the eighteenth century, and it might be written down this way: if a voice can negotiate a firm, smooth, even-tempered scale over every note of its required range, on each of the pure vowel sounds, and if it possesses the capacity to swell and diminish between a legitimate pp and a legitimate ff without waver or break on each of those pitches and vowels, then the technique is perfect. This may not sound like such a large order but I can assure you that it is. I can assure you that there are many admired singers at the top of their profession who could not execute such a scale really well on even two or three of the five pure vowels, and who could not execute a proper swell and diminish (the messa di voce) on more than a few semitones in a restricted area of the range. In fact, there has probably never been a singer who could meet all the conditions stated. Such a singer would be capable of rendering in a technically efficient manner any piece of music written for his general voice range.

One last quote: before getting into the meat of the article, the play-by-play analysis of recordings that represent the best in vocalism, he once again anticipates an argument against him and once again embraces it:

Anyone who has done any reading in the literature of vocal pedagogy (a literature in which the diversity of unsupported assertions, unfounded assumptions. nonconsecutive arguments, and illogical conclusions is matched only by the near-illiteracy of their authors) is well aware that every generation of singers and deachers since the time of Tosi has complained of the faltering standards and abominable taste of the oncoming bunch -- "tutto declina... non c'è più virtu," as Boito's Falstaff remarks. This fact is frequently cited as evidence that there has been no progressive deterioration, only changes of taste or fashion. Personally, I am perfectly prepared to believe that things have been getting steadily worse for two or three hundred years now, but the actual evidence dates back only to the beginning of this century.

Monday, May 10, 2010

When Were Movies Invented? 1977? Or Later?

Earlier today I was discussing the fact that on most areas of the internet, movie history is basically about 25 years long. This also applies to a lot of movie magazines, critical videos, and so on: you'll get people discussing movies in historical context, or making lists of the greatest movies or movie moments, but only from 1985 onward (if that). If an earlier movie shows up, it's almost a freak occurrence. An example is this guy, who makes great videos about movie clichés and corny lines, but includes very few movies from the '50s, '60s or even '70s.

I don't mean this as a "these kids today, why don't they know their movie history" kind of thing. For one thing, it's not just The Kids™. For another thing, you can't blame people for not being familiar with a lot of older movies. As I've said in the past, the only reliable way to learn about old movies (get used to the grammar and acting choices and all the rest) is by osmosis, watching them for entertainment and letting the style become something we naturally understand and accept. That's what the easy availability of old movies on TV used to do for us, just as the presence of "oldies" on the radio makes us familiar with pop-music styles from the '50s onward. (So someone who doesn't know much about '50s movies might know, if not a lot more, at least more about '50s pop music. It's in the blood.) But now the afternoon or late night black-and-white movie is a rare thing, except on specialty channels like TCM.

Without that, the only way to get into old movies is if you actively decide to learn about them, and you can't blame anyone for not wanting to sit through movie after movie as a learning experience. That's not what they were intended to be, anyway, and they don't come off well in that context. I kind of wish people felt guiltier about not getting into older movies (or pre-Sopranos television, or whatever), the kind of Boomer guilt that is visited on people who don't know the great pop acts of the '60s. But I'm not going to do the guilt tripping; if you don't have the style in your blood from an early age, a movie can be a chore to get through.

What I'm wondering is where the dividing line is: where does "movie history" now begin for the average film enthusiast? I used to think it was 1977, the year Star Wars invented movies. But it was pointed out to me that Star Wars may actually belong with The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and other movies in the freak category: "old" movies that people have heard of, exceptions to the rule. (These movies often tend to be kid-oriented movies like the three I've just named; people don't notice that Star Wars is in an older style because, when you're exposed to a movie at a young age, the style seems like a very natural thing.) There aren't a whole lot of movies from 1977 through the early '80s that are on the current radar.

It was suggested that the starting point for modern movie history is Terminator 2, the epitome of the modern masterpiece: a sci-fi special effects epic that takes itself too seriously. But I think that's placing it too late. You at least have to go back to Die Hard, the action movie that is still considered the foundation of all modern action movies (no one can do an action-movie spoof without spoofing Die Hard at some point).

So I would place the beginning of movie history in 1985, when The Breakfast Club came out. John Hughes' death, and the over-wrought celebration of his work at the Oscars, confirmed that his movies are genuinely part of the cultural consciousness; more than that, they're considered masterpieces of film comedy. They aren't anything of the kind, and that's my problem with the condensed version of film history that seems to be taking hold.

I'd compare it, in a strange and debased way, to the views of critics like James Agee who felt that movies had never really recovered from the introduction of sound, and that there was something special about the silent era that the sound era was struggling to recapture. If a critic thinks that the key period in movie history is a relatively short period, he will wind up over-rating a lot of movies from that period. And sure enough, silent-firsters were maybe a bit indiscriminate about what films they considered masterpieces. I get the feeling that the current trend is going beyond this; a lot of movie fans now remind me of a PBS old-movie host I used to see who refused to watch movies made after four-letter words were introduced. If someone is mostly comfortable with films made in his or her lifetime, and finds it a chore to sit through most older movies, then that's understandable, but it isn't any more understandable than someone who doesn't like movies that aren't "clean." And the result is similar; a world where there isn't much movie history is inevitably going to be a world where Ferris Bueller's Day Off is a masterpiece. Who knows what movies will be masterpieces ten years from now, when movie history begins in 1999 (much like TV history begins in the late '90s)?

Despite my plague-on-both-your-houses attitude in the last paragraph, I know this post comes off cranky. I guess it is. I would like to repeat that I understand why viewers wouldn't run around spending money and making special efforts to immerse themselves in movie or television history. Being historically-inclined, and maybe a bit more sympathetic to older film grammar (i.e. I still think movies today are over-edited, just as someone else would find an older movie to be under-edited), I have to kick myself and force myself sometimes to keep up with new developments; some viewing experiences come naturally to me, and others I have to work at. I don't blame myself for liking what I like, and so I don't blame anyone else for it either.

So the feeling is not so much crankiness, let alone blame, as sadness at something inevitable and unavoidable: movie history, and perhaps all of pop-culture history, is going to contract. There has never been a greater amount popular culture history accessible, in the sense of being there for anyone who wants to see it. But it's been a long time since there has been less popular culture history accessible in the other sense, of being something that the average person can assimilate without a long, hard slog.

I was going to say there has never been less interest in pop-culture history, but that's not true at all. Traditionally, people have been more interested in new books, plays, music. The idea of gathering to listen to a concert of old music, or building an entire repertoire of old plays, is fairly new. So maybe the current situation is simply the way it ought to be.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Carl Barks Playing For the Other Team

The invaluable Doug Gray, who has pretty much my favorite comics blog), has Carl Barks's venture into the opposition camp, the Porky Pig story "Porky of the Mounties." Bugs and Porky weren't characters he liked, and the story isn't one of his best, but just seeing Barks work with the Warner Brothers characters is kind of strange and fun. I would say it's like a Marvel guy working for DC, except they all did work for DC and vice versa.

It's also a reminder that whereas the comic book form added a lot to the Disney cartoon characters, it didn't really do the same for the WB characters. There are some characters who maybe have more dimension in the comics than they do in the cartoons, like Porky (who has Petunia as his regular girlfriend, and isn't quite as big a patsy as he is in the animated shorts), but I don't feel like they're improved as characters the way Donald and Mickey were improved in the comics. And that's to say nothing of all the WB characters who were watered down, because they couldn't be as violent and vicious in comics as they were in films.

In part this may just be about the general superiority of WB shorts to Disney shorts, at least during the period when these comics were popular. The WB directors would add things to a story and make it better than it would have been in comic book form. I can't find it, but Thad Komorowski once posted a Michael Maltese comics story (non-WB, as I recall) that he also used, with some variations, for A Pest In the House. The comics story was funny, but Chuck Jones's cartoon was much funnier, and contained better-motivated and more well-rounded characters. In Disney, that kind of excellence was more likely to come from a Barks or a Gottfredson than most of the animation directors.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Carmen, The Greatest Dead End of All Time

If you don't mind my doing another music-related post, I wanted to follow up something I wrote in an earlier post, which is that Carmen, The Magic Flute and Porgy and Bess are the three great dead ends in the history of music theatre (because they pointed the way toward a fusion of popular and serious musical theatre, but their composers all died young without writing another opera).

(Yes, the most recent televised Carmen is on period instruments. There's actually a better period performance of the Carmen preludes on a disc of Bizet instrumental music by Marc Minkowski -- but unfortunately he hasn't recorded the whole piece.)

A commenter rightly noted that the influence of Carmen was felt in the brief wave of so-called verismo operas, dealing with lower-class passions and subject matter. But the influence there was mainly in terms of the non-musical material: once Carmen became popular, there were a bunch of other operas about characters who were not "noble" either in rank or in the emotions they expressed. And even that didn't last long. (The actual verismo movement burned out sometime in the '90s, replaced by operas about aristocratic characters, like Tosca, or exotic locales, like Madame Butterfly.) The verismo operas didn't show much musical influence from Carmen; instead, composers continued to do what they had been doing since the '60s: try to come to terms with the influence of Wagner.

Puccini became the most successful composer of the post-Wagner era because, apart from his talent, he hit on a way to write operas that were both "Wagnerian" and traditionally Italian: La Boheme and Tosca make room for more or less traditional arias and ensembles, but they also use the Wagnerian style: there are motifs that are repeated and developed throughout the evening, the music is continuous with no "recitatives." But Puccini's success reinforced the idea that the Wagnerian style was the way to go; he proved that the style didn't have to be Teutonic and could be made specifically Italian-sounding, but he also demonstrated that you were nowhere unless you had fully absorbed the lessons of Wagner. (Verdi, in his last years, went for something a little different from both Puccini and Wagner; he built his last opera, Falstaff, out of a collection of little bits of sung melody that are rarely repeated -- the opposite of the lush Wagner style, but something that was not easy to imitate.)

But Carmen, coming at a time when Wagner was being recognized as the model for all musical theatre (Verdi was in semi-retirement at the time, so there was literally no active composer who could compete with Wagner's influence), was something else again. Carmen was an "advanced," modern work at the time, but one that was built out of all the formulas that Wagner had rejected. Carmen, being an opera-comique with spoken dialogue, is a pure "numbers opera," which was the form that Wagner had rebelled against: Wagner had eliminated all separate numbers, and even applause breaks within acts, and turned every act into a continuous piece of music. Carmen is divided into solos, duets, ensembles, choruses, most of them strictly separated and coming to applause-baiting endings before the dialogue begins.

Whereas Wagner advocated putting more of the musical interest in the orchestra, often letting the orchestra carry the melody while the singer filled in something else on top of it, Carmen is full of old-fashioned song, with the singer's part dominating over the orchestra. And Bizet, like Verdi, prefers to come up with fresh melodic material for each new development in the piece, rather than using the Wagnerian method of developing themes we heard before. Bizet will quote an earlier theme only as a sort of mnemonic, a reminder of an idea; so he has a "fate" theme that he quotes a few times, just as Verdi had a "fate" theme in La Forza Del Destino (which may have been where he got the idea), but like Verdi and his hero Mozart, he considers each section a new test of his power to characterize it with a specific, appropriate tune.

By applying all these old-fashioned techniques to a sensationalistic subject, Bizet did something new with Carmen, but what was really new was that he made all these techniques seem fresh again. Just because Carmen's music is so good, so powerful and immediate, and such a brilliant mishmash of serious and popular, Bizet suggested that the pre-Wagner techniques weren't obsolete at all, as long as they were used with his kind of imagination (since almost none of the numbers are just simple songs; Bizet plays around with the forms he's using). And the immediacy of the characters and the plot seemed inseparable from the deceptively accessible tunes and forms that Bizet employed. It was as if the use of closed forms and songs was perfect for characters who were to emerge as people, rather than the symbolic figures that Wagner specialized in. That's one of the key benefits of the populist style of Carmen; because the characters express themselves in music that sounds less high-flown than the usual opera, they have an immediacy and relatability that wasn't usually associated with the operatic form. That helped lead to the modern musical that uses popular musical forms for ambitious purposes; that in turn was what Oscar Hammerstein paid tribute to when he turned Carmen into Carmen Jones.

So that's what Carmen seemed to suggest: that there was an alternative, musical and theatrical, to Wagnerism. And the whole thing fell apart because Bizet died, and no one knew how to follow it up. Some people, like Tchaikovsky, learned from Bizet's manipulation of the traditional numbers form; Tchaikovsky didn't like Wagner very much, and probably drew on the lessons of Carmen (which he loved) when he was working on Eugene Onegin. And others learned from the idea that you could incorporate folk and popular elements into opera (not that Bizet was the first to do this, but along with The Bartered Bride from a few years earlier, it helped to re-acquaint international audiences with this approach). Still others liked the idea of slumming it with the subject matter. But putting it all together -- sort of a Mozart approach to music combined with a populist approach to subject and characters -- was not something anyone tried to do until, well, Porgy and Bess. And, as I said, the composer of Porgy met the same fate as Mozart and Bizet: he died before he could write a follow-up.

And I think, though I don't have time to look for examples, that it may be the follow-up that really matters in terms of influence. That is, one truly unique work is very difficult for others to imitate. Once the same artist produces something else in a similar style, he creates a sort of template -- or at least he demonstrates that you can learn from the original without producing a pale copy.