NZ Arts Festival 2008, Town Hall
March 15 | Review by Diane Spodarek

Chaplinoperas is the title by British composer Benedict Mason for the music he created in 1988 to be played with the projection of three Charlie Chaplin films. It was performed on the last night of the Festival at the Town Hall by Stroma, a New Zealand chamber music ensemble with players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and other freelance New Zealand players. The conductor was Hamish McKeich, who (according to the programme notes) is “…A rising star of the music world… works regularly in Australia and Europe and conducts all the major orchestras in New Zealand.” The films were projected on a large screen above the ensemble: Easy Street (1916), The Immigrant and The Adventurer (1917). It took me back to the college parties I attended where people would drink beer and watch TV with the sound off and the stereo on. The coincidences of random, loud rock and roll with the images were always amazing. The point of watching, beyond the obvious hilarity of it, was to experience the unknown, to groove to the unexpected. It was all very immediate and spontaneous.

Mason is going for the immediate but there is nothing spontaneous in the composed music. Each score is carefully created and calculated for each film. From the programme notes:

“…for me the best place for the composer to work now (outside the concert hall) is in the opera house. These three scores are virtually unseen, or inverted, opera, and have a rich and diverse subplot added by the singers (and the subtitles). One could call the genre a ‘semi-operatic filmspiel’.”

Mason who has a background in filmmaking has advice for other filmmakers:

“I wish fervently that today’s filmmakers would see the potential of silent film and live music. For there is a dichotomy about trying to write music 75 years on, for unchangeable visual material that is fixed in its values and codes of practice.”

Mason attempts to bring new meaning and insight into what is already a perfect art form. Chaplin himself created the soundtrack for his films. So I found myself asking, “what does it mean that a composer changes the original sound track?” The music was beautiful and enjoyable. The Town Hall acoustics are very good. The sounds in the Hall engulf you, take you in and add to what you are witnessing. The music by this ensemble left me in awe of their individual talent and beauty.

The Town Hall has high balcony seats surrounding the open space where rows of seats, were lined up in neat rows, in an area appropriate called “stalls.” The plastic seats lock together like Legos, so that you sit closer to your neighbor than in seats on an airplane. Never completely comfortable, I was grateful that tiny women sat on each side of my chair.

What did surprise me during the event were the singers. Kate Lineham and Brendan Casey possess amazing range and beauty in their voices but the use of words to accompany the character’s actions on the screen was at times distracting in its over use. The sing/song rhythm of half singing/half speaking the words was aesthetically grating and contradictory to the actions of the story, sometimes putting words into the mouths of characters who were not moving their lips. The live voices were telling me what to think rather than to allow me to experience what the music brought to the films. For instance, it became a cliché to hear the deep baritone always huffing and puffing and growling whenever the big brute appeared on the scene to beat someone up. There were also internal running monologues thrust upon the characters, sometimes so fast you couldn't understand them, and at times in different languages. These voices, representing the characters on the screen became narratives telling a story, rather than a voice from a character interacting with other characters.

Lineman’s mezzo although beautiful, often delivered unnecessary “poetic” musings from the female characters’ points of view. Her voice was used on at least one occasion for the thoughts of The Tramp himself. Watching the film and listening to the music reminded me of Ted Turner who bought the rights to many black and white Hollywood films. He began to colorize them. Who wouldn’t want to see a classic black in white film in color? Turner argued that he was improving them. There were many critics of course, but Turner just did not get it. He was a businessman, not an artist.

What about ownership? Are the Chaplin films in the public domain like Shakespeare? Can anyone take a Chaplin film and change it? Colorize it? Give it a sound track like Woody Allen did with What’s up Tiger Lily? These questions occurred to me while watching the films wondering how far any artist can go with someone else’s work. (DJ’s steal so much of recorded music that labels can’t keep up or even bother to sue people for what has become a new art form.)

There is something inherently beautiful in a silent film not only as an art form but as a testament to the times it was created. Although Chaplin created a soundtrack, he created the characters in a precise way because an audience would not hear them speak. What about this silence? Mason may have chosen to not work with silence – that silence that exists around words, around words not spoken. Unlike John Cage who understands the power of silence Mason is big, loud, crashing and an over powering composer so that the event is about the music more than the film, at times loosing balance of the two working together. So, when I closed my eyes, the beauty of the music and the singers got inside me, made me feel grateful for what is possible, what humans can do with their instruments. The ensemble was wonderful but I didn’t see how Mason was bringing anything new to Chaplin. His films are already a perfect art form.