Filming La Boheme

“The Advantage Of Movies is That They Are a Chosen Way To Tell the Story.”

On The Town | Mariam Shalikashvili | May 2008

Photo: Pedro Domenigg

Through the decades, many prominent directors have tried to translate opera into film. Some succeeded but most didn’t. thus it is not without some risk that distinguished director Robert Dornhelm has taken on the challenge of filming one of the most popular operas of the last century, Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon.

"So far there have been too few successful attempts to film the opera," Dornhelm said during editing in late April. "[Franco] Zefirelli as talented as he was on the stage couldn’t translate his legendary productions to the screen." The post production work was taking place at Sound Studio ‘Tremen,’ in Meidling in Vienna’s 12th District. Zefirelli’s  the attempts have been ‘too operatic,’ he said, and not true enough to the medium of film.

On a rainy day in late April, we walked into the editing room as the jubilant street scene from Act II filled the screen. It was a parade scene – soldiers in crisp blue uniforms with red caps and gold braid, flags waving in a street filled with jugglers and the fire throwers, and a pack of children leading the way.

The camera closed in on the faces, intensifying the intimacy, expressions alive with the energy of the moment. Dornhelm and several members of the post-production team were scattered among the deep cushioned seats watching, absorbed in the action. Here and there someone would comment, as a sound engineer at the console would stop, rewind and run a section again. The effect of the throbbing activity on the huge screen was striking and irresistible; we were transported into the heart of the process.

Suddenly, there was a familiar face: Ioan Holender, director of the Wiener Staatsoper, who also happens to be the cousin of the director, emerged from the throng, elegantly turned out as a turn of the century Parisian gentleman in a pearl grey frock coat, wearing a top hat, gesturing to a companion with the silver handle of his cane.

Holender played a crucial role in the life of the 13-year-old Romanian-born Dornhelm, helping him emigrate to Italy in 1960, moving to Austria the next year where he later studied at the Vienna Film Academy. His first major success was The Children of Theatre Street in 1977, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Not long after, he moved to Los Angeles, where he and his wife still reside.

I pulled out a camera and started taking pictures as Dornhelm and the editor Ingrid Koller continued coordinating the sound effects track with the music. The challenge was to make sure that percussive effects – like slamming doors, foot steps and squeaks – happened on the beat. "If I have an attractive sound and it doesn’t go with the music, I weaken the music," the director complained.

Robert Dornhelm has directed several movies in Austria, the 2006 Kronprinz Rudolf (a complex dramatization of the early life of the liberal heir to the Austrian throne, and his legendary double suicide with the Baroness Vetesera at Mayerling) and his latest documentary, Karajan, Or Beauty As I See It, released April 4, portraying artistic and personal life of renowned conductor Herbert von Karajan on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Karajan has been a surprise hit in its first weeks in the theater, a crowd pleaser that has out-performed the season’s standard releases.

"I did the documentary about Herbert von Karajan as a sort of a preparation for this project," Dornhelm admitted. "I looked at all the operas, music productions, all his mistakes, at him talking at the end of his life about why he did what, and why he regrets he has done this or that."

It proved to be a very valuable learning experience. Filming opera is an exercise of working against limits.

"Its like fighting in a boxing ring with one hand tied behind your back," Dornhelm admitted, shaking his head. "The soundtrack has been stolen from me by Puccini; I can’t change the rhythm or the dialogue." he said looking at us with his penetrating blue eyes that seem to see through you.

"I am bound to the score," he said. He lead us into the nearby studio Buffet. Dornhelm had experimented for hours with the sounds of feet on stone or wood, doors slamming, windows closing and other percussion, but would often find they didn’t work and removed them. In the end, the goal is to bring life to the sequence and give it a three dimensional acoustic play without destroying the pace of the unfolding opera scenario or the intentions of the composer.

"Most of the score is untouched, with only very minor cutting," he said. It is ultimately "an opera film" with a running time of 105 minutes, almost the same length as the opera itself.

Dornhelm’s La Boheme will also have a place in history as a document of the work of two of the most respected opera singers of this era: soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Rolando Villazon.

Named as "the reigning new diva of the XXI century" the 37-year-old Russian-born and trained Netrebko won the first prize at the 1995 Glinka Vocal Competition in Moscow and joined the Kirov Company in St. Petersburg. She made her  US debut as Lyudmila in Glynka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila at the San Francisco Opera, to rave reviews.

Natrebko first performed as Violeta in Verdi’s La Traviatta with Rolando Villazon as Alfredo in a 2002 Bavarian State Opera production. Since then they have been inseparable partners on the stage. The 36-year-old Villazon was born in Mexico City, Mexico and has charmed audiences in the leading theaters of the World including: Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, the Berlin State Opera, the New York City Opera, and the Opera National De Paris.

"In general, I like to discuss the role with the actors and then give them as much freedom and reassurance as they need to be good," Robert Dornhelm said. He is sure that screaming at actors or being tough produces opposite results. Instead, nurturing, helping and making them feel they are protected is the right approach. "I talk with them before we enter this journey, so they know my taste." He made it clear that if he tells them they can do a certain thing better, they shouldn’t take this as an offence, but instead try to improve themselves and do what he knows they are capable of doing.

"Usually, I am in very good terms with actors," he said sounding happy. Netrebko and Villazon were not an exception, instead, "with them I had zero problems, both are wonderful collaborators and the interaction between them was sensational one inspired another" director admitted. Since he is not a singing coach he had to totally rely on the actors. Dornhelm admitted that he wishes all the real actors to be as disciplined, fun, playful, talented, inspired, and simply the joy to work with as Netrebko and Villazon are.  After several days of filming Dornhelm showed them the recorded footage, which he rarely does. ‘Many actors get influenced by what they see in a wrong way, look at my ‘double chin’ and other similar comments are made,’ he continued ‘making an emphasis on their looks.’

In their case it was different. ‘Netrebko and Villazon, being real professionals, are very understanding.’ Dornhelm said.

"Oh, look at my big tummy," joked Netrebko, who was 3 months pregnant when filming began. The only complication was that she wasn’t good at playback, where she would have to repeat the performance of a scene – ever gesture, facial expression and movement of her mouth – exactly the way it would have been done during the recording, to fit with her own dubbed voice.

"She just doesn’t like to repeat herself," Dornhelm said, "she is always reaching  for something new." With a few more takes, however, everything was fixed.

Playback is unavoidable in opera, however.  While the singers had been able to set aside and entire month for the filming, it is not possible to repeat a live performance more that once or twice at a session, without risking fatigue and damage to the voice. Opera singers can’t sing at performance level more than a few hours a day especially so that when there is an average of six to ten takes to get a scene just right, a recorded performance becomes essential. Without it, filming would have taken three times as long.  But there were also plenty of exceptions.

"They are both singing live in the film quite a bit," Dornhelm confirmed. "We did just enough to make it feel like a live performance." They also used some cinematic devices – movie magic – to add power and maintain the feeling of a live action.  In the closing scene, when Mimi is dying, Netrebko sings a long passage without moving her lips, and then suddenly, at the point of maximum emotion, she moves her lips again. ‘It has a very strong dramatic effect,’ he explained.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in filming opera is the translation of the medium, of taking a work of music theater conceived for the stage and making it work convincingly as film, which is both more intimate, and also more wide open, playing out on the landscape of real life.

"In the end, this is opera; people don’t talk they sing," he explained. "So all I did was close the door to the room where the audience sits, went onto the opera stage and joined the action. This way, I was able to tell the story from each actor’s point of view, not from the camera or the audience which looks into the stage." When he did this, he said, "the stage simply didn’t exist."

"In some scenes I can leave the room and then come back – and just leave the door open," Dornhelm said. "Because the medium allows me."

What film loses, though, is the tension between the performers and a live audience is missing. "Yes," he agreed. "You have to make up the difference of the loss by bringing in some wizardry." He reached for a glass of mineral water his assistant just poured. Then he smiled.

Back in the screening room, work on the sound effects continued. In this scene, the poet Alfredo and his friend Marcello the painter were entering the town gate in lively conversation – sung of course – and entered an open square. As he walked, Alfredo balanced along the cobblestone curb, arms outstretched like a tight-rope walker, and with a hop-skip, banked around a turn past the bakers cart before disappearing around a corner. The issue was the timing of the shoes on stone.

"If you hear one, you have to hear the next after it," Dornhelm said.

They ran the scene, stopped, and ran it again with out the singing. Adjusted something, and tried it again.

"It functions completely differently with the music," said the technician in wonderment. "It even looks completely different."

"Yes," said Dornhelm. "It’s almost like tap dancing."

The great advantage of the opera is that it’s live, that it’s happening while you’re watching it. The mystery of the cinema, Dornhelm had said, is that you have the guarantee that it’s going to be right. You have the benefit of enjoying what it is meant to be. So it is a chosen way to tell the story, as you can always redo whatever you don’t like.

And by opening out of the story, by getting inside it and breaking down more and more walls, you participate with the people in the story and become one of the characters.

In the closing days of April, the film was nearly done. He was waiting for some visual effects to be added, and hoped to wrap up in three weeks. La Boheme will be released in the fall and premiered on the Venice Festival for the 150th birthday of Puccini.

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