Warped Singing: Opera from Cinema to YouTube

This post is written by network participant Dr. Carlo Cenciarelli.

In view of the network’s interrogation of the significance of twenty-first-century representations of ‘classical’ music, what should we make of this?

Uploaded in 2010, the video shows two girls in their teens, in front of their laptop’s webcam, pretending to be singing to a recording of the ‘Brindisi’ from Verdi’s La traviata. The image is distorted by the effects of Photo Booth, a software available on Macintosh computers of the time. The girls introduce themselves to their imagined audience and, with their bodies warped by digital effects, start their performance. They try to lip-sync a few words, they bounce around the camera in time with the waltz, make funny faces and laugh at the way the digital effects hunch their backs and twist their features. At one point they comment on the music: ‘God knows why we chose this’, one of them yells. Displaying a distinctly domestic performance, including opera for no obvious reason, using standard consumer technology, and enjoying very limited circulation, the clip is an example of the most transitory kind of YouTube material. It makes no particular claims in terms of aesthetic value, and has an unstable ontological status and uncertain materiality (will it still be online by the time you read this blog?).

Indeed, it would be tempting to brush off the video as an inconsequential cultural object, an accidental, inconspicuous instance in La Traviata’s rich and complex on-screen life, if it wasn’t that this kind of cultural detritus is characteristic of YouTube’s origins as an ‘aggregator of ephemeral media’ and that this kind of detritus still provides much of that media outlet’s critical mass. Aside from sponsored videos and professionally created media content, ‘classical’ music is found online in a plethora of amateur creations with low production values and relatively limited visibility. Opera’s new media afterlife breaks into snippets of ambiguous aesthetic, cultural, and legal status: popular arias transcoded from old VHS recordings and TV broadcasts of live performances; amateur tenors, audio recordings of famous divas accompanied by photo slides, synthesiser versions of instrumental overtures and, it seems, lip-syncing teenagers. If we want to understand ‘classical’ music’s place in twenty-first-century visual culture, we also have to start making sense of this kind of material.

My presentation in Exeter will begin to unpick some of the complexities of dealing with this seemingly intractable material, outlining two logics underpinning the music’s presence in this amateur video. One will pertain to the way in which film franchises can provide a link between classical music and unlikely consumers. The second one consists in the way in which operatic singing lends itself to YouTube’s recombinatory practices and to particular forms of automediacy.

Carlo Cenciarelli is a lecturer at Cardiff University. His research focuses on music, sound and the moving image, and particularly on the way in which cinema provides a cultural interface for engaging with musical repertoires and audio technologies. His main publications have been on the cinematic afterlife of J. S. Bach and on opera and digital culture, with essays published in edited collections and in journals including Music and Letters, Twentieth-Century Music, Cambridge Opera Journal, and the Journal of the Royal Musical Association. He is currently editing a large volume on the history of cinematic listening (the Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening) and is working on a monograph that explores the relationship between listening cultures inside and outside the movie theatre.