Somewhere between silent films and films produced today, the ability to actually engage with a film was lost. Film audiences today expect so much auditory stimulation that one can almost call the modern film experience an onslaught of dialogue, music, and sound effects, with the images moving on the screen playing a secondary role. As a result of this obsession with sound, silent films have become an archaic product.
I will agree that silent films are hard to watch, and I think that this is because they only stimulate one sense: sight. Paying attention to anything that only stimulates one sense for a long period of time is difficult. Watching a silent film usually leaves me fidgeting in my chair, desperately trying to be cultured and appreciate the film, but still somehow counting down the seconds until it ends. However, I am thrilled to report that this was not the case when I went to view the ESO’s presentation of The Phantom of the Opera on Thursday night.
The symphony, alongside conductor William Eddins, organist Dennis James and soloist Whitney-Leigh Sloan, provided the musical score to accompany a screening of the otherwise-silent film The Phantom of the Opera. At first, I was not entirely sure how the idea was going to play out, but once it began, I realized how excellent the concept was. The music was a character in itself. Sometimes the music was hardly noticeable, fading into the background to let the images speak for themselves, and sometimes the music was the star, cuing the audience to laugh, cry, or be frightened.
On a slightly negative note, there were a few instances throughout the performance where the timing of the orchestra was slightly off from what was happening on screen, but these were minor blips and did not take away from the overall experience too much. I also found that the staging left something to be desired for two main reasons. The soloist, who sang twice, was very hard to hear because she had her back to the audience. As well, because of the way the organ was arranged on the stage, the audience could see the organist’s hands moving, which I found to be very distracting.
That being said, the rest of the performance was spot-on. I had two favorite moments of the performance in particular. First, when Christine Daae unmasks the Phantom in his lair, Christine’s horror at his appearance and the Phantom’s embarrassment and heartbreak when she refuses his love were accompanied. The overall effect broke my heart; the violins rose to the forefront, creating a heart-rending sound during which you truly feel sorry for the Phantom. Secondly, during the very climactic ending, when the villagers are trying to save Christine Daae and catch the Phantom, the organ was the most badass orchestral thing I have ever heard. The music resounding throughout the Winspear was almost deafening and I loved every second of it; the piece was an excellent way to wrap up the performance.
All in all, the evening was a roller coaster of emotions that I would not have otherwise experienced had I been just watching the same film silently. The music allowed me to engage with the film, something that I always struggle with when viewing silent films, but it did so without ever taking away from the images themselves. The performance had the effect of reviving the glory of the silent film era; ESO simply repackaged the silent film for the modern audience without stripping the film of its original charm.