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King Kong at the opera

King Kong never made it to the opera. I’m not advocating that he should have, but he came closer to it than you might think. Let’s face it: it’s not like he wasn’t qualified. It’s not such a big leap from giant gorilla that falls in love with a beautiful woman to magic ring protected by mermaids; and Skull Island isn’t that far from a castle in the sky reachable only by crossing a rainbow. Call it a case of poor timing on the gorilla’s part. After all, if Anna Nicole Smith and Jerry Springer can get their own operas, you can’t honestly say that anything is off limits.


Around 1900 opera was arguably at its peak. Like him or hate him—and there are many reasons to do both—Richard Wagner pushed the boundaries of opera to its breaking point in order to accommodate his fantastical stage works. (If you didn’t place the aforementioned references to mermaids and rainbow bridges, and if you have roughly twenty hours to spare, check out his four-opera extravaganza commonly known as the Ring Cycle.)


By contrast, film was just getting started. Initially technology only allowed for the silent variety. Often a local pianist, organist or a small orchestra was employed to accompany in a largely improvisatory style, some would say to cover up the awful racket the projector made. The “talkies” came out with little bits of music here and there, but usually just the main title and the credits.


And then in 1933, along came King Kong. Max Steiner, an Austrian living in Hollywood, was hired to create the first real soundtrack for the film. Steiner was a trained conductor and composer who had studied with two of classical music’s titans of the era, Gustav Mahler and Johannes Brahms. Like nearly every musician working at this time, he was greatly influenced by the operas of Wagner. Steiner adopted Wagner’s technique of attaching recognizable musical material to certain characters and themes. The little three-note motive that’s attached early on to the helpless damsel in distress, for example, would be heard every time she appeared on screen. This technique helped to give the film a sense of cohesiveness and continuity.


Not much has changed in film scoring in nearly one hundred years. Composers provide snippets of a theme that are forever engrained in our minds as belonging to certain characters. Think of Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and of course, James Bond. Just a few instantly recognizable notes unite the twenty-four Bond films now in circulation stretching all the way back to 1962. That is undeniably part of the magic of movies, and we should tip our caps to none other than Richard Wagner for it.


Steiner said, “If Wagner had lived in this century, he would have been the number one film composer.” Perhaps luckily, Wagner wasn’t around to share his thoughts on the likes of King Kong.

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© 2020 by GORDON GERRARD. Photos by Brent Calis and Ryan Stewart.