Allie Light and Irving Sharaf’s Oscar-winning In the Shadow of the Stars takes a peek behind the opera house curtain. Not at the stars who draw the crowds and pull the big money, but at the choristers, the ensemble singers who back up the stars and, to be honest, make much of the magic happen in any given show. The film, out on DVD with extra scenes and Sharaf’s Oscar acceptance speech as bonus features, boasts moments of genuine revelation regarding the glory of center stage and the struggles of theater life. It also reveals well the difficulties of the chorister’s job. It falls short, though, in its most important and potentially dramatic area—that of the choristers themselves. The DVD comes with all manner of critical raves splashed across its packaging—Powerful! Moving! Intense! I didn’t find it to be quite so compelling.
Instead of connecting with the choristers, I came away from the film with little more than the sense that a tremendous idea had been wasted. Unless, of course, I went in looking for answers to all the wrong questions: Does one ever aspire to be a chorister? Is the chorus filled with singers who failed to hit the big time? Are the choristers really all jealous of each other? These things are touched on, but few are fully explored. The film doesn’t probe the performers to discover what draws them to their work. It does, however, stress the importance of that job.
A singer walks into the theater in the film’s opening as, in voiceover, she bemoans an apparent lack of respect for her work: “You have to remember the notes… where you’re standing, where you’re blocked, if you’re make up’s on right, that you’re standing in the right place, that you’re singing the right notes, that you haven’t forgotten the words, that you’re acting your character.” The same thing is noted by many of the interviewees. Their job is hard. Was that ever in doubt? The supreme discipline and commitment needed for vocal training, for one thing, begs commitment. Few interviewees here, though, discuss their vocal training, their reasons for becoming singers, their loves and loathes of their profession. Instead, they spend time talking themselves up, making themselves feel better by repeating just how darned imperative they are to La Boheme, and how easily each and every one of them could have made it big had it not been for (usually) other people holding them back.
Watching these interviews is a strange experience. In most cases, the performers are doing what they do best—performing. And so they resist appearing too vulnerable. By recording their efforts at reinforcing their own importance, the film, at times anyway, appears to be making fun of them. At one point, for instance, a singer (identified by a high school yearbook photo as Sigmund Seigel—no one in the this film is named) discusses his brief solo part in L’Africaine. He talks about the accomplishment and we see it happen—he’s on the stage and off again in a flash. Are we supposed to feel bad for the guy, or gain amusement from his statement that this 10 seconds of stage time is the highlight of his “big year”?
This thin line between empathy and disparagement occurs again when the stunning soprano in the red dress talks about a failed audition for a big time international opera company. She blames her husband for the failure, relating his desire for her to change her audition piece at the last minute to a song she’s aware she can’t adequately sing. Everything falls apart and following this, her husband breaks up with her and ponders whether he should just “throw her in the river”. A re-enactment of the moment is shown as the singer talks—two people on a bridge reflected in water pointing exaggeratedly at each other. The moment is gut wrenching, and the film’s vaudevillian re-enactment of it is dreadfully confusing.
It continues. The first interviewee sums up the chorister’s job: “You have to become a part of a unit, and, at the same time, maintain an individual identity. You have to learn to look like everyone else, but have something special that singles you out.” This is all very well until he follows it up with a statement about how it’s “far easier to be a soloist” than a chorister because “you stand there by yourself and you only have one thing to do”. Quite a loaded statement, but is the guy speaking some furtive opera truth or is he simply yet another misguided wannabe attempting and failing to explain away his lack of star status by downplaying its importance? Whatever the case, and whether he means to or not, he comes of sounding jealous and bratty.
Perhaps the worst of these moments occurs during a roundtable with several choristers discussing their opera love. A chorister tells a joke: “How many sopranos does it takes to sing a high C? Seven, one to sing it and six to say they could have done it better.” Everyone laughs. Funny, but borderline tragic when you think the entire film to this point has been filled with choristers echoing that very sentiment and with complete sincerity. The soloist has the easy job? My husband made me fail? In other words—it’s not my fault I’m not Dame Kiri.
Still, there’s an upside. Some of the interviewees are just radiant. Tom and Ed (identified on the DVDs special features menu) are a joy to watch. Tom’s the charismatic chorister and Ed’s his boyfriend and biggest fan—they discuss their relationship and the difficulties of succeeding at it with such busy lifestyles. During this, Tom’s smile rarely falters—he loves what he does and he loves Ed and that, it appears, is all the matters. He, frankly, needs his own documentary (the DVD includes a new interview with Tom and Ed following their wedding that demonstrates again how cool they are to watch). Daniel Becker (again identified in the features menu) is fascinating man, too. As is Sigmund Speigel, the red-dress soprano, and the singer whose chance at stardom was foiled by an opera house fire.
The need to fit in so many stories in around these more compelling ones, though, lets the film down. Stories come and go so quickly that hardly anything resonates. Focus is lacking to the point that its indecipherable as to what the film is trying to say about these people. It’s best feature? The live show scenes from Macbeth, La Boheme, Il Trovatore and other productions. Everything that makes opera so compelling is on display in these moments—its grand storytelling, majestic voices, intricate choreography and styling. It’s disappointing, then, that despite some shining moments, In the Shadow of the Stars misses its chance at illuminating opera’s people the same way.