"Can’t Help Singing": The "Modern" Opera Diva in Hollywood Film, 1930–1950


Following the release of Columbia Pictures’ surprise smash hit, "One Night of Love" (1934), major Hollywood studios sought to cash in on the public’s burgeoning interest in films featuring opera singers. For a brief period thereafter, renowned Metropolitan Opera artists such as Grace Moore and Lily Pons fared well at the box office, bringing “elite” musical culture to general audiences for a relatively inexpensive price. By the 1940s, however, the studios began grooming their own operatic actresses instead of transplanting celebrities from the stage. Stars such as Deanna Durbin, Kathryn Grayson, and Jane Powell thereby became ambassadors of opera from the highly commercial studio lot. My dissertation traces the shifts in film production and marketing of operatic singers in association with the rise of such cultural phenomena as the music-appreciation movement, all contextualized within the changing social and political landscapes of the United States spanning the Great Depression to the Cold War. Drawing on a variety of methodologies—including, among others, archival research, film analysis, feminist criticisms, and social theory—I argue that Hollywood framed opera as less of a European theatrical art performed in elite venues and more of a democratic, albeit still white, musical tradition that could be sung by talented individuals in any location. This reconfiguration began in the 1930s, when professional opera divas first created a market for musical films featuring opera-singer narratives and fully staged opera excerpts. By the end of the decade, Hollywood established a new operatic ideal for the cinema, casting girl-next-door sweethearts as talented ingénues who sang in domestic settings.Doctor of Philosoph

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