Review | Jennifer Fleeger – Sounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz

Sounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz. By Jennifer Fleeger. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014 [x, 220 p. ISBN: 9780199366484 (hardcover), $115; ISBN: 9780199366491 (paperback), $35.95; varies (ebook).]

When the major Hollywood studios began the transition to synchronized sound in the latter part of the 1920s, they were forced to deal with the new possibilities raised by the presence of prerecorded music and voices. Film scholar Jennifer Fleeger’s book Sounding American: Hollywood, Opera, and Jazz looks at how studios relied on opera, jazz, and the hybrid “jazz-opera” in their efforts to create an idealized American voice. Through close readings of short films and their accompanying promotional material, Fleeger unpacks the gendered and racialized ideologies that went into crafting this supposedly ideal voice.  Ultimately, Fleeger argues that opera and jazz were such essential components of early sound film that the classical Hollywood score is best understood as an illustrated jazz-opera.

The introduction and first chapter of the book lay out the distinct and often complementary roles that jazz and opera played in American popular culture during this period. Fleeger begins by discussing the concept of the “jazz-opera,” a hybrid genre first suggested by music critics who hoped the incorporation of jazz’s musical language into the structure and setting of an elite European opera culture would serve as America’s distinct contribution to the Western classical tradition. Although we often think of opera and jazz as occupying entirely distinct cultural spheres, Fleeger argues that both of these genres were cornerstones of popular entertainment during the conversion era. Fleeger expands on these ideas in the first chapter, which explores how Hollywood studios used jazz and opera to characterize their new sound technologies as well as the ways in which these genres interacted on film to evoke the jazz-opera. 

The second and third chapters take a close look at opera and jazz respectively. The second chapter draws on work by Laura Mulvey and Kaja Silverman to look at why operatic film shorts were dominated by the solo tenor voices and the particular gendered anxieties that led Hollywood studios to silence the female voice. Fleeger argues that the tenor was framed as a natural body tainted by vocal training, thus “channeling audience fascination with the castrato through a historical lineage” (77). Faster editing characterized the soprano voice as artificial, meaning that when sopranos were given solos in early opera shorts, they had to “remain content to imitate [the pain of the castrato]” (77). The third chapter then turns to the complex play of racial and gendered signification in early jazz shorts. Fleeger observes that the term “jazz” at the time essentially referred to any fast-paced popular song, a loose definition that allowed studios to frame jazz in whatever way they found most useful. For example, Warner Bros. relied heavily on the filmic presence of the blackface performer Al Jolson to evoke both jazz and an imagined nostalgia for the Antebellum plantation. Fleeger looks at moments when the polished Hollywood short collides with “authentic” black source material, allowing “visions of an alternative history” to slip into the studio’s dominant narrative—a phenomena Fleeger christens the “jazz image.”

The final chapter of Sounding American shifts its focus to the 1930s in order to understand the roles played by jazz and opera in the classical Hollywood soundtrack. Fleeger argues against the conventional view of the classical Hollywood film score as a unified whole, along the lines of the Romantic symphony, suggesting instead that soundtracks from this era are best understood as jazz-operas that require an engaged audience to give coherence to an inherently fragmented musical text. Fleeger suggests that this fragmentation stems in part from the fact that classical Hollywood scores are riddled with musical quotations that audiences would have recognized. While I find this argument convincing in many respects, it would be strengthened by a look at how these references operated in practice. Instead, Fleeger argues that the operatic leitmotif makes up the “large form” of the film score, while the jazz image constitutes its “small form.” Thus, the evocation of opera gives the soundtrack the appearance of coherence and complexity while the presence of jazz imbues the prerecorded score with a sense of “liveness” it otherwise lacks.

Sounding American presents a dizzying array of ideas in every chapter, and the conclusions Fleeger draws are often very interesting. Some areas of the book, however, would benefit from some additional contextual material. For example, Fleeger looks at the history of traveling opera companies and early phonograph records to support the idea that the aria became the America’s operatic vernacular, but clearly this was not every American’s understanding of opera in the nineteenth century. As Fleeger points out, there were many vocal music critics who campaigned for a more serious, “high-culture” appreciation of complete operatic performances in the late nineteenth-century and who clearly would not have approved of the decontextualized aria as opera’s key representative. As a result, when Fleeger writes about the aria’s ability to represent a distinctly American operatic voice, it is unclear exactly which “Americans” this voice was supposed to be speaking to and for. That is not to say that Fleeger’s reading of the aria’s place in popular culture at the time is inaccurate. Rather, I wish to point out that this conception of the aria was the result of a complex negotiation between audiences, artists, and later purveyors of media such as records and film, and that this discussion would benefit by being more carefully situated within this web. 

In spite of this, Sounding American still offers a valuable look at the important role played by jazz and opera in early sound film and the loaded meanings that these genres carried for Hollywood studios. It serves as an important reminder that film scores must be studied not only in terms of their internal musical logic but also in terms of their engagement with audiences in specific times and places. Additionally, Fleeger provides fascinating discussions of a great deal of understudied short films and often finds illuminating examples of the interaction between jazz and opera in this new, technologically mediated space. The book provides some interesting insights for film scholars and for anyone interested in the different ways people have attempted to craft a specifically “American” musical language.

By Thomas Hanslowe