As a curtain-raiser for its weekend "Opera on Film" series, commencing March 14, the Monica 4-Plex is presenting Irving Saraf and Allie Light's Oscar-nominated documentary, "In the Shadow of the Stars." Screenings are Saturdays and Sundays at 11:30 a.m. through March.
A kind of "Chorus Line" for opera singers, it offers an affectionate and engaging look at 11 of the 48 who compose the chorus (which sometimes swells to twice that number) of the San Francisco Opera.
You don't have to be an opera lover to be caught up in this delightful and illuminating film, for it is very easy to identify with these supporting players in the arts. After all, every profession or trade has its stars--and then there's the rest of us. Anyway, for 92 minutes Saraf and Light give these choristers a chance to be stars in their film. There's a hitch, though: The filmmakers follow that lamentable trend in documentary film of not identifying their talking--or in this case, also singing--heads; we learn a couple of the interviewees' names only incidentally.
By and large, the choristers are grateful for their lot: They get to fulfill their need to sing, they get to do it in a major, world-famous company and to live in one of America's most desirable urban areas.
It's not as if they're Rockettes: They're not always doing the same things and some get to sing small parts from time to time.
The trick, as one man says, is to be "part of a unit but remain an individual." Some accept the chorus as their destiny--"I've got a loud voice but it's not quality loud," says one singer--while others, especially the younger choristers, dream of becoming soloists.
Most of the backstage footage is warm and good-natured, revealing much camaraderie, but we're also reminded that all 48 singers are artists as well as choristers, which means that tempers can flare, even if we don't get to witness such scenes. Apparently, the biggest sin is not carrying your share of the vocal load, whispering your way through those passages where you know you won't get a chance to shine, thus saving your voice for your best shots.
The filmmakers cut between glimpses of the opera company in performance and their interviews, a familiar enough device in the documentary form but one that pays an extra dividend here: As the film progresses we can spot those singers with whom we're becoming acquainted, and they become individuals, even stars for the moment, before our very eyes.
Several individuals stand out: Sigmund Seigel, who shows us the now-bricked-up Bronx tenement where he managed to survive rats, muggings (three before the age of 12), a paranoid mother and his own subsequent teen-age breakdown through his love of music; Christine Lundquist, whose big chance to turn solo literally went up in flames when Frankfurt's opera house burned down; and Frederick Matthews, whom we follow to Costa Mesa, where he has landed his first solo in Opera Pacific's "The Barber of Seville."
"In the Shadow of the Stars" (Times-rated Family) comes to its graceful close as we hear over the backstage public address system: "Mr. Matthews to stage left, gentlemen of the chorus to stage right. . . ."
'In the Shadow of the Stars'
A First Run Features presentation. Co-producer-directors-editors Irving Saraf and Allie Light. Cinematographer Michael Chin. Location sound Sara Chin. Re-recording mix: David Parker and Danny Kopelson at the Saul Zaentz Film Center. Running time: 1 hour,33 minutes.
Times-rated Family (suitable for all ages).