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The Making of The Song of the Lark

Marian Rees and Anne Hopkins, executive producers of The Song of the Lark, and Dorothea Petrie, producer, discuss their creative process and their concerns and efforts in realizing the fulfillment of Willa Cather's vision.

Anne Hopkins:
A primary challenge in interpreting this story was to introduce Cather's vision to the realities of making a film and to solve practical problems. This story needed some visual expansiveness because it is partially the environment that transforms Thea. The challenge was to heighten the drama of the exchanges between people.

We started with a scope that was out of proportion to a two-hour movie. There were scenes that advanced the plot, but they didn't enrich the relationships or create challenges. That was the work of subsequent drafts. Three drafts and a polish are typical for script development.

Marian Rees:
The first goal of a successful scene is to develop the story line. The second important goal is to create the encounter or the surprise between people. We may know what's going to happen, but we would be enriched if we didn't know how it's going to happen. At the same time, we have to define more completely the nature of the characters themselves. In this story, Thea's three teachers should each have a distinct persona. If they were interchangeable, we could cast the same actor in all three roles.

Within the production process, there is a panoply of things that have to occur concurrently. Casting goes on while we set the locations. The budget is defined to meet our finite dollars; we determine the rest of the crew. In this case, the composer was most essential since there is a great deal of music that has to be prerecorded. Our perspective on the music was that it had to be appropriate to Cather's sense of a burgeoning opera singer, and at the same time, the music could not be so obscure that people wouldn't relate to it.

Shooting the vocal is more difficult than the keyboards because it's generally on camera. You can cheat a camera angle for a pianist, but a vocalist has to be full in the face.

The vocal also requires body language. The body becomes its own instrument, and so the demeanor and the whole expression of the body is an acting challenge.

Dorothea Petrie:
Willa Cather wrote that she was not interested in the period of time after somebody became a great diva or a great star; she was interested in the struggle to become a great musician or a great actor or a great anything. The struggle was what interested her.

Thea didn't know what she was becoming because she was stuck in a little town, so she made herself be something better. This was Willa Cather's partially autobiographical story. Cather was a journalist until a publisher told her that talent was really writing. She listened to that and worked hard. Her first novel was not particularly successful, and she had to write short stories to earn money.

Thea had trained as a pianist, but her piano teacher told her she had been going in the wrong direction, that she had a natural, great voice. This, for Thea, was like saying, "You can't do what you've set out to do."

We tried to reach for at least one key line of dialogue that's the insight to each scene. For instance, Harsanyi tells Thea her piano playing will never be good enough but that she has a voice; that's a way to externalize an inner conflict.

The antagonist in this story is Thea in the context of her talent. If we convey for the audience what Thea's journey is, they should identify with her more than if there were an artificial traditional antagonist.

Drama is conflict. The conflict in Thea begins to progress through having to make decisions, and this provides the traditional antagonist. It's the conflict that comes from within her as she seeks out those resolutions.

Cather provided an abundance of characters who allow for Thea's exchange, so her own point of view begins to have definition through these characters.

For more on the production of The Song of the Lark, visit the American Collection's Educator's Web site.

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