Operas and musicals typically start with an overture, a medley of the melodies to come.
In addition to allowing the theatergoers to find their seats and settle in for the show, a musical overture serves several purposes.
- It plants themes in the ears of the audience, so that the melodies will be more quickly discerned when they are sung within the context of the show.
- It establishes the show’s emotional and dramatic range and thereby helps the audience clear out the requisite mental space.
A similar approach shows up in literature and film.
Citizen Kane begins with the death of the title character, Charles Foster Kane. But this is immediately followed by a newsreel (3:33-13:57) that documents the highlights of Kane’s life. Those familiar with the movie will note that this newsreel effectively sketches out many of the themes that the film then proceeds to explore in greater detail. The audience is thus familiar with many of the faces and landscapes, and the viewers’ minds are prepared for the film’s scope and tone.
None of this gives away the central story, which is about Kane’s private life, not the public one captured in the newsreel. By presenting the material in the form of a newsreel (cleverly shown to be flapping off of the projector reel at the end of the scene), the film suggests to the audience that the known facts of Kane’s life are the stuff of manufactured legend. The panorama thus sketches in the story of Kane’s life in order to ask, “What don’t we know?”
Thank you for reading.