When Opera Meets Tinseltown

Email a Friend

A couple of weeks ago, we examined opera on television, listing the 10 greatest moments that the latter referenced the former. And with the EPIX Movie Free-for-All festival screening Norman Jewison's 1987 masterpiece, Moonstruck, in Coney Island next Monday, we're priming our popcorn for a jump to the silver screen.

When it comes to Tinseltown's love affair with opera, however, 10 just isn't enough. In fact, the 15 occurrences assembled below aren't even adequate. Some of my personal favorites—Susan Graham singing "J'ai perdu mon Eurydice" in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, the use of Cosí fan tutte in the couple-swapping Closer, Fellini's tenor showdown in the boiler room of a ship in È la nave va—are all on the proverbial cutting room floor. Other truly sublime moments, like the whole Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy Turvy, were backburnered for more prominent cases of composer flicks (which in and of itself could constitute a Top 10 list). And actual opera films like The Tales of Hoffmann and The Mikado fell victim to similar technicalities that could provide fodder for future lists.

But some are just plain overlooked. Which is why we're opening up the comments for you all to argue with me to your heart's content and make passionate cases for your favorite opera moments on film. Make it fun. What would be on your top 15 list? Leave them below.

15. Faust, 1994 (Faust)

Czech director Jan Svankmajer examines all facets of the Faust legend in his surrealist film set in modern-day Prague that runs the gamut through puppetry, claymation and live actors (primarily through the late, great Peter Cepek—this was his final film—as the title character). Svankmajer fleetingly touches on Gounod's opera of the same name with the first act chorus used in a surrealist field scene featuring wheat-thrashing and soup-slurping ballerinas. It makes even the regie-est of the Komische Oper's productions look like Zeffirellian traditionalism, but it fits in with the mind warp that is the original myth.


14. Quantum of Solace, 2008 (Tosca)

In another life, Tosca could have made for a (ahem) killer Bond girl. For the most recent James Bond film, Ian Fleming's hero ends up at the Bregenz Festival's dramatically ocular production of Tosca. Standing in the wings while the "Te Deum" reaches a fever point, Bond taps into a Quantum conference during the performance. As the organization's members are all speaking into earpieces, Bond interjects ("Can I offer an opinion? I really think you people should find a better place to meet.") and catches the members as many, realizing their cover has been blown, leave. One, however, remains, turns to his companion and quips, "I guess Tosca isn't for everyone."

13. Aria, 1987 (Les Boréades, Die tote Stadt, Pagliacci, Armide, Louise, Tristan und Isolde, Un ballo in maschera, Turandot, La forza del destino, Rigoletto)

Think of Aria—a collective of 10 films by 10 different directors (including Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Goddard) based on 10 operas—as an adult version of Fantasia, and you're on the right track. At times it seems as if Puccini has gone on poppers, Verdi on Vicodin, but there are some striking moments of beauty and style—Goddard's NSFW take on Gluck's Armide, Altman's imagining of Les Boréades, Bruce Beresford's nostalgic trip through "Marietta's Lied" in Die tote Stadt and Derek Jarman's wistful ode to Louise all stand out. There are also some familiar faces, including Elizabeth Hurley, Tilda Swinton, Bridget Fonda (in her first film role) and, for devotees of PBS's French in Action, Valérie Allain.

12. The Departed, 2006 (Lucia di Lammermoor)

Here's where I know the arguments are going to start, but I stand by my guns here: The Departed makes far better use of Donizetti's highlands tragedy than The Fifth Element (which is not on this list). Jack Nicholson is a character doppelganger for Enrico, the head of a clan that is slowly losing its power and quarreling with the law and clinging to each shred of power with a frenzied desperation. We get a significant taste for this in a small scene that sees Nicholson in an opera box with two…companions, watching the "Sextet" from Lucia—it later underscores a less wholesome scene involving a handful of cocaine and comes back as Nicholson's ringtone.

11. Citizen Kane, 1941 (The Barber of Seville, Salammbo)

As if Orson Welles's thinly-veiled William Randolph Hearst biopic wasn't operatic enough, there is the element of Kane's mistress, Susan Alexander. Based on the real-life soprano Sibyl Sanderson, for whom Massenet's Thaïs was written and the would-be wife of Hearst, Alexander differs in that she has no aspirations to a career in opera. Kane, however, forces her into it, driving her to the brink of suicide, with a work called Salammbo. That Salammbo, written by Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann (who would later write his own opera based on Wuthering Heights), sounds like a lost Massenet score is no coincidence: Welles originally wanted to use Thaïs, but at the time could not acquire the rights.

10. Love and Death, 1975 (The Magic Flute)

Woody Allen, who turned down an opportunity to direct a short film in Aria, has a longstanding cinematic connection to opera. Some great moments include the use of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly in Hannah and Her Sisters and the Verdian gamut in his more recent film Match Point. Perhaps his most adroit, albeit brief, reference to Mozart's Die Zauberflöte in a score otherwise dominated by Prokofiev. On furlough, Allen's "militant coward" character Boris goes to the opera in St. Petersburg and engages in a scandalous, slapstick, silent flirtation with a wealthy countess. What makes the connection stronger, however, is how Boris directly relates to the challenge-averse Papageno. And who can resist that sword-wielding?

9. Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources, 1986 (La forza del destino)

The best laid plans compete with force majeure in Claude Berri's duology starring Gérard Depardieu: Depardieu's hunchback character at one point curses God for cursing him with a deformity that leads to his provincial village distrusting him; his scheming neighbors tamper with a hidden spring to break his profitable farm in order to buy the land; his daughter, Manon (named for Lescaut, a role Florette's opera-singing wife treasured) exacts her own revenge on the town and there's a twist at the end worthy of Il Trovatore. So it's only appropriate that the dominant theme in both of these films be the Overture to Verdi's La forza del destino, carrying the films from inception to resolution and adding to the cyclical nature of the works.

8. Apocalypse Now, 1979 (Die Walküre)

Voted the most iconic scene in cinema by Empire Magazine, the helicopter attack scene in Coppola's Vietnam-set Heart of Darkness adaptation is certainly the best cinematic use of Wagner's ubiquitous "Ride of the Valkyries." Like the central conflict between Wotan and his daughter Brünnhilde, and like the life and political views of Wagner himself, Apocalypse Now examines the moral ambiguity of heroism through the extraordinarily controversial and ambiguous conflict in Vietnam. The effect is instantaneously galvanizing and horrifying, much like the rest of the movie.

7. The Great Caruso, 1951 (Aida, Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, La Gioconda, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Il Trovatore, Lucia di Lammermoor, Pagliacci, Martha)

Wholly inaccurate as far as the Caruso life story goes, The Great Caruso is nevertheless a fantastic collection of Mario Lanza at his vocal height singing some of opera's greatest hits including "La donna è mobile," "Celeste Aida" and "M'appari." Most touching, however, is a scene once again incorporating the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor: As an anxious Caruso performs onstage, his wife is in labor. At this height of the opera, the word is out that Caruso has a daughter, and as the Sextet plays out, the word goes from stagehands to Caruso to cast to prompter to orchestra to the front row to the boxes to the ardent fans in the cheap seats and standing room. From a personal standpoint, I still get misty watching this heartwarming schmaltz.

6. Raging Bull, 1980 (Cavalleria Rusticana)

Martin Scorsese's love of setting beautiful, lyrical opera moments against gritty and gruesome film sequences didn't start with The Departed, as evidenced by his probing character study, Raging Bull. He uses Cavalleria Rusticana's lush intermezzo against the more violent moments of Jake LaMotta's animalistic outbursts in and out of the ring. Other Mascagni works factor into the score—selections from both Silvano and Gugliemo Ratcliff—but, like Barber's Adagio for Strings in Platoon, it's the Cavalleria clip that forever weds its composer's most famous opera to one of Scorsese's most lauded works. 

5. Fatal Attraction, 1987 (Madama Butterfly)

The parallels between Fatal Attraction and Madama Butterfly—an opera Glenn Close's character in the film references—occupy two sides of the same coin: In the latter, a geisha marries an American naval officer, naïve to the fact that he believes this to be the 19th-century version of a one night stand. When he later marries an American bride and returns to Nagasaki to reclaim his son from Cio-Cio San, things get complicated. The one-night stand in Fatal Attraction occurs when the Pinkerton character (played by Michael Douglas) is already married and a parent, making Glenn Close, like Kate, the other woman and Douglas's character makes it perfectly clear that he wants no strings attached. But when Close's Puccini-loving character develops a Cio-Cio-San–like obsession with her one-time lover, well, things get complicated.

4. A Night at the Opera, 1935 (Il Trovatore)

Has the total and utter disruption of an opera performance ever been so downright uproarious as this, the first Marx Brothers movie for MGM? Setting aside the grand musical number "Cosi-Cosa," which highlights Chico's piano prowess and Harpo's skills on the harp, the use of the highbrow Il Trovatore as the backdrop for the lowbrow antics of the brothers as they take their revenge on an impresario is pure, madcap joy. The overture is sabotaged with an interlude of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," Groucho says of Azucena, "How would you like to feel the way she looks?", and all hell breaks out during "Di quella pira." And you thought Peter Gelb had problems.

3. Philadelphia, 1993 (Andrea Chénier)

If, like me, the "Sextet" scene from The Great Caruso makes you misty, then the scene in Philadelphia in which Tom Hanks plays Maria Callas's recording of "La mamma morta" for Denzel Washington in Philadelphia will make you openly weep. Playing an out lawyer with AIDS at a time when both subjects were still tetchy in popular culture (especially the latter), Hanks's character, Andrew Beckett, indulges in La Divina's rendition of this Andrea Chénier standard for legal colleague Washington. Though not a musician, Beckett's description of this aria is one of the most simple and moving synopses, on and off the silver screen. Adding to the headiness is a dizzying cinematography that catapults you into the heart of Giordano's French Revolution opus.

2. Moonstruck, 1987 (La bohème)

I think there are two camps when it comes to life-imitates-art films that involve a first time at the opera: The Moonstrucks and the Pretty Womans. I firmly fall into the former camp, and those of you in the latter can debate and hate me all you want for it, but nothing beats the moment in which Nicolas Cage kisses Cher's hand during a performance of Mimi's farewell aria in La bohème. Yet the power of Puccini in this film isn't just in the Met scene. In fact, the more moving moments of opera come in the mundane day-to-day life of Nicolas Cage's one-handed, tortured character as he spins an LP of the opera and Cher's equally lifeless routine as a young widow. Scenes like the Momus introduction underscore her reanimation thanks to a passionate love-at-first-fight with Cage.

1. Amadeus, 1984 (The Abduction from the Seraglio, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte)

As Milos Forman said of his Oscar-winning film based on Peter Shaffer's play and the unsubstantiated rumor that composer Antonio Salieri murdered his rival Mozart, the music is the third character. Opera transcends soundtrack and scene-setting here and becomes the whole raison d'etre of the film, fueled by Peter Shaffer's exquisite descriptions of Mozart's music, spoken by the eloquent F. Murray Abraham. The historical accuracy of the productions themselves is also testament to the love that went into this movie: Don Giovanni is shot in the same theater in Prague where it had its premiere and the costumes are based off of original sketches. And while it's hard to name a favorite opera occurrence in the film, the transition from Mozart's mother-in-law berating him to the Queen of the Night's mile-high coloratura (sung by June Anderson) is a pretty strong contender.