The Top 10 Movies that Should Be Operas

Friday, November 11, 2011 - 04:49 PM

Saturday marked the world premiere of Kevin Puts's Silent Night at the Minnesota Opera. Based on the 2005 film Joeux Noel, it's the latest in a string of operas (notably over the last decade) to be based on films, spanning from Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking to Howard Shore's The Fly to Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice.

As mentioned in last week's post on television in opera, the practice is no different from the Florentine Camerata looking to Greek myths, Mozart mining plays, Verdi examining historical accounts or Puccini turning toward novels for operatic inspiration: It's all about finding our contemporary gods and goddesses. Film's connection to opera is almost as old as the genre itself, so why not look at some cinematic gems that should be next in line for the music stage? Our ten picks are below; tell us what movies you think would make for great opera in the comments below.

10. La Strada (1954)
Personally speaking, I’m still waiting on a Fellini-esque La Traviata that serves up Violetta with a side of La Dolce Vita. But one of Fellini’s earlier films, starring Anthony Quinn and the Chaplin-esque Giulietta Masina, with its one foot in the verismo styling of Italian neorealist cinema, is an object study in light and dark, spiritual reassessment and moral reconciliation. The film inspired a musical that opened on Broadway in 1969 that ran for one performance. It won’t be hard to beat that.

9. I Am Love (2009)
This Tilda Swinton vehicle (featuring the actress speaking Italian with a Russian accent) boasted a score comprised entirely of John Adams works, including selections from Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, and takes its original Italian name, Io sono l’amore, from Andrea Chenier’s aria “La mamma morta.” One could go full meta and commission this from Adams himself—with an Italian libretto, of course.

8. Soylent Green (1973)
Howard Shore’s The Fly, an opera based on the cult classic, may have been the first sci-fi film to go opera, but Richard Fleischer’s dystopian cautionary tale about pollution in the year 2022 could give Cronenberg a run for his money. And imagine a bass-baritone like René Pape singing the Charlton Heston role.

7. In Bruges (2008)
It’s the slow reveal in Tony-nominated playwright Martin McDonagh’s tragicomedy about two hit men in hiding that makes the film so remarkable and tense. In the tradition of the twists and turns found in Verdi’s greatest tragedies (that’s not the Duke in the sack, Rigoletto), the gradual unfolding of backstory and unapologetic-yet-artful violence in a sleepy Belgian hamlet would make for a tantalizingly testosterone-laced opus.

6. The Third Man (1949)
Opera meets film noir in this hardboiled Graham Greene story; would that Hitchcock film (and opera) composer Bernard Herrmann never got his hands on this as a potential libretto. Moreover, the setting in post-War Vienna offers all sorts of potential for musical influences in the score, from Mozart to Schoenberg.

5. Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Staging a major explosion could prove challenging for a director. But beyond that, how badly do you want to see Quentin Tarantino have a hand in an opera? The film’s astringent wit and meaty characters would even make up for the absence of Chritoph Waltz on the opera stage (unless one wanted to be really radical and make Colonel Hans Landa a non-singing role in the tradition of Pasha Selim).

4. On the Waterfront (1954)
For a longshoreman’s night at the opera, turn this story of seaside union violence and mob rule (whose original score was penned by Leonard Bernstein) into a one-act set in the key of D as a nod to the film’s reference of playing “deaf and dumb.” Balance the racketeering male chorus with some soft feminine coloratura, mix well with an aria about a woman’s glove, and serve alongside Puccini’s Il Tabarro.  

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
With so many opera composers basing their plots on the theme and variations of boy-meets-girl, the genre can be soul-nourishing yet occasionally repetitive. Where screenwriter Charlie Kaufman broke the mold of his bittersweet 2004 love story, however, was the end of the affair, in which the unlikely lovers have one another erased from their memories. It begs for a probing psychological score worthy of Philip Glass or Nico Muhly.

2. The Lives of Others (2006)
A love story between an actress and her creative boyfriend set against the backdrop of a totalitarian state worked well enough for Puccini’s shabby little shocker, Tosca. The Oscar-winning DDR-set film that came just over 100 years later is equally rife with potential for a searing musical adaptation—it was inspired by the image of a man listening to classical music.

1. The Wicker Man (1973)
Forget the remake with Nicolas Cage, the original 70s flick is a delightfully twisted romp through an isolated British island that still practices ancient Pagan rituals with a deadly outcome. The film’s musicality makes it a natural for operatization, and the ending has to be one of the wildest finales ever to hit the silver screen (spoiler alert).

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Comments [21]

connie nardone from Elmont, NY

I forgot The Quiet Man. What a great scene when he spots the stupendously beautiful Maureen in the fields. How he looks at her. You know he was cooked. As for Excalibur, it had music from Wagner. Evita was also opera. Very nice job done by Madonna. I know some people dislike her but I thought she did a good job. Watch it all the time and even know some of the tunes.

Nov. 26 2011 02:50 PM
Ron from Germany

Opera requires either huge effects or intimate truths. Almost all of Tennessee Williams works have been set to opera. They are about intimate truths, but are also clever and in the hands of a great theater mind...something special.

Disney is at the opposite end of this. They use fairy tales.

Nov. 17 2011 09:46 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

There were two films based on Washington Square, The Heiress and Washington Square. There was a really sad comment by Catherine while she was waiting for Morris to elope. "He must love me for all those who did not". This would make a very strong aria. Another scene from the film has her aunt saying "My dear, you should have been a little more clever."
Heartbreaking stuff. Both are very fine films. The end of Heiress has Morris banging on the door with Catherine doing her embroidery. The end of the film Washington Square has Catherine playing the piano surrounded by children. These two scenes would also be worthy of operatic treatment.

Nov. 17 2011 10:13 AM
Tim Crossett

Captain Blood. The plot is just melodramatic enough for an opera, and Korngold has already written most of the score.

Nov. 16 2011 10:33 AM

@hbottjer Lorin Maazel actually scored (and conducted) his own take on just that: http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=211570

Nov. 15 2011 03:33 PM

Anybody think 1984 would make a good opera? Bleak story, forbidden love...not sure who could score it.

Nov. 15 2011 03:22 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Tosca is not a shabby little shocker. It is lurid, melodramatic and WONDERFUL. The Lives of Others would make a good vehicle for opera.

Nov. 15 2011 09:21 AM

Griff, I kid you not when I say that The Searchers was my No. 11 on the list. I would pay cash money to hear a tenor like Stephen Costello sing "No you don't, Ethan…Ethan no you don't!"

While we're on the topic of the Duke, let's add The Quiet Man to the list.

Oh, and EA, you may want to check out Dominick Argento's 'Casanova's Homecoming.' There's a great use of 18th-century idioms and conventions with a 20th-century edge. The Moores Opera Center released it about 6 years ago in a very fine recording. Well worth a listen.

Nov. 14 2011 11:25 PM
John Flory from Morristown, NJ

I would like to see West Side Story presented in a full operatic version, preserving and augmenting the original Bernstein - Sondheim music.
It is virtually an opera in its present form.

Yes, West Side Story was originally a stage musical.
So let me suggest another stage musical which is virtually an opera and should be presented that way,

Frank Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella".
Well wait, it actually was presented by the New York City Opera.
So let's do it again, this time at the Met!

(And let's make it into a movie, so it will better fit into this discussion of movies into operas.)

(And yes, both of my choices have a leading man named Tony.)

Nov. 14 2011 10:23 PM
Michael Meltzer

When "High Noon" was first screened, the "psychological western" was a new phenomenon and more than one person commented, "That's not a western, it's an opera." Why not? It has two solid female roles without rewriting.
It's easy to imagine when Alexandre Dumas wrote the "Three Musketeeers," he might have been hoping that someone would pick up the ball and stage it. The costumes and sets are standard. It's a morality play, but a dark one. The 1948 movie was spectacular and a huge success.

Nov. 14 2011 08:08 PM

Alexander Nevsky - a great score.
The original King Kong - a truly Wagnerian score. Ivan the Terrible parts 1 & 2 also very good scores. The finale of Turandot always reminds me of the end credits of a movie. I mean that as a compliment. The score of Fritz Lang's "Ring", totally non-Wagnerian but very nice.

Nov. 14 2011 07:54 PM
Stephen Lemson from New York

Casablanca. Citizen Kane. Kramer vs. Kramer. Tootsie. The Godfather. Apocalypse Now. Ivan the Terrible. Seven Samurai.

Nov. 14 2011 06:24 PM
Anne from NYC

A few suggestions -- both serious and not so:
- The Seventh Seal
- Beckett (or Murder in the Cathedral)
- David and Bathsheba (terrible movie, but might be a great opera -- send your girlfriend's husband off to war)
- A Tale of Two Cities (lots of blood & gore, but the book was better)
- A Star is Born (a diva's rise and fall, alcohol, drugs. What more could you want in an opera?)
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (we haven't had a good comic opera in a while, and lots of room for an over-the-top Zefferelli production)
- The Snake Pit (for those of us who love 'mad' scenes).

Nov. 14 2011 04:21 PM
EA from NHP

What about "Casanova"? There are several main roles, including a woman disguised as a man (twice, if I remember correctly), mistaken identities, a ball, and more than a few sword fights. The film had a wonderful Baroque score . . .

Nov. 14 2011 03:40 PM
EileenCG from Katonah, NY

"Black Narcissus" -- take that, "Sound of Music!"

Nov. 14 2011 03:18 PM
Elizabeth from Hoboken, NJ

I know "Gone With the Wind" has been discussed on another site.

Nov. 14 2011 03:11 PM
David from Flushing

I think we have to keep it simple when we try to convert films to opera. "Ben Hur" might be exciting, but the water bill would bankrupt the opera house and then there are all those nasty horses. A chorus of chained rowers or lepers might not meet public approval.

Some films already are so identified with music that it would be difficult to write anew. "Psycho" could never be parted from the violin shrieks.

Films with many scenes would be difficult and costly to adapt.

One film that comes to my mind would be "Jezebel." There are several intimate scenes and the grand one with the infamous red dress. The final torchlit evacuation of the sick would be a dramatic ending to any opera.

Nov. 14 2011 03:02 PM
Michael Meltzer

"The Music Box" - that's the Laurel & Hardy flick about piano moving that won them their only Oscar.

Nov. 14 2011 12:43 PM
Griff from New Jersey

Here are a few of interest:

The Day of the Locust (1975)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Egyptian (1954)
Faraon (1966)
Intolerance (1916)
Juliet of the Spirits (1965)
The Red House (1947)
Nosferatu (1922)
The Seatchers (1956)
The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Excalibur (1981)

Nov. 14 2011 09:26 AM
Fred Plotkin

In creating La Strada, Fellini drew substantial influence from an opera: Pagliacci.

Nov. 13 2011 10:37 PM
Danny from the Bathroom

The Expendables and Rambo should be operas

Nov. 13 2011 09:14 PM

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