The Top 10 Movies that Should Be Operas

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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).