The Top 10 Film Directors Who Should Be Working in Opera

Monday, March 12, 2012 - 12:00 AM

As many -- including this writer -- have said throughout the year, what’s lacking at the Metropolitan Opera this season is strong directorial vision.

In last week’s New Yorker, Alex Ross took Robert Lepage to task for his Ring Cycle, calling it “the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” At the Observer, Zachary Woolfe cited the Met’s Faust as the latest in “what increasingly seems like a willful parade of directorial incompetence.” And in his New York Post review of Don Giovanni, James Jorden noted that, paradoxically, “[w]ith James Levine out on disability, musical values remain rock-solid; meanwhile, a healthy, hands-on Peter Gelb delivers dreck […].”

Culling directors from the theatrical persuasion hasn’t seemed to hit home. And while filmmakers don’t necessarily guarantee better results, some of the finer crossover works I’ve seen recently have been at the hands of cinematic artists, not theater personae. The Dallas Opera imported Tarkovsky’s mammoth and meaningful Boris Godunov last year. Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly signaled a strong start for the Met’s new regime. And in Los Angeles, Woody Allen delivered the goods in his Gianni Schicchi. Once you get past the misgivings of stunt casting or other artistic gimmicks, there are quite a few directors who could bring something interesting to the table and the stage.

To that end, and with some confetti from Oscar season still kicking around, we’re taking a look today at our picks for active, living film directors who should consider opera. Read on for the list of directors—and possible projects—and tell us: Past or present, which film maestros would you like to see in the operatic field? And what would you see them direct? Leave your ideas in the comments below.

10. Kenneth Branagh
One could be of two minds about Branagh directing opera. On the one hand, many of his Shakespearean films—Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet—are the director’s finest work. His ear for period language is impeccable and he brings a freshness to standards. On the other hand there was "Love’s Labour’s Lost." He redeemed himself with directing musical works in a serviceable film version of The Magic Flute. Combine the two and you have your pick of Shakespearean operas to stage, the strongest candidate among them being either Thomas’s Hamlet (for obvious reasons if you’ve seen his cinematic adaptation of the play), or Verdi’s Otello, which would be a good fit for Branagh’s proficiency in Italian.

9. Judd Apatow
The new king of alt comedy has earned his crown backing numerous sex and stoner flicks ("Pineapple Express," "Get Him to the Greek," "Bridesmaids," "Superbad," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") as a producer. But if you look at his three extant films as a director—"The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Funny People"you see that he has a trend of taking comedies, often with a touch of substance abuse, and turning them into unlikely hero’s journeys. What better opera for him do the same than Offenbach’s absinthe-swilling good-time girl, Orphée aux Enfers. 

8. Wes Anderson
With dry wit, deadpan stares and class-consciousness frequently used tools in his box, Wes Anderson may at first glace seem too understated to take on the lush emotions of opera. But some nihilism would be put to good use in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a work that also features a confluence of poor little rich boys and hearty peasants. Anderson also deals expertly in obsession, and we’d love to see how he balances the shift in single-minded, unrequited love from Tatyana to Eugene.

7. Sofia Coppola
In 2007, the Montpellier Opera announced that Francis Ford’s most prodigious progeny would helm a new Manon Lescaut for the company’s 2009-10 season, starring Roberto Alagna. That was immediately dismissed by Coppola’s team as a rumor. But after seeing her 2006 work "Marie Antoinette," you can’t help but think Puccini’s or Massenet’s Prévost-based operas would be the perfect vehicle for the director to balance extroverted extravagance with intemerate introspection.

6. Jean-Pierre Jeunet
There’s an undeniable charm to 2001’s "Amélie," which brings Montmartre to a vintage-filtered life that predates Instagram by almost a decade. With the reins of that film in his hand, Jean-Pierre Jeunet was able to make Audrey Tautou redefine the term “gamine.” It would be easy to peg Jeunet as a natural for the Latin Quarter-set La bohème, but we could go for a deeper cut make things a little more interesting with Gustave Charpentier’s own Montmartre masterwork, Louise.

5. Pedro Almodóvar
Setting aside the fact that this man of La Mancha’s own films are worthy of their own operas ("Volver," "Talk to Her," "Bad Education," for swoony starters), Almodóvar’s flair for the melodramatic and over-saturated would be right at home in the opera house. His strongest films usually include some choice secrets revealed at the perfect moment, and he’s not one to shy away from having his film characters sing, so perhaps he would do well with a passionate and fiery Il Trovatore.

4. Tim Burton
The master of all things dexterously quirky, melancholy and creepy, Burton has already proven that he can work with music theater in his stylized screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd. He could take it to the next level with something equally unsettling and otherworldly like Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Now if only we could train Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter to sing the roles of Peter Quint and Miss Jessl… 

3. Martin Scorsese
Let’s see here… Italian identity? Check. Roman Catholicism? Check. Violent crime? Check, check, check. This is the man that gave Leonardo DiCaprio a significant career when the thesp could have fallen into a tidal wave of Titanic backlash. A white-knuckle Tosca starring three committed singing actors would be a welcome changeup from a recent flaccid production at a certain Lincoln Center-based opera house.

2. Quentin Tarantino
Given that the man behind "Inglourious Basterds," "Pulp Fiction" and "Reservoir Dogs" is a notorious fetishist (especially with feet), one would think he’d make magic with Lulu or a snarky Cendrillon. But really, we just want to see him handle murder, murder and more murder. And what opera does it better—and even gives us some kinky axe-dancing jollies—than Strauss’s Elektra? And for a Kill Bill Volume 2 style sequel, we could sic him on Salome.

1. Francis Ford Coppola
Guys. He’s related to Riccardo Muti. How have the two distant cousins not collaborated on an opera yet? The harder question here to answer is what opera would they create? Would they go for a conveniently product-placed Cavalleria Rusticana, in which the chorus drinks from the Coppola family of wines? Would they give Jonathan Miller a run for his money with a "Godfather"-esque Rigoletto? Both aren’t bad choices, but my vote would be for Coppola to honor his Sicilian heritage and talent at handling large crowd scenes in the Italian score for Verdi’s I vespri siciliani.

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Comments [14]

The Baron from Long Island City

Mr. McQueen's last directorial effort, "Shameless," was a film with a theme hardly worthy of exposition, Ms. Olivetti, if indeed it had any theme at all. It might have had held some appeal for a certain segmant of the film-going public if had at least been titilating.

This over-rated director would be better suited to directing a pointless opera devoid of any moral sensibility. "Don Giovanni" would hardly fall into that category.

Mar. 25 2012 11:12 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau county

Sofia Coppola should apologize for Marie Antoinette and Francis Ford for Godfather III. He had the Cavalleria Rusticana scenes in the wrong order. Francis might be of Sicilian descent. Always thought that name is Neopolitan. Ricardo Muti is Neopolitan not Sicilian. Would love to see an opera directed by Branagh. I forgive him for Love's Labor Lost. Some of the productions at the Met, Tosca, Trovatore, Macbeth are trash and would love to see those responsible for this thrown out in the trash. Would love to say more but want to be civil.

Mar. 14 2012 11:00 AM

Would it be too obvious, Thomas, to suggest that McQueen direct a Don Giovanni?

(We may also want to add to the list a Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck [The Lives of Others] Tosca.)

Mar. 13 2012 03:12 PM
Thomas from Knoxville

I love the Almodovar pick! Bless you Olivia for not taking the easy way out and saying Peter Jackson should direct a Ring Cycle. I would love to Nicolas Winding-Refn(Drive) take on Wozzeck, Lulu, or any other modern classic. I think that Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) would bring a lot to the table. I think that Jane Campion would direct an absolutely fantastic Manon as well.

Mar. 13 2012 01:43 PM
Joseph Dispenza from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Wonderful article. A few crossover film/opera directors: Visconti, Bergman, Zeffirelli (of course)..and it might be interesting to imagine operas directed by cinema directors who have gone to heaven -- D.W. Griffith (Intolerance certainly is a visual opera), C.B. DeMille (a Wagner assignment, surely), Charlie Chaplin (he wrote the music to nearly all his feature films), Hitchcock (a new, new Faust?), and Frank Capra (as a Sicilian immigrant, like my grandparents, he would truly understand Cav and Pag...not to mention Rossini comedies. Finally, when will be have an opera of 'Rocco and His Brothers,' arguably already an opera without the arias? J.

Mar. 12 2012 09:41 PM
Cathryn D'Arcy from Chattanooga, TN

Thank you Olivia for your thoughtful list. I'd say that Kenneth Branagh would do a bang-up job with Otello or a new version of Falstaff. He has a way with Shakespeare!

Mar. 12 2012 08:43 PM

Also loved this article. I'd like to see Jim Jarmusch do "Bluebeard's Castle" or Tim Burton do "Tales of Hoffman." In another lifetime, perhaps...

Mar. 12 2012 05:29 PM
Molly from Washington DC

Speaking of the mad scene from Lucia, what about Luc Besson who directed The 5th Element? He could work wonders with Wagner, or really anything that has an strong supernatural element to it. Maybe Faust, or even The Magic Flute?

Mar. 12 2012 03:11 PM
Carol from nyc

Having walked out of the Macbeth Dress Rehearsal at the Met....I couldn't care less who should be "next"! Cannot stand the supposed creative director-ship...they know nothing about context, style and god-forbid, singing!

Mar. 12 2012 01:38 PM
Oncea Dancer from Flint, Michigan

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most musical directors hwo has ever lived. You can't watch the finale 20 minutes of "The Godfather Part Three"(yes, you have to suffer though two hours to get to it)without seeing his obvious love for opera and his innate musicality. Every movement - every shot - even most words and actions are on the beat of the music. Stunning.

Mar. 12 2012 11:09 AM
David from Terrell TX, USA

You left out the most obvious choice and should #1 - Dario Argento. He's already directed two opera themed movies, Opera and Phantom of the Opera. With Argento at the helm, the mad scene in Lucia would rise to a whole new level.

Mar. 12 2012 10:21 AM
Molly from Washington DC

Wow. A Tarentino Salome would make my life complete.

Mar. 12 2012 09:03 AM
Sabauda from Torino

New York is in for a big treat next year as Quebec director François Girard (32 Short films about Glen Gould, The Red Violin) directs Parsifal, which premiered in Lyon last week.

Mar. 12 2012 03:29 AM
Michael from GA

i loved this post ! so smart!
personally the most inspired choices here are Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese.
operas staged by either of these two geniuses would be visually stunning. they are the most brilliant visual artists working in film today ... they are also directors whose ear for film sound and for song choices /music is unparalleled in its wit and intelligence. sound and image..that's opera.

Mar. 12 2012 12:53 AM

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