With all due respect, I have to disagree with my colleague, Zachary Woolfe, who wrote last month for the New York Times that films such as Moonstruck and Pretty Woman “have been given credit for helping to popularize opera, [but] the idea of the art form they have popularized has profoundly damaged it in this country.”
Pretty Woman I can take or leave, but I believe the idea of opera in Moonstruck goes beyond “less a living encounter than a trip to Madame Tussauds" and "the most solemn kind of date night.” Rather, it plunges into a visceral, hot-blooded operatic world where hormones rage (rightfully so when you’re listening to Puccini) among a multigenerational Italian-American family living in Brooklyn.
With that in mind, we look here at film and television’s greatest opera lovers. Some may fit the stereotype of those whose opera life is about “wearing fancy clothes and having an expensive dinner, about leaving everyday life behind,” but they’re actually not as prevalent as one would expect.
And while it was tempting to include novels (there are some diehard fans in recent books like Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case or Wesley Stace’s Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, both of which are excellent reads), the audio-visual nature of film and TV means a more complete way to show fandom in its full glory. An honorable mention, perhaps my number 11, would be John Cleeses’s cameo on an episode of “3rd Rock from the Sun,” in which he sings all of Das Rheingold at a karaoke bar. But to see who won out over Basil Fawlty crooning Wagner, read on for our top ten and tell us: Fictionally speaking, who are your favorite opera fans?
10. Marie Antoinette, Marie Antoinette
Sofia Coppola’s stylistic film about the early cultural clashes between French and Germanic opera didn’t live up to its hype, but one thing it did do was put bring perspective to the early operatic cultural clashes. Opera is used as a metaphor here for the marriage of the Austrian archduchess who marries into the French royal family. Her enthusiastic response for the cast of Rameau’s Platée causes the subdued French audience members to look askance. A deleted scene featuring Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice drives the Austrian-France connection home: Gluck was, like Marie, a Viennese transplant living in France. In fact, the real-life queen intervened on his account to see that Iphigénie en Aulide saw its world premiere at the Académie de Musique in 1774.
9. Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane
Oh, Kane. If you’re wondering why I have him so low on this list, it’s because Orson Welles’s indelible portrayal of the publishing magnate may have included a fanaticism towards the opera stage, but it was fandom that quickly spun out of control when he forces his mistress-turned-wife into a disastrous operatic career. While Welles’s character was primarily based upon William Randolph Hearst, this particular side plot comes out of the life of utilities baron Samuel Insull, who built the Chicago Civic Opera House and sent his wife into a deep depression after attempting to transition her from Broadway to opera. Cataclysmic though the results were, there’s no denying that this bit of fandom gone wrong is fandom nonetheless.
8. King Ludwig, Ludwig
It would be easy to do a list of opera loving monarchs, but I promise that this is the last such installment on this countdown. Visconti's 1972 film about Bavaria’s King Ludwig II depicts a figure known for his Wagner fanaticism, so much so that he designed a room of his Neuschwanstein Castle in the image of a Tannhäuser grotto. The film moves at the pace of a Wagner overture, an apt metaphor for a characterization of Ludwig (played by Helmut Berger) as a man driven not by political ambition but by the desire to fund performances by the then-upstart young composer. It fires on a number of appropriately over-the-top cylinders, and leaves Berger’s Ludwig as one indisputable opera fan.
7. Inspector Morse, “Inspector Morse”
Detectives and classical music seem to go together nicely. Sherlock Holmes’s talent on the violin was, as Watson once noted, “remarkable, but as eccentric as all his other accomplishments.” NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog noted with last year’s release of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows that the movie went to lengths to not make the villainous Moriarty the sole classical fan, bucking the trend of making classical music fans the stereotypical bad guys. Enter "Inspector Morse," the British detective TV series that ran from 1987 to 2000. Played by John Thaw, the contemporary sleuth of the title picked up the operatic slack. He also often found himself embroiled in cases involving his beloved works of Mozart, sung for the show’s soundtrack by the incomparable Janis Kelly.
6. Jules, Diva
My introduction to this one comes courtesy of you, the reader, specifically those of you who mentioned this 1981 film when I covered the greatest uses of opera in the movies last year. Frédéric Andréi plays Jules, a young postman whose obsession with one American opera singer (who refuses to make recordings) leads to him illegally bootlegging her performance of “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from La Wally, and subsequently ending up with another recording linking a high-ranking law officer to a racketeering scandal. Jules is obsessive—and a bit creepy, going so far as to steal a dress from the diva’s dressing room—but when you see his face as his beloved singer performs, you feel too a sense of kinship. People do crazy things for the art that they love.
5. Carl Jung and Sabina Spielrein, A Dangerous Method
I’ve talked before about the use of the Ring Cycle in both the plot and score for this 2011 film by David Cronenberg (who directed the opera version of one of his other films, The Fly, a few years back). The relationships forged in Wagner’s four-part epic are reflected in the relationships between psychiatrists Carl Jung, Siegmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein—particularly in the father-child dynamics that all three characters grapple with. Jung and Spielrein’s initially icy relationship is thawed when they discuss their love for the music of Rheingold and the characterization of Siegfried, and the artful layers into which they fold themselves perhaps speak subtly of a romantic notion to live in their own operatic world, an escape from the clinical truths of reality. And yet, for all they dissect the works, you’re tempted to ask them at the end of the film: “Yes, but how do they make you feel?”
4. Frasier Crane, “Frasier” and “Cheers”
Together with his ex flames in Shelley Long’s Diane, Bebe Neuwirth’s Lilith; and his brother (David Hyde Pierce), Kelsey Grammer’s pompous shrink was never far off from an opera reference in his turns on both “Cheers” and its subsequent spinoff, “Frasier.” Crane represents the high society aspirant, clambering for a place on the board of the Seattle Opera and name-dropping a number of actual opera singers. And as infuriating as his stuffiness could be, there were the occasional zippy inside jokes. In one episode, referring to a woman he constantly sees at the opera, he sighs, “I have laughed with her during Figaro, cried with her during Tosca… I even had a dream about her during Einstein on the Beach.” (Unsurprisingly, Kelsey Grammer also played an opera-lover when loaning his voice to Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons.)
3. Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III, “M*A*S*H”
Like Frasier Crane, David Ogden Stiers’s meticulous, to-the-manor-born Major captures the effete aesthete stereotype of an opera fan (which in and of itself could make up an entire top 10 list on its own). However, that Winchester clings to his opera while working in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War offers a much more compelling juxtaposition than Frasier’s mingling among Seattle society. Opera, and classical music in general, is a security blanket, a source of beauty among so much ugly. What’s more, it’s a character trait that is dealt with throughout Winchester’s time on the series, factoring heavily into his character arc in the series finale when he encounters a group of Chinese POWs and teaches them to play Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet.
2. Chris Wilton, Match Point
Woody Allen has never shied away from using opera as part of his cinematic narrative. Hannah and Her Sisters features a tour of New York’s architecture set to the overture of Madama Butterfly, Love and Death has a memorable moment involving some silent flirtation as the overture to Die Zauberflöte bubbles over, and his newest flick To Rome with Love, makes opera integral to the plot with a singing undertaker played by tenor Fabio Armiliato. But perhaps the most compelling opera fan in Allen’s canon is Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’s character in Match Point, a tonal shift from Allen’s usual quirky comedies.
A working-class Irishman and former tennis champ who marries into a high-society family, Wilton’s moral indiscretions lead to a double murder played out with emotional detachment and set to the fever pitches of Verdi’s Otello. Charalampos Goyios offers the best analysis of Wilton in pointing out that his introversion is very much connected to his love of opera (especially the ghostly, phonographic sounds of Caruso and his kind) which in turn sets the atmosphere for the film and its unsettlingly muted tragedy. And it works: Murderer or not, it’s safe to say Chris Wilton resembles more die-hard opera fans in real life than, say, Hannibal Lecter.
1. Ronny Cammareri, Moonstruck
Nicolas Cage’s character isn’t just a fan of opera, his life is an opera. An Italian-Brooklynite baker, he lost a hand in an accident involving a bread slicer and, subsequently, lost his fiancée who left him due to said maiming. Even without any musicality, his outburst of “I lost my hand! I lost my bride!” is as anger-soaked an aria as they come. And his impulsive passion, never mind that it’s directed towards his brother’s bride-to-be, is tempered by a tenderness (who can forget him kissing Cher’s hand during Act III of Bohème?) that would make Puccini salivate. Unlike many of the opera fans on this list, Ronny doesn’t love opera for any class connotation; his verismo vinyl collection speaks to an art form that is part of his blood, his love for the music is stripped of any pretense. Sometimes man can live by bread alone.