Among the many historical tidbits that Steven Spielberg includes in his Oscar-nominated film "Lincoln," the president’s love of opera may be the most surprising. One of the film's pivotal scenes takes place at the opera. And in fact, historians note that Lincoln had an aria from the opera Martha played at his second inaugural. And just a week before he was assassinated, he attended a performance of The Magic Flute.
So when Steven Spielberg and his scriptwriter Tony Kushner were staging a scene between the president and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, they turned to an opera of the day: Faust by Charles Gounod. Faust was performed at Grover's Theater in Washington DC, on March 18, 1865, by a troupe called the German Opera Company. The first couple was there.
Producer TanNa Young cast the singers and researched the music scenes. The Metropolitan Opera supplied photos of costumes from one of its early productions. The National Theater in Washington, DC dug up the original program books.
"There’s so much work that goes into making it absolutely authentic," she said. "The theater itself used the backdrop that was used. So we actually had to do research: how were the stages created back in 1865? And how was it lit? You can’t see in the scene but there were hundreds of extras in the theater and they are all dressed in the period and they all had Playbills."
Young, a former manager at New York City Opera, put out a call on Facebook to find a Marguerite and Faust: Within a week, two singers were on their way to Richmond. One was Mary Dunleavy, a New Jersey based soprano who sings at major houses including the Met.
"At the very beginning, when they approached me, they said they would like to film a small scene from Faust with a Faust and a Marguerite," said Dunleavy. "So I knew it would be a small amount of singing, and then they gave us the actual music that they wanted us to sing. And I was kind of surprised because it’s a very small, delicate little scene within Faust, you know, nothing very operatic."
Mary Todd Lincoln is played by Sally Field. In the Faust scene, she and Lincoln, played by Daniel Day Lewis, watch from the presidential box as Faust and Marguerite sing the final love duet. Young said Spielberg and his producers originally planned to have actors lip-sync the duet but she convinced them to use actual opera singers.
"The whole decision on how to do the music with the singers was a new frontier for them," said Young. "A lot of times they talk now about 'Les Miserables' and the fact that the actors actually sang live on set when they recorded them and that was such a big deal. Well we did the exact same thing."
Faust, played by tenor John Bellemer, said the scene took two grueling days to put together. Day one was devoted to rehearsal and a costume fitting. And then there was the hair.
“Walls full of period facial hair," said Bellemer. "It was literally pulling this mustache from here and this goatee from here and matching my color. I had 3 or 4 people at any given time around me – one pinning the mustache to my face, one pinning the beard to my face, and one making sure the wig was right. After about a half-hour of that they figured the look and that’s what they went with."
The scene was shot at the Empire Theater, a former vaudeville house in Richmond, Virginia that looked similar to the Grover's Theater. The orchestra music was recorded beforehand and fed into small earbuds in the singers’ wigs. But on screen, there’s a pit orchestra and even an authentic 19th century baton – ebony with an ivory handle and longer than a modern baton so it could be seen in a theater lit only by gaslights. It belonged to Tony Kushner's father.
In the end, part of the scene ended up on the cutting room floor because of length, but enough remains to hint at Lincoln’s often overlooked interest in the arts. For Dunleavy, it was a chance to take her craft to a new audience.
"When I came out, I got to see Sally Field and Gloria Reuben and also Tony Kushner. And they were so sweet because they were so excited that we actually got to sing live for them. First of all, Sally Fields said, 'we didn’t want to go back to work. We didn’t want to do our scene; we just wanted to sit and listen to you.'
"But I thought about it, and I think, you know, film is obviously a different world than opera, and for us it’s a big deal to go see this, but for them to see real-live opera singers singing with their real bodies, with their real voice, in a theater, without a microphone, not through a recording of any type, is something unusual for them, and I think they really enjoyed it even though it was a short scene."
Tune in to the Operavore Show on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 12 pm for More about Faust in "Lincoln."
Photo of Grover's Theater courtesy of National Theater, Washington DC