'Lincoln' Reveals 16th President's Passion for Opera

Monday, February 18, 2013 - 12:00 AM

The First Couple watches 'Faust' in a scene in 'Lincoln' The First Couple watches 'Faust' in a scene in 'Lincoln' (Dreamworks)

VIDEO: Soprano Mary Dunleavy on 'Lincoln's' Faustian Bargain

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

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Comments [4]

Brian Landry from Ipswich, MA

Concetta and David, you're both delusional, trying to put a modern context on past events, as if he had any other choice by what was going on then. You're judging him with info we know now, and he couldn't have possibly known then. Get a grip! Our lofty, high muckety muck ways and standards don't apply to things that happened before we-nay, our great great grandparents were born.

Feb. 24 2013 06:32 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau county

Nice to know that Lincoln the war criminal loved opera. Don't get angry with me. One of his cabinet members issued the order to carry out the destruction of the south. Let us not forget Sherman's March to the Sea.
Yes, he freed the slaves. A very good thing to do. But the US government could have purchased the slaves and freed them. 600,000 Americans died in that war.

Feb. 22 2013 10:11 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

LET ART, HISUS REMEMBER THAT LINCOLN WAS AN AUTODIDACT LEARNING FROM HIS WIDE READING.
THOMAS JEFFERSON AND BENJAMIN FRANKLIN WERE LITERARY SCHOLARS AS WELL AND BOTH THE LATTER WERE INVENTORS AND HAD ACCESS TO THE THEN AVAILABLE BOOKS ON ART, HISTORY AND POLEMICS. LINCOLN'S
DETRACTORS REALIZED THAT HE HAD IDEALISTIC MOTIVATIONS, BUT AS IN TODAY'S POLITICAL; SCENE, HIS ADVERSARIES SOUGHT IN EVEDRY WAY TO DIVERT HIS GOALS TO MATCH THEIR PREFERRED LIFE STYLES. IT DOES NOT SURPRISE ME THAT HER SOUGHT OUT THE THEATER TO WIDEN HIS KNOWLEDGE AND TO GIVE PLEASURE TO A LIFE WITH NUMEROUS SEQUENTIAL LANDMARK CONFLICTING ACHIEVEMENTS. HAD HE NOT HAD THE OPPOSITION AT EVERY TURN, HE WOULD HAVE PROVED TO BE A STILL MORE ACTIVIST FOR JUSTICE AND EQUAL REPRESENTATION AND PURSUANCE OF A BETTER LIFE FOR ALL. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and recordings from my four three hour long solo Isaac Stern Auditorium[Carnegie Hall] live performance may be downloaded, free, at RECORDED SELECTIONS on my three websites, www.WagnerOpera.com, , www.ShakespeareOpera.com, and
www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com. As an opera composer myself ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] I fully comprehend the assumed urgency of recognition of the still living. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where I train actors in all the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers in all the Wagner opera roles. My singing of TRISTAN, GOTTERDAMMERUNG SIEGFRIED, SIEGFRIED, SIEGMUND, RIENZI, LOHENGRIN, WALTHER VON STOLZING PARSIFAL, ELEAZAR, FEDERICO, ORFEO and OTELLO can also be heard at RECORDED SELECTIONS on my three websites.

Feb. 18 2013 06:59 PM
David

Another "tidbit" that Spielberg left out was Lincoln's continuation of his predecessors' genocide of the American Indians.

Feb. 18 2013 07:38 AM

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