Friday, February 22, 2013

Divertissement: Opera goes to Hollywood

"Ballet Scene from Meyerbeer's Opera Robert Le Diable"
by Edgard Degas - Courtesy V&A Museum
Have you ever had that feeling of déjà vu, or should I say déjà entendu, when attending an opera performance?  The tune sounds familiar, but you know you have never seen this opera...or even heard it before.

It can happen to anyone, from the seasoned opera goer to the layman attending his first performance.  The fact of the matter is, everyone is familiar with opera; most people just don't know it.  We are exposed to it on a daily basis.  Turn on your television and you will see a Kohler commercial set to "Firi...me Lassa" from Bellini's I Puritani; watch a Bond movie and get thrown into the middle of a Tosca performance; read Tolstoy's War and Peace and you will be transported to an opera house in Russia; go to any museum and imagine yourself at the opera.

Many people have been watching opera since they were little...and most of them remember.  Ask the average person if they have ever heard opera before and they will all give you the same answer: "I watched The Rabbit of Seville when I was young."  One would hope that everyone who ever saw this cartoon would be a major opera lover by now, but sometimes the exposure to opera in (recent) pop culture does more harm than good.

Movies have shaped audiences' views for generations, but unfortunately movies have often created the wrong image when it comes to opera.  Two movies are especially to blame for this 'damaged' view of opera, namely Moonstruck and Pretty Woman.  While these actually put opera in a positive light, they are also to blame for the current static vision of the art form.  The old war horses at the Met, such as La Bohème, are still the most popular operas in the repertoire; even bringing in young suitors and their dates, hoping to get the same reaction as Richard Gere or Nicholas Cage.  When many people think of opera, they have a certain image in their mind: what they saw in the movies (usually a very traditional performance), older people, fancy clothes and expensive dinners.  Movies often reinforce the opera stereotype; it symbolizes high class.  It is represented as boring, loud, elitist and stuffy.  Two recent movies come to mind that do exactly this: The Intouchables and The Adventures of TinTin (one hour and fifteen minutes into the movie).


My own introduction to opera came through a movie, and luckily I took my exposure to opera further than most people.  As so often goes in college, I waited until the last minute to take care of my assignment for my English class: compare an independent movie and a mainstream movie.  I am glad I went to see "The Sea Inside" because it changed my life.  One of the most poignant scenes in the movie takes place as Ramón, the movie's protagonist who is a quadriplegic, imagines flying over the Spanish mountains towards the sea as he listens to Puccini's Nessum Dorma.  At that moment I did not know where the aria was from, but as soon as I got home I looked it up and bought my first ticket to the Met in 2005 to go see Turandot.

Opera really grabs my attention when it is featured in a movie, no matter how it is used.  There are several ways this can happen:
  • As part of the story line, as is the case in Lucine Visconti's Senso
  • As part of the soundtrack to set the mood, as in Apocalypse Now
  • As an actual movie, such as Kenneth Branagh's The Magic Flute

With the Oscars coming up on Sunday, it is interesting to look at the marriage between opera and movies.  Even Lincoln, one of Sunday's Oscar contenders, features an unexpected opera scene.  Many viewers of the movie will be surprised to find out that Lincoln was a life-long opera lover.  It is rumored he had an aria from Frederick von Flotow's opera "Martha" performed at his second inaugural and he attended a performance of The Magic Flute a week before he was assassinated.  Since Spielberg was obsessed with making his latest movie as historically accurate as possible, even going as far as recording the sound of Lincoln's actual watch, this opera scene had to be as accurate as possible as well.  The Metropolitan Opera helped him with this, providing Spielberg with pictures from their earliest Faust productions.  The day is after all March 18, 1865 and Lincoln is attending a performance of Faust by the German Opera Company at the Grover's Theater in DC with his wife.  They are watching the Garden Scene in Act III.  Often opera scenes are lip-synched in movies, but this Faust and Marguerite (found through Facebook), sang the actual scene in front of the actors.  The only piece added later was the orchestra.    

This is just one example of how opera plays an important part in movies.  Check back in the next few days for more on this topic.  Meanwhile, leave a comment telling us all about your favorite opera moments in movies, television shows...

Sources:
The Washington Post - Opera in film: Suspenseful, glamorous and overpowering
OperaVore - 'Lincoln' Reveals 16th President's Passion for Opera
NYTimes - How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera