12 September 2016 at 11.47am | 56 Comments
Put on your finest evening wear, get out your opera glasses, settle into your private box and get ready to fall in love: the world of film loves a decadent night at the opera. And why wouldn’t it, with so many stirring arias and powerful stories of love and heartbreak?
We've picked out a few of our favourites, playing up to a few of opera's most fantastical stereotypes:
Amadeus (Miloš Forman, 1984)
Of course, we had to start with Amadeus. After all, Miloš Forman's adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play of the same name contains an abundance of opera. Set in late-18th century Vienna, the film is a (fictionalized) account of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart told from the perspective of resentful fellow composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Salieri comes to despise Mozart when the young man’s talents eclipse his.
The movie's lavish opera scenes include a performance of The Marriage of Figaro, a tale behind the inspiration for the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria, and a staging of Don Giovanni complete with winged helmets, but our pick is Forman's depiction of the opening night of Mozart’s 1782 opera The Abduction from Seraglio, complete with the composer (Tom Hulce) flamboyantly conducting in a ludicrous pink wig — de rigueur in the 1780s, but not so commonplace two centuries on.
The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1994)
Black tie, white gloves, gold watches and the social scandals of the upper class, the opening opera scene of Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous The Age of Innocence has it all. The movie is set in 1870s New York when families of high society would go to the opera weekly to be seen in their private boxes and every opera season seemingly began with Faust.
Gounod's opera features themes of temptation, seduction and regret and these are reflected in The Age of Innocence, the story of a love triangle between Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), May Welland (Winona Ryder) and Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Scorsese’s camera lingers over the accoutrements of the rich setting up a milieu where wealth is flaunted and social hierarchies are reflected in seating arrangements. Here, opera glasses are as much for observing each other and the drama unfolding within the boxes as they are for watching the action on stage. Unlike New York in the 1870s, come to the opera today and you will find jeans are more common than formal attire and a seat in the box is open to all.
Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997)
In this exquisite scene from Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning World War II film Life is Beautiful, Jacques Offenbach’s beautiful barcarolle ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour’ from The Tales of Hoffmann is being performed on stage complete with a Venetian gondola and lavish costumes. While the audience in wartime greys and browns stare somewhat laconically at the stage, there’s one man in the audience looking the other way, far more captivated. Guido Orefice (Benigni) can’t take his eyes off a woman in one of the boxes and quietly invokes her to ‘look at me, princess’.
Next time you’re at the opera, take a good look around the auditorium. You never know, you too may find your future husband or wife. But be warned, talking to yourself as Guido does during a performance will not win you any friends.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
When his talent-devoid wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) can’t get a gig at the Metropolitan Opera, megalomaniac Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) builds an opera house for her. Widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane sees Welles shows off his technical mastery to reveal the the hustle and bustle backstage before curtain up in two variations of his opera scene.
The first iteration includes the famous moment where the camera seems to ascend into the rafters, an effect being created by panning over a miniature then using wipes to blend into the stage curtains and wooden beam, giving the feeling of rising higher than would be possible in a real theatre.
The second version begins from Susan’s point of view, the shot reversed as she is left alone, dwarfed on stage – a singer well out of her depth. This scene reveals many aspects of opera stagecraft included a striking low-angled shot of the footlights and cutaways into the prompter's box (commonplace in Welles' time, but less common nowadays). Projecting his ambitions onto his hapless wife, Welles refuses to admit defeat, loudly continuing clapping after the rest of the audience has stopped.
Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)
The Royal Opera House, but not quite as you know it as Luc Besson’s sends Covent Garden into orbit on a spaceship in his iconic sci-fi film The Fifth Element.
Black tie is the preferred attire, as demonstrated by our hero Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), although there are some more cosmic outfits in the audience including interesting headgear that would surely annoy those sitting behind.
Blue Diva Plavalaguna (voiced by Albanian soprano Inva Mula) performs ‘Il dolce suono’ from Lucia di Lammermoor as Dallas looks on spellbound, and humanoid Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) lurks in the wings. The calm is shattered however, when the spaceship/theatre is invaded by a troupe of alien baddies.
Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990)
No list of opera film scenes would be complete without the much-loved opera outing from Pretty Woman. Rich, suave Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) buys Vivian (Julia Roberts), a ‘hooker with a heart of gold’, a red evening gown and a necklace before whisking her off to see La traviata — a story which parallels her own.
Be warned, however. If like Edward and Vivian you decide to arrive late to a performance, you won’t be let in until a suitable break in the performance. And perhaps leave the long white gloves at home.
Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)
The moon is a symbol of love in this romantic comedy about Sicilian-Americans living in Brooklyn. Moonstruck tells the story of Loretta (Cher) who is engaged to be married to Johnny (Danny Aiello). She, however, has inadvertently slept with his brother, Ronny (Nicholas Cage). Loretta and Ronny strike a deal: Ronny agrees to never see her again if she comes to the opera with him.
Following the usual silver screen trope, opera newcomer Loretta heads straight to the shop to buy a glamourous new gown for the occasion. Ronny is an opera lover so he has, of course, donned a tuxedo for his big night out at the Lincoln Center. Loretta is so moved by the romantic La bohème that she weeps and Ronny tenderly kisses her hand — proof if ever it were needed that opera can bring people together like nothing else.
Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008)
James Bond is no stranger to black tie, and it'd be a surprise if he turned up to the opera in anything else.
The spectacular setting of the floating stage at Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria attracts opera tourists from all over the world, and on 007's visit during Quantum of Solace, he's joined by a band of criminal masterminds plotting to take over Bolivia through a diabolical plot which would see them deprive the country of natural water.
Bond and the band of baddies are at Bregenz to see a striking production of Tosca, the set for which includes a giant eye watching over the audience, as Bond dashes about backstage doing his own surveillance. Diegetic sound is used to great effect as the famous Te Deum plays on while Bond pursues his enemies backstage. The action climaxes with a kitchen shootout, paralleling the violence unfolding on stage.
A highlight of this scene is a snooty zinger from an audience member as Quantum members hastily leave in the middle in the performance: ‘well Tosca is not for everyone’. Many opera fans would disagree, as this is one of the most-performed and loved of all operas.
These are just a few great opera scenes from the screen world. Do you have any other favourites?
For more opera on the big screen, why not take a look at our upcoming live cinema screenings?