Reel Power

Article by Kim Newman

Movies are about grand gestures, big themes, huge characters, lavish costumes and settings, monumental emotions, comedy and violence. Sounds familiar? It’s no accident that several major genres are tagged with the suffix ‘opera’ – horse opera (Westerns), soap opera (romantic sob stories), space opera (Star Wars-type sci-fi). There’s no association of high culture here, but a real Italian feel for the crowd and the riot, for the cliques in the stalls rather than the nobs in the boxes.

In Career in C Major, a novel bizarrely filmed as the oddball comedy Everybody Does It in 1949 (the title refers to singing), James M. Cain rails against the stereotype of opera-singers as high-brow, effete and sexless …. ‘singers they’re a funny breed… people think they’re a bunch of fairies. They’re more like wrestlers. Well singing doesn’t come from the spirit it comes from the belly’. Cain, known for Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, wrote another opera novel, Serenade, which has been filmed three times, once with Mario Lanza.

Though there have been films that use opera (though, more often, ballet) to signify pretentiousness, upscale snobbery and a decadent society worth disrupting (e.g.: the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera – how a professional harp player gets to sneer at anyone else’s musical tastes is a mystery), the most common use of the art form in the cinema has been to up the ante on the emotion, to indicate that we’ve stepped through the looking glass away from the mundane and are breathing an air of heightened reality.

Think of Robert De Niro (an Italian-American, like so many others in this story) dancing into the ring in slo-mo as the boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, to the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and as the gangster Al Capone, sobbing his heard out to ‘Recitar!Vesti la giubba’ from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. In both cases, the music counterpoints the violence of the characters but also aestheticises, it, making the blood-letting beautiful and vaguely suggesting that there’s something in the Italian and American national cultures that needs both the pure beauty of the music and the ghastly mess of the violence. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola – a ‘paesano’ of Scorsese and DePalma – has Colonel Kigore (Robert Duvall) play the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner’s Die Walkure in Apocalypse Now, adding a surreal and yet truthful dimension to an Air Cavalry helicopter attack on a Vietcong-held stretch of good surfing river.

Wagner plays well into filmmakers’ fantasies – quite apart from Chuck Jones’s brilliant distillation of all eight hours of the Ring Cycle into seven delirious minutes in What’s Opera, Doc?, The ‘Ride’ recurs in The Blue Brothers and suitable heroic extracts are slathered over Excalibur. Coppola dipped back into Cavalleria Rusticana in The Godfather, Part III, where the white sheep of the Corleone family makes his debut in a Sicilian production just as his father (Al Pacino) is having yet another bunch of his enemies gorily whacked in a sequence intercut with the music and ritual (not churchly, this time) to emphasise the, well, the operatic nature of it all in The Lost Weekend, it’s a matinée of La Traviata that convinces Ray Milland he’s an alcoholic, the drinking song reminding him of the bottle in his coat pocket in the cloakroom. Before it was claimed for football, the ‘Nessum Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot featured in The Witches of Eastwick, and ‘soave fanciulla’ from La Bohème gets a romantic workout in Moonstruck, which established the music loving credentials of Nicolas Cage (né Coppola – yes, another Italian) before Captain Corelli’s Mandolin let him loose on, among others, ‘La donna è mobile’. In The Hunger, the ‘Flower Duet’ from Delibes’ Lakmé serves as the lesbian love theme for vampire Catherine Deneuve and victim Susan Sarandon – this I clearly a favourite spin in the Scott household, since Tony uses it again in Crimson Tide and brother Ridley Scott put it in his Someone to Watch over Me.

The gay theme is taken up literally by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, where the big sobs come to Giordano’s ‘La mamma morta’ from Andrea Chenier. Mozart, besides getting a work-out in Amadeus provides useful background music with The Marriage of Figaro showing up in Trading Places and the Barber of Seville and Cosi fan tutte shovelled into the Oscar-winning likes of Driving Miss Daisy and My Left Foot (perhaps the Academy voters still membered giving Amadeus Best Picture). And that’s not even counting Willie the Whale dressed as a towering Mephisto in the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, a superb cartoon short from Disney’s ‘Make Mine Music’ that deserves to be better remembered than the galumphing elephant dance of the hours from Fantasia.

Films about, as opposed to films with, opera are rarer on the ground. Jean-Jacques Beneix’s Diva, with Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez belting out bits of Catallani’s La Wally, is a thriller that revolves around a bootleg recording of a diva who has never allowed herself to be issued on disc, and was an early example of what might be considered the ‘street cred’ style of opera, where a few tracks of classical music might find their way onto a soundtrack album along with cutting-edge cult pop. Otherwise, there are smattering of kitsch biopics (Mario Lanza as The Great Caruso, Richard Burton as Wagner but as yet no Maria Callas movie), the odd backstage murder mystery (Charlie Chan at the Opera with Boris Karloff in Mephisto get-up proving entirely innocent, of course), the sub-plot about Citizen Kane’s second wife (Dorothy Comingore) and her failure in the opera house Kane has bought for her (Orson Welles had composer Bernard Herrmann write a new, overripe version of ‘Salambo’ for Mrs Kane’s debut), a lone opera soap (as opposed to soap opera) in Metropolitan (with Lawrence Tibbett), Mike Leigh’s brilliant biopic of The Mikado, Topsy-Turvy (maybe the best true-life backstage drama ever filmed), and that amazingly strange Dario Argento horror thriller Opera (aka Terror at the Opera), where the camera soars high as a raven during a performance of Macbeth and flies around the auditorium before pecking out the eye of the murderer sat in the stalls.

Argento, the Italian Italian (as opposed to Italian-American) film-maker, may well be the most in tune with the blood and baritone style of film opera using a rock Aida to set the style in his remarkable inferno, and recently turning to remake (with Julian Sands – not a good idea) the major film opera story, The Phantom of the Opera. Inspired by an 1896 incident, in which one of the counterweights of the great chandelier in Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera plunged unfortunately onto the audience during a performance, Gaston Leroux’s Le fantôme de l’Opéra was published in 1911 and is one of those stories far better known through the many film and stage adaptations, most of which stray greatly from the book, than in its original form. It would probably be a forgotten mystery thriller if it weren’t for ‘the Man of a Thousand Fasces’ Lon Chaney who in 1925 saw in Erik – the disfigured lurker in the cavernous bowels of the opera house, who teaches a chorus girl protégé to become a grand star – the chance for a role that would equal his Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame the year before.

A silent film, of course it’s paradoxically one of the most operatic of all movies – of course, silent films were always intended to be accompanied by non-stop music (the entire pipe organ score for the film was later used in a strange 1973 split screen thriller Wicked Wicked. Chaney a master of the grand gesture, makes a startling apparition at ‘the merry, mad bal masque de l’opéra’ dressed as the Red Death, and reminding the revellers that since the Opera House has been built above the city’s labyrinthine catacombs, ‘you are dancing on the tombs of tortured men!’ Later, when his mask comes off, the heroine (Mary Philbin) shrinks away and the image goes out of focus to convey the terror of his still-startling skullface look.  When sound came in, The Phantom of the Opera was reissued with all the opera scenes reshot and accompanied by real music. It’s a story we’ve seen again, and again Claude Rains was a kindlier, less scarred Phantom in a 1943 remake – allegedly, his facial scars were played down because of wartime sensibilities about demonising the injured – and Herbert Lom took a faceful of acid in Hammer’s cheap and cheerful 1963 version, in which the role of the dastardly credit-hogging entrepreneur who steals the monster’s music is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s insipid stage hit, which originated with Michael ‘Oooh Betty’ Crawford in the lead, the story is now thought of more as a romance than a horrible 1989 version with Robert ‘Freddy Krueger, Englund in the lead. Gentler, more tragic Phantoms are played by Maximilian Schell (1983) and Charles Dance (1990), in elaborate made-for-TV versions, and the imitations have included phantoms of the discotheque (Phantom of the Paradise), a movie studio (Phantom of Hollywood) and a shopping centre (Phantom of the Mall), plus several versions of The Phantom Lover, in which the story is played out against a backdrop of Chinese opera.

Given all this activity, and the Wagner-like possibilities of the movie as an all-in-one popular art form, the surprise that the catalogue of actual operas on film is so spotty. Among the marginal efforts are Otto Preminger’s stabs at Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess (more properly in the great tradition of Hollywood musical than the sorrier one of filmed opera) and Ken Russell’s assault on the Who’s ‘rock opera ’ Tommy (among Russel’s many other musical enthusiasms, climaxing perhaps in the still-jawdropping Lisztomania) and a horrible run of 30s and 40s Hollywood ‘light opera’ that includes many versions of warhorses like The Vagabond Kind, The Student Prince and The Merry Widow (even Laurel and Hardy got in on the act, with a film of Auber’s Fra Diavolo) plus a raft of vehicles for brassbound diva Jeanette MacDonald and ‘singing capon’ Nelson Eddy (Rose Marie, Sweethearts, Naughty Marietta, New Moon, etc). Only in this climate was it possible to conceive of a musical biography entitled The Great Victor Herbert, though it has to be said that the record of films about heavyweight composers tends to be equally patchy.

As for real opera films as opposed to shot-from-the-back-of-the-stalls preservations of great performances, there’s only Powell and Pressburger’s excellent fantastical slice of Offenbach (The Tales of Hoffman, which has bigger ballet names in Moira Shearer, Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann than operatic in Robert Rounseville), the overlooked The Medium (uniquely, a film directed by the actual composer Gian-Carlo Menotti), Ingmar Bergman’s interesting The Magic Flute, Josephy Losey’s rather cold Don Giovanni (with Ruggero Raimondi and Kiri Te Kanawa), Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s striking but hard-to-watch Parsifal, Francesco Rosi’s Carmen (with Julia Migenes-Johnson and Placido Domingo) and Franco Zeffirelli’s bloated dull Placido Domingo vehicles (La Traviata, Otello). Though Hollywood is only too keen on taking a trip to the opera and belting out an aria or two in the background to emphasise the big lives the characters are living, the producers still like to leave in the interval and take away only tunes.