Opera in cinema
Did you know that The Lord of the Ring and Star Wars drew their inspiration from the same work by Wagner which also provided music to Apocalypse Now? Without knowing it, you are familiar with some themes or stories developed in great classical operas that cinema has successfully reused. Film directors and writers have also paid tribute to great opera figures and immortalised their lives and successes on big screen. With these few examples, discover another way to enter the world of opera.
The Ring of Power
In the beginning of the 2000s, director Peter Jackson adapted in three films J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-part novel The Lord of the Rings. The book and the films are about a cursed ring of power forged in order to dominate the world, which arouses covetousness and jealousies.
The plot of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen begins with the same situation. The influence of Wagner’s works on Tolkien’s book is disputed by Lord of the Rings fans. Tolkien himself denied any link between both works : ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased’. However, he knew Wagner’s tetralogy, especially Die Walküre, which he studied before writing his trilogy.
The themes treated in both works – the acquisition and division of power, the impact of the natural world and the advent of a new order led by love – tend toward forging links between The Lord of the Rings and Der Ring des Nibelungen, which draw their inspiration from the same Germanic and Nordic mythologies. Both are extraordinary epic sagas. People who have liked the universe of the book and the film would love the Ring.
References to the Ring can be found in other films such as Star Wars or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which uses the Ride of Valkyries for the famous helicopters scene.
If you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking…
Is desire stronger than love? Is fidelity? Is love at first sight for a stranger possible? These questions are asked by opera Così fan tutte and the film Closer, directed by Mike Nichols and based on a play by Patrick Marber, which can be seen as a modern and tragic version of Mozart’s opera.
Both works are love comings and goings of two couples, in a universe of lying and trickery where characters act with masks. Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte choose to treat the subject of infidelity in a comic and light way, by a play of disguises and farces, whereas Closer treats the subject with deepness and gravity by showing pain and sorrow.
Closer is homage to Così fan tutte, whose music and great arias impregnate the film. A scene takes place in Covent Garden at the end of a performance of this opera. The omnipresence of references to Mozart’s work, in the plot and the music, is maybe used to remind us that, whatever the time or place, it is impossible to understand the human soul and its paradoxes.
Finding and losing Love in romantic Paris
Moulin Rouge is set at the end of the 19th century, in a fantasized Paris full of poor idealist artists and poètes maudits (accursed poets), obsessed by love and beauty, searching inspiration in absinthe.
In this film, director Baz Luhrmann goes back to one of his beloved themes, the Bohemian Life, which he had already worked on by staging Puccini's La bohème in a production created in 1990 at Sydney Opera and successfully revived in 2003 on Broadway. References to this show appear in the film, e.g. the big electric red sign ‘L’Amour’ on the roof of a Parisian building, which in the opera production was lighting up at the end of act I during Rodolfo and Mimi’s love duet O soave fanciulla.
But Luhrmann's primary influence is La traviata. Like Verdi’s Violetta (and Alexandre Dumas's Marguerite in the French novel La Dame aux camélias), his heroine Satine is an ill courtesan discovering love with a young and romantic man, but obliged to sacrifice her happiness by claiming that she is in love with another man to save him. With Moulin Rouge, Luhrmann gives his own vision of La traviata.
Great opera figures on screen
With this short selection of films, discover the stormy lives of some of those who made opera history.
Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, with Fanny Ardant, Jeremy Irons - 2001
Biographical film, partially fictionalised
In 1976, the great soprano Maria Callas lives cloistered at home in a deep loneliness, broken-hearted by the loss of her voice. Larry Kelly, her former producer, proposes her to film Carmen by synchronizing her past voice on actual images. Callas is hesitant but she finally accepts.
About Maria Callas
Maria Callas was one of the most famous sopranos of the 20th century. She possessed a particular tone, easily recognizable, a wide range, enabling her to sing a lot of different roles, and great dramatic gifts too. She was called ‘la Divina’.
Driven by her mother, she started singing very early and devoted her youth to studying music and opera. She became famous in 1949 by singing alternately at la Fenice (Venice) two completely different roles during the same month, an extraordinary achievement but very dangerous for her voice.
She considered drama and singing as equal. She changed the opera universe and the way of playing, especially with her collaboration with film director Luchino Visconti. She was known for her strong temperament too: some people regarded her as an eccentric and capricious diva, but she was above all demanding, especially with herself.
Pestered by the gutter press, broken-hearted by her failed relationship with Greek millionaire Aristotle Onassis, she lost her voice, damaged by too much pressure. She performed her last role on stage in 1965 at Covent Garden as Tosca and sang ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ (‘I lived for art, I lived for love’), which was a résumé of her life. She died a few years later, in 1977, alone in her flat in Paris.
Directed by Gérard Corbiau, with Stefano Dionisi, Enrico Lo Verso - 1994
Biographical film, partially fictionalised
The film recreates the myth of Farinelli, the great castrato of the 18th century, and relates important episodes of his life, from Italy to London and Madrid, including his unbelievable success with the European audience.
In the film, Farinelli’s impressive voice is the result of the mixing of a counter-tenor and a coloratura soprano’s voices (Derek Lee Ragin and Ewa Malas-Godlewska) thanks to techniques developed by the IRCAM, the French institute for contemporary musical research and creation.
Farinelli was the most famous castrato of the 18th century, whose real name was Carlo Broschi. Born in 1705 in Italy, he early on showed an exceptional singing gift and was castrated at the age of 12. His career began in 1720, and during more than ten years, he performed on Italian stages and sometimes in Vienna and Germany. The audience acclaimed the range of his agile and rich voice, his perfect technique and spectacular ornamentations. But in 1731 he met the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI who advised him to sing with more simplicity and emotions.
In the middle of the 1730s, Farinelli settled in London and joined the rival theatre company of Händel’s, where he was very successful with the English audience. He left England for Spain in 1738. His voice was so marvellous that he performed private concerts for the royal couple during nine years in order to cure King Philip V’s depression. After the King’s death, his son, Ferdinand VI, ennobled Farinelli who became very influential in the court. After Ferdinand’s death, he retired to Bologna where he died in 1782.
Farinelli’s reputation was so great that it travelled into the ages and, over 220 years after his death, he still arouses admiration.
Directed by Milos Forman, with F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce - 1989
Biographical film, partially fictionalised
This is the confession of Antonio Salieri, former official composer of the court, about Mozart’s death and his jealousy and fascination for the young genius…
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is perhaps the most famous composer of all times. His operatic masterpieces are Idomeneo, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Die Zauberflöte, whose arias for the Queen of the Night are especially famous.
He was born in Salzburg in 1756. He was a child prodigy born with unbelievable gifts for music. He learned how to sight-read music before reading and composed his first opera, Apollo et Hycinthus, at 11. Between the age of 6 and 10, he toured in Europe with his father, impressing the audience by his talent and his precociousness in each big city.
In the 1780s he settled in Vienna where he had an eventful life. He was very productive: he composed operas, sonatas, concertos and symphonies. Despite the success of his works, he did not earn a lot of money and fell into debts because of his expansive way of living. Overwhelmed with work, he became sick and died in 1791 before his 36th birthday. Irony of the fate, he left his last work unfinished, the famous Requiem.