Opera and cinema

Multiple associations

By Benoit Basirico 20 December 2016

© United Artists

Opera and cinema

The cinema has always borrowed from other artistic disciplines and opera is no exception. From Visconti to Bertolucci, Scorsese to Coppola, and De Palma to Bergman, many of the great film directors have entertained close ties with the world of opera. It would be unrealistic to indulge in an exhaustive listing, but we can attempt to identify the different types of relationships.

The most absolute association is the adaptation of an entire opera. The producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier (1941-2003) made a speciality out of it calling it “Opera Film”. He produced the films by Joseph Losey (Don Giovanni, 1980), Frédéric Mitterrand (Madame Butterfly, 1995) and Benoît Jacquot (Tosca, 2001). These were not just pieces of filmed theatre, but rather, cinematographic works in their own right, in which the film directors kept their creative freedom even though confronted with the constraints of adaptation (fidelity to the original text, the need to respect narrative continuity…). In the interests of realism, Joseph Losey requested that the recitatives and the harpsichord for his Don Giovanni, be performed and recorded live during the shooting of the film. Similarly, one can cite Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish masterpiece The Magic Flute (1975) which offered a complete audio-visual correspondence with the performance of Mozart’s opera.

The marriage between cinema and opera also comes into play in the choice of film locations. American blockbusters have used opera as a backdrop for some of their most spectacular scenes. In the 22nd James Bond film (Marc Foster’s Quantum of Solace, 2008), gunfire erupts during a performance of Puccini's Tosca. In Mission impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015), Tom Cruise, pursued by the CIA, takes his former colleague to the Vienna Opera where we hear Puccini’s Turandot and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Sherlock Holmes is no exception either (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows by Guy Ritchie, 2011). He goes to the Paris Opera where Mozart’s Don Giovanni is being performed. Francis Ford Coppola is by far the most voracious: he shot a 45-minute finale for The Godfather III (1990) at the Palermo Opera featuring the prelude of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana. That famous borrowing also marked the hundredth anniversary of the opera which was first performed in 1890. The same Intermezzo also features in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) and in the closing theme music for On Guard (Philippe de Broca, 1997).

Marie Antoinette, 2006, réalisation Sofia Coppola
Marie Antoinette, 2006, réalisation Sofia Coppola © Collection Christophel

Opera can also blend seamlessly into the era in which a film is set. For his portrait of the painter William Turner, Mr. Turner (2014), British director Mike Leigh used Verdi’s Nabucco (1842) in his soundtrack. For Vatel (2000), set in 1671, Roland Joffé relied on Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes (1735). American director Sofia Coppola had fun mixing historical references in her version of Marie-Antoinette (2006), associating titles by Jean-Philippe Rameau (Castor et Pollux) with anachronous tracks from The Cure and New Order to open a dialogue between epochs.

Then there are the characters who personify opera. The soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez played the role of diva Cynthia Hawkins in Beineix’s Diva (1980) and sings an aria from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally. Agnès Jaoui is a singing teacher in her film Comme une image (2004) and makes use of the vocal repertoire of Mozart (Così fan tutte), Offenbach (The Tales of Hoffmann), and Handel (Rodelinda). In To Rome with Love (2012), Woody Allen is an opera producer who stages Tosca and Turandot (Puccini). There are also characters inspired by real musicians: Richard Wagner, for example, is omnipresent in Ludwig (Luchino Visconti, 1973), a film about the composer's fan King of Bavaria, featuring excerpts from Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde. In Gérard Corbiau’s Le Roi danse (2000), the spirit of Jean-Baptiste Lully floats behind the title role of Louis XIV. These historical figures have given birth to “biopics”. In these biographical films, the idea is more about exalting the person's genius than filming the music. In the magnificent Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984) Mozart conducts his own operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni...). In the docudrama about the castrato Farinelli (Gérard Corbiau 1994), Handel, Porpora and Pergolesi are honoured. The life story of Maria Callas in Callas Forever (Franco Zeffirelli, 2002) is built around a performance of Carmen (Bizet). More recently, in the comedy drama Marguerite (Xavier Giannoli, 2015), “off-key”singer, Marguerite Dumont, (Catherine Frot) performs the technically demanding aria from Bellini’s Norma albeit with difficulty.    

Closer (Entre Adultes Consentants), 2005, réalisation Mike Nichols
Closer (Entre Adultes Consentants), 2005, réalisation Mike Nichols © Collection Christophel

A narrative connection is possible when a director forges a link between the opera and his screenplay. The romantic toing-and-froing of Sunday Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971) and Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004) echoes the musical presence of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and that opera’s own intricate web of amorous connections, thus lending a sense of timelessness to the subject. In the musical Moulin Rouge (2001), Baz Luhrmann offers his modernised vision of Verdi’s La Traviata by taking the storyline without the music (replacing it with pop music).

On a strictly musical level, in Excalibur (1981), John Boorman draws on the music of Wagner to define recurrent themes (the funeral march from Siegfried strikes up at every appearance of the sword as does the prelude from Parsifal during the search for the Holy Grail). The connection between opera and cinema can become obsessively intense. The overture from William Tell (Rossini), popularised by Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange, is used again in a reworked and speeded-up version by Wendy Carlos. The same piece of music provides a theme for The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013) and is used by composer Hans Zimmer in his score. For A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011), Howard Shore has created his own score from leitmotivs found in Siegfried. The frontiers between existing music and original creation thus become increasingly blurred.

The alliance between the lyrical arts and the cinema, sometimes explicit as in the case of direct adaptation, is just as much an invisible dramatic support. It heightens the viewer's emotions as both arts flourish in the service of the same transcendence.

Benoit Basirico is a specialist in music in cinema, he is the founder of the website Cinezik.fr a site dedicated to film music. He is also a lecturer at the Université de Paris I and a presenter and programme planner on Aligre FM (2015-2016). Basirico is also the co-author of the work "Musique & Cinéma, le mariage du siècle" directed by N.T. Binh (Actes Sud).   

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