Opera vs. Cinema: It’s not a Remake, it’s Reimagined

remake don giovanni It was Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) that introduced me to classical music. The film is like an appetiser, offering its audience a small taste of Mozart’s operas – a sliver of music and costumed spectacle that leaves you hungry for more. The last third of Foreman’s film is deeply intertwined with the opera “Don Giovanni” and its final moments: the seducer and playboy refusing to repent and dropping into a chasm of flames for his defiance. It is a dramatic and powerful last scene for an opera in which the hero and heroines do absolutely nothing. The villain Giovanni gets his comeuppance through supernatural means, while the rest of the characters get to add a few last thoughts before the curtain falls. This is the way “Don Giovanni” always ended…or so I thought.

Recently, the Royal Opera House staged a radically different version of “Don Giovanni” that has found its way into movie theatres (and is available on television to lucky BBC viewers). Kasper Holten’s production completely upends every expectation one may have of the story, and alters the motivations and personalities of the major characters. It adds one crucial, nearly wordless scene to the beginning of the opera which changes everything that follows. A woman who is traditionally played as a victim becomes tainted with guilt herself, the evidence of her wrongdoing staining the very fabric of her clothes. The glorious tenor arias of the opera are almost unrecognisable. These swoon-worthy declarations of love and devotion are transformed into self-deluded grovelling – the dashing “hero” now reduced to a cuckolded fool. Don Giovanni himself becomes much more complicated. He lingers in the shadows and haunts a number of scenes in which he did not originally appear. Even the famous death scene has been stripped down and repurposed, leaving the audience face to face with a flawed man rather than a monster.

remake Don GiovanniThe most amazing thing about these changes is that all of them arise from the acting and staging. Not a line of dialogue is changed, and almost every word in the libretto remains intact. A singer’s facial expression might betray a guilty lie; arms reach out for an embrace that is shunned. This is not a unique feature of this particular production – any director can put his or her own stamp on Mozart’s work, making every performance feel fresh. Years ago I saw a version of “Cosi Fan Tutti” on stage that will always be the definitive interpretation in my mind. The fact that the exact same story can be told in so many ways brought a single thought to my mind: Why isn’t it this way with movies?

Whenever there is a remake of a much-loved film, fans gather to bemoan the industry’s sacrilege. How dare they remake Psycho (1960) or Ben Hur (1959)! The outrage extends to even mainstream comic book fare: note the polarised reaction to Man of Steel (2013). Yet opera is basically the same story served up by different directors – and they have the additional challenge of keeping the same “script”. What if this same principle were applied to cinema? I began to imagine a world in which the exact same scripts for films were given to completely different directors. What shots would they choose? What staging, what lighting, what props? Whom would they cast, and how would they direct THAT particular line? What would happen to Citizen Kane (1941) in the hands of Wes Anderson or Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick? Movies are not just about style; they are also about storytelling.

remake Don GiovanniI think part of our innate resistance to film remakes lies in the permanence of the medium. It feels as though we are saying why do we NEED another Psycho when we can watch Alfred Hitchcock’s version anytime we want? Opera and theatre both spring from the stage, where performance runs end and the only preserved version of a director’s vision lies in the memories of its audience members. Technology has enabled us to record plays and operas and show them as films, but somehow the theatre attitude has remained: it’s more than “acceptable” to stage classics in modern dress, or have an entire cast of nothing but women, or change your heroes into villains. Such artistic liberties are celebrated, and directors are encouraged to take the work we love and make something new. The film-loving part of my brain understands the desire to cling to the original. The opera and theatre-loving part secretly whispers: “New version? Bring it on!”



Dawn Oshiro is an English composition lecturer and “aspiring novelist” whose two passions are film and literature. One day, she hopes to remove the air quotes and the word “aspiring” and actually publish something. You can check out her (non) progress at her blog: http://www.dawnoshiro.com

8 thoughts on “Opera vs. Cinema: It’s not a Remake, it’s Reimagined

  1. the bulk of movies are so similar to one another that it is not necesary to remake a classic to see how a different director would handle it. the whole american version of the auteur theory was predicated on the different handlings of generic genre pictures. we could see that an anthony mann western was better than one directed by henry hathaway, even if the story was the same. remakes are generally more successful when marketed as sequels. that way, a 14 year old kid who was too young to see the first rocky will get a chance in a couple of years to see the second one. its a generational thing. the kid seeing rocky 2 withut having seen rocky 1 is not even thinkinbg about the first picture. rocky 2 is the one for his age group. most recently, we see this in the remake of the spiderman series. kids that are going to see them werent even alive when the sam raimi versions were made. and most moviegoers want to see something new, not an old classic. personally, i have no use for any of the psycho remakes. i saw the original when it came out. but if a remake were to come out tomorrow, most of the movie-going public wouldnever have seen the original, or even the sequels. it would be a newmocie for them.

  2. What a fun, thoughtful post. Thank you Dawn. Reminds me of the relationship between Wicked and The Wizard of Oz. As for film, I can only speak for myself when I say my general dislike of film remakes (more often than not, anyway) is that the subjects are often superior films. Hollywood is constantly remaking well loved films. Why remake something done well? There are plenty of good stories out there the film versions of which aren’t great at all – let’s remake them instead of redoing “classics”. Grapes of Wrath? Great novel. Boring, censored, abridged film. Star Wars saga anyone? One of the greatest falls into darkness ever told on the big screen. But the actual films, particularly the most recent three, are wooden when they’re not completely shiny with CGI bling. I would love to see the entire saga done right, with emphasis on the story and heart, and less focus on the special effects.

  3. It’s huge topic, isn’t it Dawn? I don’t know of anyone who would reject the idea of a remake out of hand. It took Hollywood three tries to get The Maltese Falcon right. On the other hand, Leo McCarey and Alfred Hitchcock both remade their own movies to less than great effect. I tend to agree with Pete’s concern about drying up original ideas with “safe” remakes. Hollywood has taken to remaking successful foreign films with very unsatisfactory results. There’s often something in the evolution of an artistic idea that binds it to its time of creation. It can obviously be reinterpreted by new generations, but if done well the first time, it is very hard to recapture. So, even though I actually like what Eddie Murphy did with The Nutty Professor, I could not prefer it over the original, which carries so much Martin/Lewis history in its DNA. Of course, depending on how far you want to stretch your definition, Nutty Professor is just a remake of Jeckyl & Hyde, so it can get complicated. I, for one, would very much like to remake Preminger’s Fallen Angel and fix the mediocre ending. (I know how to do it, in case anyone wants to bankroll a movie.) I suspect there’s a “Movies You’d Like to See Remade” post in our future.

    • I wonder whether the complaint is actually about mediocre directing? The remakes never seem to be entrusted to a skilled director who will have the guts to make it his or her own. There are so many internet parody videos that speculate what other movies would look like in Wes Anderson’s style (Lord of the Rings, Forrest Gump, and SNL recently did a Wes Anderson horror movie). The funny thing is, as a fan of Wes Anderson I would probably love those movies MORE if he did direct them (or if he remade them). I know the remake of Fallen Angel you want to see is NOT directed by Michael Bay. 🙂

  4. There’s definitely something to wrestle with here, Dawn … and it may have to do with the vicissitudes of operatic performances versus a recorded cinematic entity. As a former member of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus, I know that performances–whether they were Carmen or Khovanschina–were different every night they were put on. Tastes vary wildly with classical music, too, though some performances/performers are considered more “definitive” or geared to certain composers than others (such as Furtwangler’s Tristan, for example, or Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert lieder). There are great versions of operas captured on film–there’s a terrific one with Fischer-Dieskau and Hermann Prey in The Marriage of Figaro from the 1970s, and the (1987?) Zeffirelli film of Otello with Placido Domingo is wonderful. But you’re right–why do we need another remake of Psycho when the original film was so good; perfection (or near perfection) has already been captured on film? Unfortunately, it didn’t stop those making Psycho II!

    Separately, have you ever seen the silent version of Ben-Hur? I liked it a lot better than the 1959 version, though that chariot race scene still soars.

    • Thanks for the recommendations! I definitely need to track down that version of “The Marriage of Figaro” since Fischer-Dieskau sings in one of my favorite recordings of “Cosi Fan Tutti”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the silent version of Ben-Hur (another thing for me to hunt for). Now I’m really curious to see it, since just the fact that it is silent would transform it into a completely different viewing experience.

  5. That is an interesting and compelling argument Dawn, and it got me thinking. I am sure that the eventual result of classic films being remade by other directors, changing the outcome, or replacing hero with villain, would be the same as with any film debate. It would be loved and admired by some, detested by others.
    My main argument against remakes is that they stifle new ideas and original talent. Let’s see some of that, before rehashing old plots and techniques, or mutilating classics. If the industry is so devoid of any fresh ideas, that it resorts to making new versions of old films, or even worse, bad versions of good foreign films, then perhaps we are better off re-watching the good ones on DVD.
    I expect some involved debate about your article though.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • You’re right, Pete–even remakes by great directors would be polarizing. Bad remakes do have one small virtue though–they raise the profile of the older, better version so that more people will seek it out. The fact that there’s a renewed interest in Hitchcock (thanks to the bad remake and “Bates Motel”) means my students aren’t totally in the dark when I talk about “Vertigo”.

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