Opera Onscreen: How to Resurrect a Dying Genre

Franco Zaferelli OtelloGiven the fact that Placido Domingo instinctively ruffled his fingers through my hair 30 years ago as I—then a member of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus—marched by him on stage during a production of Carmen, I can’t help but admit a personal bias toward the legendary singer … which includes admiration for his efforts in Franco Zeffirelli’s film of Otello (1986).

The Verdi music, of course, is stunning—one of the composer’s greatest works. The direction is on point. And the cast, from Domingo as the eponymous, tragically misguided Moor to Justino Díaz as the evil, nihilistic Iago, is brilliant.

There’s one thing, however, that bothers me about the picture, and it has nothing to do with the movie itself. It concerns the sustainability of the genre—onscreen opera—which I worry about often.

What has happened to it?

It used to be that movies based on operas were produced quite a lot more often than once in blue moon … and frequently by well-known directors. You had the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle film of Le Nozze di Figaro (1975), along with La Traviata (1982)—which was another Zeffirelli-helmed opus—and The Magic Flute (2006), directed by none other than Kenneth Branagh. Of course there was the 1984 version of Carmen with Domingo, as well as the 1982 iteration of Parsifal with the literally towering bass Aage Haugland (whom I used to converse with in Russian backstage during rehearsals and/or performances of Khovanschina at the Met) and the 1956 Tosca starring the superb Franco Corelli. Even the great Ingmar Bergman got into the act with the 1975 TV production of The Magic Flute.

With such a hallowed cinematic history, opera should be coming to a theatre near you every week, don’t you think?

It’s not, though, and that makes me melancholy. Sure, the Met makes its screenings of performances available all the time, and these initiatives are wonderful; the Live in HD (2006-present) series brings the art form to viewers in myriad locales around the United States, giving people the opportunity to see innumerable masterpieces that may not be accessible otherwise. But this isn’t exactly cinema—it’s the stage projected onto the screen, and to me, there’s a difference. Blocking is more constrained; camera angles are more restricted. And editing? Well, it’s not what you’d get in the movies.

The Magic FluteI want to see more motion pictures based on operas released … and I’m not talking about the dreary Tristan + Isolde (2006), which gave us the famous legend without the glorious Wagner score. (That’s like giving you a glass of water without the water; there’s not much point to it.) We need more directors to continue the tradition of crafting opera-oriented movies—not only to show that these forms are utterly compatible, but also to ensure that this music doesn’t die, that new generations can enjoy it away from the stage, in a medium that allows for repeat viewings. Great opera, like all great art, isn’t solely relegated to intellectuals or aesthetes. It’s for everyone, because its beauty is transcendent, and all humans can enjoy it.

All right—I know that opera’s not the most popular of genres, and to many it can be hard to understand, difficult to listen to and tedious. But that’s where the cinema comes in. Zeffirelli, among others, proved that a melodic, easy-to-like opera such as Otello can be thrilling onscreen … not static like the stereotypical production of, say, Lohengrin. (This is coming, by the way, from someone who’s a big fan of Wagner’s music and can safely admit that despite the glories of the great composer’s compositions, the pace of many of his operas—excluding masterpieces like his Ring cycle and The Flying Dutchman—can be somewhat lethargic.) The idea is to make the treatments accessible, flowing, fit for film, hard to turn away from, with terrific acting and singing. It’s not impossible. In fact, it’s a wonderful challenge.

OK, not every director would be able or willing to do it. And this type of thing wouldn’t make a lot of money or be the kind of project that could be released in every theatre across the country, à la Avatar (2009) or some other such spectacle. Still, there is a trend these days to make films from popular musicals: Les Misérables (2012) and Into the Woods (2014) are two examples with near ‘round-the-reel singing, and their scores, in my humble opinion, are far inferior to the Verdi, Mozart or Wagner masterpieces I’d like to see in their place. Plus, there would be a kind of prestige associated with these productions that might end up being good PR for the studios generating them. And who doesn’t want that, huh?

I confess these hopes of mine aren’t realistic; I don’t see producers jumping into opera-based projects the way they do the latest effort from, say, Zack Snyder. I’d be interested in seeing them try, though, as it would bring back a form that once held a lot more sway. Seeing these masterworks on stage often costs a lot of money, while seeing them onscreen could be a lot less prohibitive. And it could build a new audience. Why not try it a little more, tap into this under-tapped market with some modestly budgeted musical initiatives? What have you, O movie studios, got to lose?

The most indelible memories frequently originate in childhood, and one of mine is the time Domingo ruffled my hair onstage. Opera movies can be just as memorable if done well … but we need to give them a chance. Hollywood can do just that—if it dares.

This would be a dare I’d take.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

7 thoughts on “Opera Onscreen: How to Resurrect a Dying Genre

  1. It seems like a chicken and egg thing. Opera needs to cultivate new audiences and a big hit film would go a long way toward doing that. But it is unlikely to happen until opera begins to cultivate new audiences. To me, the most significant appearance of opera in recent American film comes when Tom Hanks listens to Maria Callas in Philadelphia. That scene, I think, divided audiences. Some found it to be the most emotionally effective moment in the movie. Others, at least based on my discussions about it, found it distancing, making the Hanks character seem farther away than had he been listening to Bessie Smith or Coltrane. I fear it’s a losing battle you’re fighting, Simon but I suspect that why you’re bothering to fight it in the first place.

    • Well, I can’t discount that notion, frankly. And I do think you’re right in that opera needs to cultivate new audiences … though institutions such as the Met have gone a long way in making the form more accessible via HD presentations. Still, prohibitive costs to watch live performances are a major factor in preventing more people from enjoying it, as well as the misconception that it’s a genre only a small segment of individuals can or should like. I do agree that a major hit film about the subject would do wonders for opera–scenes such as the “Contessa perdono” segment in “Amadeus” that show the glories of opera’s greatest moments (in this case, the end of Figaro) furthered that cause, methinks. From time to time, we have movies of Shakespeare plays that are tailored to attract younger audiences. Why can’t films of operas do the same? I think it’s quite possible, and I hope that more such projects will be on the horizon.

  2. I am a fan of the more popular operas, and I have seen quite a few in London, and once in Leningrad too. However, I don’t think that they necessarily translate well to the screen. The stage is the place to see them, and to experience the real power of the performances, at least that’s how I feel.
    That said, there have been some interesting attempts to bring them to different audiences. One that comes to mind is Carlos Saura’s marvellous flamenco version of Carmen, (1983) and modern dress stagings of popular pieces in London theatres. I also saw a traditional version of Carmen ‘in the round’, at Earl’s Court, complete with waggons, carriages, and a huge cast.
    I don’t think that the current film industry is going to supply your wishes though, Simon. The audience demographic probably does not compute.
    Best wishes as always, Pete.

    • I can’t agree about operas not necessarily translating well to the screen, Pete. Ponelle’s Figaro definitely captured the joy of Mozart’s masterpiece, and Zeffirelli encapsulated Verdi’s music multiple times with Traviata and Otello while showing that they can be cinematic … and quite dramatic as well. Although I do believe such projects can be challenging, they’re certainly doable; I think the director needs to be very skilled to pull it off, and the performers not only have to be good singers, but they also need to be good actors–as Domingo is. I was in a couple of Zeffirelli production at the Met–Tosca and Falstaff, I believe–and I know those could’ve succeeded well onscreen. Same with Carmen, which has been attempted on numerous occasions. Wagner’s more static, but certainly not unattainable from a dramatic standpoint; the Ring cycle is very powerful and with its emphasis on magic, myth and intrigue, could be quite good. There are also a number of comedies that could be great for the cinema–Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is one I can think of off the top of my head, as is Strauss’ Rosenkavalier. It all depends on the treatment. And hey–if Branagh tried his hand at Zauberflote, why not other directors, too? It can be done.

      • I will have to bow to your far greater knowledge about the subject of Opera, Simon, and your personal involvement will obviously make you passionate. My opinion was my own, of course, and not intended to be definitive in any way.

        The BBC stage or cover live opera on TV occasionally, with simultaneous radio broadcasts. They are always very popular, but I still have doubts about the audiences that might actually travel to the cinema to watch them as a feature film, at least in the UK.

        Best wishes, Pete.

  3. Great piece, Simon. Coincidentally, I think the first opera I ever saw was at the Met… 16,000kms was a long way for me to go for an opera 🙂

    These days I tend to gravitate towards productions a little closer to home 😉

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