Opera in the Movies
The first known opera was produced in Italy way back in 1597. Since then there have been hundreds of incarnations of this form of musical theater. What distinguishes opera from other forms of theater is that it is wall-to-wall singing, usually in a non-English language.
As a source of inspiration, opera music has always been popular with filmmakers. You might not know the specific details of an opera, but you’ve probably heard the music before. It’s easy to see why so many writers and directors turn to opera to add another layer to their memorable characters. The following is a list of opera loving characters from the sliver screen and the operas they love.
10. Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), Fatal Attraction
To some men, Alex is probably a scarier character then Hannibal Lector or Freddy Kruger combined: she is the woman scorned. An extramarital affair between Alex and Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) triggers some serious obsessive-compulsive behavior issues for Alex. Her opera of choice: “Madame Butterfly.” It’s playing in the scene when Alex is flipping out by flipping her light on an off. “Madame Butterfly” is the story of a Japanese woman who falls in love with a British soldier. When he dumps Butterfly to return to his “regular life” she cracks up and kills herself. The original ending of “Fatal Attraction” had Alex committing suicide and framing Dan for the murder. Clearly she was taking inspiration from her favorite opera. That ending was filmed but didn’t test well with audiences. A new ending was shot where Dan gets to choke the life out of Alex before his wife Beth (Anne Archer) gets in her shot. The original ending was kept in the movie for Japanese audiences.
9. Ronny Cammareri (Nicholas Cage), Moonstruck
At the opening of the story, feisty and independent widow Loretta becomes engaged to momma’s boy Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). Looking at the rest of her potentially uneventful and lonely life, Loretta has decided to “settle” for Johnny because he is a good man and a good provider. Uneventful, until she meets Johnny’s younger brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage): a brooding, bad boy baker. Yet, Loretta knows their one night of passion was a huge mistake and she encourages Ronny to “snap out of it.” If he’s going down he wants at least one great date night to remember for the rest of his life and, lucky for him, “La Boheme” happens to be playing at the Met.
If you’re Italian, you probably love Puccini opera. It’s in the blood. “La Boheme” is the story of ill-fated lovers Rudolpho and Mimi. They meet once and fall hopelessly in love but fate keeps them apart. It’s the perfect metaphor for Ronny and Loretta. We see glimpses of the opera being performed, emphasizing the emotions of the two characters and the complexities of their relationship. As Loretta returns home kicking a can, we can hear the haunting strains of the score.
Things worked out better for Ronny and Loretta then they did for Rudolpho and Mimi. If you want to see a modernized version of “La Boheme” watch “Rent;” it’s the same story in the same way that “West Side Story” is really “Romeo and Juliet.”
8. Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), What’s Opera, Doc?
For many of us, our first exposure to opera was, “What’s Opera, Doc?,” a Bugs Bunny cartoon originally released in movie theatres in 1957 (and still showing on TV to this day). Here, Richard’s Wagner massive three opera Ring Cycle or “The Ring of Nibelung” (“Der Ring des Nibelungen” in the original German) provided the inspiration for yet another epic battle between Elmer Fudd (playing demigod Siegfried) and Bugs.
After a lot of running around the impressive Chuck Jones landscapes, Bugs goes all “Tootsie” on Elmer by dressing up at Brunnhilde. It works and Elmer falls madly in “wuv”… until Bugs’ wig falls off. There is just no way you can walk away from viewing this cartoon without singing, “kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!” Congratulations, you’re singing opera… sort of.
7. Lt. Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall), Apocalypse Now
Speaking of Richard Wagner, you can’t forget the memorable helicopter attack led by Lt. Colonel Kilgore as he blasted “The Ride of the Valkyries” from “The Valkyrie” (“Die Walkure”) in “Apocalypse Now“. When he wasn’t sharing his love of opera with the locals, Kilgore also loved to surf no matter what bombs were bursting in mid-air. His famous line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” was voted the #12 best movie quote from the American Film Institute.
6. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sullivan (Allan Corduner), Topsy Turvy
Clearly if you’re doing a movie about the making of the opera “The Mikado” then everyone is going to be an opera loving character, but it was Gilbert and Sullivan who were definitely driving this ship. In their writing career together, Gilbert and Sullivan created 14 operas including “The Pirates of Penzance,” which was made into its own feature staring Kevin Kline and Rex Smith.
5. The Phantom (Gerard Butler), The Phantom of the Opera
Officially the longest running play on Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera” took the long road to Hollywood. It opened on Broadway in 1986 and the first attempt to adapt it for film started back in 1990. It was supposed to feature the original Broadway Phantom Michael Crawford and his co-star Sarah Brightman who was married to Webber. But when they divorced the film was called off. Talk about operatic. And yes, that is the same buffed out Gerard Butler from “300” singing up a storm in this version of the horror classic, which finally made it to the big screen in 2004. Who knew the guy had a singing voice?
4. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Wells), Citizen Kane
Although Charles Kane might have started out as an opera lover, what his second wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) did to the genre ruined it for him forever. Kane paid three million dollars to build an opera house and star his wife in a production of “Salammbo.” Never heard of that classic opera? It’s because it was made up for the film. As a result of her horrible performance, Kane published a rotten review which led to a divorce. Lesson learned: don’t pay for your wife’s opera career if she can’t sing.
3. Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), Amadeus
Salieri recognized genius when he saw it in young Mozart even if it drove him crazy with jealousy. As a composer Mozart was quite prolific in the opera department. On display in this feature you can catch glimpses of “The Magic Flute,” “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.” And for each success, poor Salieri continued to seethe. Although, seething like that can actually pay off: it won F. Murray Abraham the Best Actor Oscar for 1984.
2. Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), The Rabbit of Seville
Bugs again? Absolutely with a classic theatrical cartoon like this one, released in 1950. Actually, most opera music is in the public domain, which means you don’t have to pay exorbitant fees to use the music in a movie- another reason why its use is so popular with filmmakers (or at least producers). Here Bugs is chased onto the stage by Elmer during a production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” You’ll instantly recognize the score as the overture is one of the most popular pieces of opera.
1. Otis Driftwood, Fiorello and Tommaso (the Marx Brothers), A Night at the Opera
Hands down, one of the Marx Brother’s greatest films and chock full of opera gags and music. The main opera on display is “Il Trovatore” by Giuseppi Verdi who ranks right up there with Puccini for lovers of Italian operas. Here, Groucho plays a would-be manager trying to woo Margret Dumont out of her riches. The boys stow away on an ocean liner to sneak into New York with the Italian opera company. The finale has the Marx Brothers reeking havoc during a performance. Imagine “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” being played during an opera and you’ve got some idea of the mayhem. If you only had to watch one movie with opera, this should be the one!
by Rick Bitzelberger