Thursday, January 10, 2008

On the use of Opera in Film

Night before last, Joy and I stayed up late, enjoying the last few days of our winter break before classes wash over us next week. We watched a movie recommended to me by a student last year in my Romantic music class who felt it would appeal to my sensibilities in numerous ways.

He was right.

The movie is an epic from 1982 by Werner Herzog called Fitzcarraldo. The story follows a madman or a dreamer, depending on your point of view, who desperately wants to bring an opera house to the jungles of Peru and have Enrico Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt (even though the actress could not sing) open the house. To raise money for the project, he options land to harvest rubber. The only problem is that the land lies downriver beyond impassable rapids. Noticing another river runs close by, Fitzcarraldo determines to sail down the second river and then drag his steamship overland to the first river, bypassing the rapids.

The film is famous for its troubled production, not unlike Coppola's Apocalypse Now, another film about madmen in the jungle. Cast members quit and were hospitalized, half the production was shot twice, and Herzog decided to attempt Fitzcarraldo's plan, having his crew drag a 360-ton boat up a 40-degree incline and leading to a mutinous cast and crew. Perhaps as a result of Herzog's focus on making his vision come true, the film is meandering, a bit overlong, and everything after the boat crosses land fills like an anti-climax. But there are images throughout the movie that are breathtaking and searing.

The sequence that most haunts me days later is when Fitzcarraldo, abandoned by all but three of his crew members and hunted by natives who have killed every other expedition down the river, climbs to the top of the boat and begins playing Caruso records. The steamship, plowing through the water, is quickly surrounded by hand-dug canoes as the natives listen in surprise and awe, stroking the ship as though it were an apparition. It is a striking scene, and one echoed later as we the audience watch in surprise and awe as the steamship is pulled over land while Caruso sings from the top, a ghostly voice haunting the production.

The scene impressed me for many reasons, but perhaps most for its use of opera. I have long been fascinated by the way modern films incorporate opera into their structure. Opera is such an art of artifice and is so overly emotional that multiple meanings can be grafted onto it, especially by a public that does not understand the meaning of the words. However, I have found that in the past thirty years, opera has come to symbolize evil more than anything else in film, and especially wealthy, arrogant, intellectual evil. Perhaps most famously that connection was made with Hannibal Lector in the series of films beginning with Silence of the Lambs. In that character, the purest, most chilling evil, dispassionate about every activity including death, was given music that was exactly the opposite. As he committed horrible acts, beautiful music flowed on, enveloping the viewer and charging their reaction further, heightening their response.

Opera is strange in that way - so many ideas can be grafted onto it that it serves multiple purposes in film. However, this notion of opera equating with evil has truly permeated film beyond any other connection. From its beginning, the television recounting of Superman's origins Smallville has traded in convention comic book and movie cliches. It does so sometimes to its advantage and sometimes to its hilarious disadvantage, but because of this trend, I find it useful in viewing what musical and visual tropes have become de facto in our shared language. Since Lex Luther was not evil at the show's outset, an evil Luther was provided in his father, Lionel, and every time Clark or Lex entered Lionel's office (his lair, if you will), opera was playing. Lionel's evil essence vibrated in the very air around the main characters. Since Lionel is wealthy, upper class, and cruel, the cliche dictates that opera must be his musical marker.

In this scene, Lionel is contemplating suicide, but even in a fractured state of mind, opera surrounds and identifies him:

What strikes me as most interesting about these uses of opera as sign of evil is that lyrics are hardly ever important. Lionel is listening to "Je crois entendre encore" from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, a beautiful song about longing for a lost lover and the divine rapture those dreams give. He is not pinning under the stars for a beautiful woman, he is fixated on ending his pain and suffering.

This disconnect between the words of an aria and the onscreen image has been carried to an extreme by the recent dip into irony that operatic uses for evil have taken. I first remember noticing this type of use in The Untouchables, where Al Capone orders Sean Connery's character Jim Malone to be killed. The hit takes place while Capone is at the opera, enjoying I Pagliacci:

This scene is wonderful because Capone is crying, empathizing with Pagliacci who, in his aria "Vesti la giubba," is pouring out his pain at having to make people laugh while he is crying on the inside. As Capone's minion delivers the news of Malone's death, Capone does the opposite of Pagliacci, laughing through his tears of sadness to arrive at an indescribable elation.

However, most directors use opera in fights in this way:

In the background, "La donna è mobile" is playing while the Punisher and his assailant battle. "La donna è mobile" is about the fickleness of women and why men shouldn't trust them. So unless the director was going for understated homo-erotic content, an idea I sincerely doubt, he just wanted bouncy opera to ironically counterpoint his brutal fight scene. But even given the benefit of the doubt, the music does not fit, the irony falls flat.

Sometimes, however, using the sound of opera without any concern for the words results in powerful moments. Consider this scene from The Shawshank Redemption:

Andy is playing "Sull'aria" (also known as the Letter Duet) from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. In the duet, Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna are plotting to trick the Count and so are writing a letter dictating where the Count will meet Susanna who will actually be Almaviva in disguise. What does all this upper vs. lower class deception have to do with men in prison? Nothing. But the music is some of Mozart's most beautiful and is truly transporting, a feeling perfectly captured in this scene.

Perhaps the best use of opera in film is when the feelings of the characters in the film are translated, shared, and magnified by the feelings expressed in the opera. Consider this scene from Life is Beautiful:

Here, Guido is desperately in love with and attempting to woo his future wife Dora. His feeling toward his love are perfectly expressed by Nicklausse's words to Giulietta in the "Barcarolle" from Contes d'Hoffmann:
Lovely night, oh night of love,
smile upon our joys!
Night much sweeter than the day,
oh beautiful night of love!
The aria then reappears towards the end of the film, providing added resonance for the tragedy that unfolds. Music in this film is used to shape the character's intentions, provide links between earlier moments in the film, and underscore emotion. It is one of the best examples of the use of opera in film.

I could go on, obviously, as opera continues to be used in myriad ways in film, both well and poorly. Perhaps these examples only speak to the power of music, that so many differing ideas can be layered into it as it expresses and communicates with each one of us individually.

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