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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ten Great Opera Movies

From the Marx Brothers to 007--a history.
by Paul Pelkonen
The world of opera and Hollywood have a long association. Opera composers of the 20th century won Oscars for their work, and the epic sweep of Grand Opera led to giant spectacles like Ben-Hur, and even Avatar. With that in mind, here's a list of ten movies where you'll suddenly find youself at (or in!) the opera.
Feed my Frankenstein: Boris Karloff in Charlie Chan at the Opera

  1. A Night At The Opera
    The Marx Brothers' classic farce has the boys trying to help a young opera singer make good in New York while at the same time doing hilarious damage to the Verdi war-horse Il Trovatore. Kitty Carlisle delivers some beautiful singing in the final "Miserere", a few bits of Pagliacci and of course that stateroom scene.

  2. Citizen Kane
    Orson Welles' dramatization of the life of William Randolph Hearst has his titular character attempting to make over his mistress into a successful opera singer. Watch their frustration build as she repeatedly mangles "Una voce poco fa" from Act I of The Barber of Seville.

  3. Charlie Chan at the Opera
    One of the better examples of the early Chan movies, this thriller stars Warner Oland as the cheerful Chinese sleuth, and Boris Karloff as a Mephistophelean baritone who has escaped from an insane asylum to another haven for the insane--the opera house. The opera in this one is called "Carnivale" and was written for the movie by singer/pianist/composer Oscar Levant.
  4. The Tales of Hoffmann
    This is a haunting, fairly straightforward adaptation of Offenbach's unfinished final opera. It follows the old-school practice of placing the "Antonia" act last, and for some reason she is a ballet dancer, not an opera singer. The music is gorgeous and the visuals (by The Red Shoes directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) will haunt you after the credits roll.
  5. Hannah and Her Sisters
    Puccini is the order of the day in this Woody Allen comedy--one of his best films of the 1980s. In this case, Sam Waterston plays an opera-loving architect who briefly dates Diane Wiests character and takes her to a performance of Manon Lescaut at the Met. He brings in a bottle of wine and two glasses, something that today's bag-searching security strictly forbids. But hey, it was 1983.
  6. Amadeus
    This Oscar-winning film is historical hokum, but an excellent examination of the relationship between rival composers Mozart and Salieri. Includes scenes from Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte and even an excerpt from Salieri's little heard opera Assur.
  7. Meeting Venus
    Currently out of print, this excellent Hungarian film chronicles a troubled production of Tannhaüser at the "Opera Europa" in Paris, an international company where "you can be misunderstood in twelve different languages." The plot resembles Wagner's opera, with a conductor torn between his marriage and a passionate affair with the soprano, played by Glenn Close and voiced by Kiri Te Kanawa.
  8. The Fifth Element
    Luc Besson's futuristic Bruce Willis vehicle features a rendition of Donizetti's "Il dolce sono." Yes, the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor sung in an opera house on an intergalactic luxury liner by an eight-foot bright blue diva with tentacles growing out of her head. As a cabaletta, the Diva Plavalaguna sings the "Diva Dance", a blend of techno, rock and dizzying vocal acrobatics. Brava!
  9. Topsy-Turvy
    Operetta is the focus here, specifically the partnership between W.S. Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (Alan Corduner). The movie chronicles the pair's creative split and eventual reunion, which occurred during the writing of The Mikado. You also get to see scenes from Princess Ida and The Sorcerer performed by an excellent cast.

  10. Quantum of Solace
    James Bond has been to the opera before (notably in 1987's The Living Daylights), but a Bregenz performance of Tosca fuels a key plot point in this most recent Daniel Craig theater. As Bond discovers members of the secret organization "Quantum" hiding in the audience, the villain takes off his identifying "Q" pin, turns to his date and drily says "I guess Tosca isn't for everyone."

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.