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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Maria Callas Meets the Incredible Hulk

Opera in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Opera lover: Mark Ruffalo is the Hulk in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
"Hulk", "Incredible Hulk" and "Avengers" are registered trademarks of Marvel Studios.
Image © 2015 Marvel Studios used for promotional purposes only.
One of the ongoing difficulties faced when writing about opera is the age-old and tired saw that opera has become irrelevant. That the work of Wagner, Verdi and Bellini has nothing to offer the 21st century and that it is a dying or worse yet, fossilized art form.

This month, an interesting counterattack is in progress at that unlikeliest of entertainment venues, your local cinematic multiplex. No, I'm not talking about some quaint little Oscar-bait film about retired opera singers mounting Rigoletto, or the Metropolitan Opera's latest Live in HD broadcast. No, I'm talking about the new magnum opus from Marvel Studios and auteur Joss Whedon: Avengers: Age of Ultron. 

In case you don't read comic books or for that matter, go to movies, the Avengers are the Marvel Comics equivalent of an all-star team, a group of heroes banded together to fight ex-Nazi madmen, invading aliens, or in the newest installment, a horde of killer robots programmed for genocide. Their ranks include Iron Man, the Norse god Thor (himself a character in Wagner's Ring) and skilled human killing machines Hawkeye and Black Widow. And one of their members is the Hulk (real name Dr. Bruce Banner) a mild-mannered scientist with a serious rage problem and a tendency to turn into an 8-foot tall city-smashing behemoth at the slightest provocation.

The two Avengers movies are almost like grand operas from the 19th century. They are big-budget public spectacles with cataclysmic special effects that would have made Wagner or Meyerbeer drool. They have the same noble (if deeply flawed) heroes, a hint of melancholy and tragedy in the actions of said heroes, and a sense of humor that would have appealed to the librettist Eugene Scribe. Most importantly, there is a scene in Age of Ultron that demonstrates the power and beauty of opera, and indeed the very reason it has survived as an art form since the 17th century.

Let's set the scene. Our heroes are flying home from  the (fictional) nation on the Adriatic that is the locus of much of the action in this film. On their jet home is the Among their number is Dr. Banner, huddled under a blanket following a battle with the bad guys, trying to retain his equilibrium during transport. And he's wearing a pair of Beats headphones  listening to...Maria Callas.

Specifically he's absorbed in La Divina's performance of "Casta diva" the soprano's entrance aria from Norma and a Callas trademark. (The film credits did not specify if they used the 1954 mono recording or the 1960 stereo remake, both recorded at La Scala under the baton of Tullio Serafin. From the sound quality in the movie, I'm guessing it was the '54.)  probably the most famous tune that this most tuneful of Italian composers ever wrote. The aria is slow, gentle, soothing, sung by a Druid priestess to a moon goddess, and just the thing that a scientist might listen to to avoid turning into a mighty mass of bad-tempered muscles.
Maria Callas sings "Casta Diva". © Warner Bros Entertainment. 

Age of Ultron is what movie studios call a "tent-pole": a big commercial film with big ideas in its script. (The perils of our current surveillance state, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, for starters.) But amid all the butt-kicking and mass destruction, this tender little scene is beautiful for its simplicity and brevity. It illustrates the power and beauty of this music. It shows that opera can indeed soothe the savage beast. And it shows why opera is, and always will be, important.

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