Opera and the Cinema: Camerata to Camera!
Once upon a time a group of super opinionated dudes got together in late Renaissance Florence and created the art form called opera. Little did they know that their experimental art form would one day lead to the billion-dollar enterprise that is the modern-day motion picture. Sound unbelievable? They would have been pretty shocked too.
The Florentine Camerata, a name imposed retroactively in 1600 by Giulio Caccini, was based on the term “Camera” which in Italian means “room”. In other words, these guys wanted history to see them as “the room where it happened”.
So, what was “it”, and what directly resulted from this rarified coffee klatch of Italian men one of whom was the father of astronomer Galileo Galilei (another future rabble rouser). These poets, humanists, visual artists, intellectuals, and musicians were all under the impression that music had become “corrupt” and that all of the best art and wisdom emanated from the Ancient Greeks. One of the highest of those art forms, in their opinion, was Greek Tragedy and they believed that it had been originally both spoken and sung in performance and that this heightened its effect. Based on this conjecture they created a new form of musical delivery of dramatic text that they called “monody” and, when in a larger form, “opera”. Opera, was intended to deliver all of the socially nutritive and cathartic content of Greek Tragedy, but also be a form which could include multi-media elements. Even then the Camerata was well aware of the social power that this multi-faceted art form could wield. Opera was created with the express hope that it would heal, ennoble and uplift the human experience for the good of society. Pretty cool goal, Florentine dudes.
Opera did indeed become a sensation. At first it was mostly about Gods and Goddesses because it was more believable that deities and mythical characters would sing instead of speak. Then that elevated sensibility began to be applied to flatter and amuse the original “stars” of European history: the nobility. The noble patrons were also, of course, paying for the art form to be produced and were its predominant audience. Then, along came Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.
Mozart managed to persuade his Vienna patron Emperor Joseph II to let him set Da Ponte’s libretto based on a play that Pierre Beaumarchais was tearing up European stages with (and getting banned for) at that time. Fun fact: Beaumarchais was vocally pro the American Revolution! These plays were scandalous because they dared to make the servants smarter than the aristocrats and the eventual heroes of the drama. Boom! It was a success. Mozart seemed to not only grasp the marketing value of setting a banned play, but also genuinely wanted to write music for and about real people. The Magic Flute, for instance, arguably the most popular opera he wrote in his lifetime, was written in German and therefore accessible to “the masses”. Flute is kind of a cartoon-like Masonic morality play, and, in my mind, foreshadows the kinds of characters we see much later in early silent films.
Opera continued to blossom as a popular art form through the romantic era. It became not only a platform for scandalous ideas of romantic love set against societal constriction but it also functioned as a social chess board that defined the flow and echelons of high society. Opera houses became like palaces, and opera goers entered them like kings and queens. It was the Met Gala and Oscar Red Carpet every night! The opera going audience also began to develop a taste for lighter fare that no doubt emanated from the salons and less “respectable” venues of the demi monde. Operetta or “little operas” were born. Waltz tunes that would dominate ballrooms for generations debuted on the stages of operetta. Love affairs that end well and jazzy numbers made everything champagne fabulous! Operetta is where we get musical theater, the Ziegfeld Follies, Busby Berkley musicals and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald starred in all of the favorite operettas on the silver screen. Early movie houses were directly related to opera houses, and were designed with the same concept in mind: you were royalty because you bought a ticket. Opera house and movie house experiences would lead to World’s Fair Expositions (“Meet me in St. Louis. Louis, meet me at the fair…”) and whole fantasy worlds, not unlike opera or movie sets being built to capture the imagination of society and encourage it to evolve and innovate and buy into the promise of that briefly constructed world. Heady stuff! This would of course lead to theme parks, and the most prevalent fantasy land of all, Disney Land.
We would be remiss to not mention what Richard Wagner did for opera. His innovation of both stage and orchestra and how the audience would encounter the art form, and his rededication to the mythical themes and massive musical forms make man into superhuman. He was like a neo Florentine Camerata in one composer. In many senses the swooning fans of Wagner’s operas were the predecessors of the swooning fans that would line Hollywood Blvd under the swirling spotlights to get a glimpse of Errol Flynn. It is no small wonder his music was chosen as a tool of fascism.
On the other more classic end of the drama spectrum we have Giuseppe Verdi whose music and storytelling was so profound for the Italian public during his lifetime that it became synonymous with Italian nationalism. Some may recall seeing on the news entire streets in Italy singing “Va Pensiero”, from Nabucco, during the Pandemic in lockdown as their communities faced terrible losses every day. Giacomo Puccini and composers like Ruggero Leoncavallo went even further and brought stories “ripped” from the headlines of the news in a style called “verismo” or what we might call “keeping it real”. They are the original Dramas and Rom Coms. There is a reason soap “operas” were not only popular but named for the ultimate drama paradigm. They sold soap for a reason!
So, as we alight from our time machine in the present day, how does Opera relate to the average Superhero movie in theaters? Well, for one thing the story themes are all the same: overwhelming odds, superhuman characters with average human flaws, love, war, jealousy, revenge, comedic relief, death and pyrotechnics. Superhero movie scores are brooding and bombastic just like opera scores. The heroic themes are transportive and are made up of such carefully honed musical stereotypes that the music tells more than half the story in many shots. What would Star Wars be without that iconic John Williams score (referred to by many as Wagnerian neo-romanticism)? George Lucas even called it a Space Opera. Short of hearing an aria (which in many cases you do) when you are sitting in the movie theater you are also in a kind of opera house. Yes, glamorous movie stars and all of the effects that make them larger (or smaller) than life help to catch your imagination in the movies. But remember that in opera, the lights and costumes and beautiful singing were all of the special effects available at their inception and delivered all the same fantasies and aspirational longing. Opera singers have been charismatic and compelling creatures for centuries, you need only look at portraits of early sensations like Jenny Lind as evidence. To this day opera singers still retain the decided advantage of real-time visceral communication without amplification or sound editing in an experience that is by its nature one of a kind and as unique and precious as a string of pearls that materializes and dematerializes before your eyes and ears. Yes, movies can be endlessly replayed, but with opera you are there when the art is made, you are part of the artistic space. That is a significant distinction that is too rarely made.
Those Florentine dudes knew they were on to something, though, right? I wonder what they would think of us now? I wonder how much more we could deliver to our community if we kept their original concepts closer to our goals: Community nourishment, catharsis and mutual uplift. Art and music has gotten us through some hard times before. I have to believe they will again.
Here are some great moments when opera was used in the movies.
Send us your favorites or ask us which operas they come from in the comments!
“Il Canzona di Doretta”, from La Rondine as used in A Room with a View
“The Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti, as used in The Fifth Element
“The Letter Duet” from The Marriage of Figaro as used in The Shawshank Redemption
“Ebben ne andro lontana” from La Wally, by Catalani as used in Diva
“La Mamma morta” from Andrea Chenier by Giordano as used in Philadelphia
La Boheme, Act II by Puccini as used in Moonstruck
The Te Deum finale and parts of act II of Tosca by Puccini as used in James Bond Quantum of Solace