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Opera in Film Takes On a New Note in ‘Bel Canto’ (It’s Not Evil)
By Michael Cooper
Sept. 7, 2018
Classical music often gets a bad rap in movies. When you hear Mozart in a James Bond film, chances are the villain is using his trusty feed-foes-to-the-sharks contraption. Wagner is a soundtrack for violence. Bach? Dinner music. For Hannibal Lecter.
In a video called “Villains Love Classical Music: The Supercut,” Slate once traced the trend back to the Grieg-whistling child-murderer played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s 1931 “M.” Opera — which takes fierce passions to their logical conclusions, sex and murder — is no stranger to the phenomenon. Revenge killings in “The Godfather: Part III” play out to “Cavalleria Rusticana.” In “The Untouchables,” a bullet-riddled Sean Connery fights for his life as Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone enjoys “Pagliacci.”
So the release on Sept. 14 of “Bel Canto” — an adaptation of Ann Patchett’s hugely successful 2001 novel of the same name, starring Julianne Moore as an American diva caught up in a hostage drama in South America — gives opera a welcome chance to return to the screen in a very different key.
“Bel Canto” is the rare film that does not use opera to comment ironically on bloodshed, or signal sinister depravity, or provide the sonic equivalent of a heart-shaped box of chocolates in a moment of slightly cloying Valentine’s Day-style romance. Mixing elements of thriller and romantic drama, “Bel Canto” is not exactly an opera film. But it uses music as character and catalyst, a vital force uniting artist and fan, hostage and guerrilla, plutocrat and revolutionary.
“It’s about the power of art to humanize,” the star soprano Renée Fleming, who recorded the arias by Dvorak and Puccini that Ms. Moore lip-syncs to in the film, said in an interview.
The use of Ms. Fleming’s voice in the film is a wheel-coming-full-circle moment. Ms. Patchett has said that while she was writing the novel and creating the character of Roxane Coss, the American diva at its center, she was inspired by listening to recordings of Ms. Fleming. Now moviegoers will be able to hear Roxane’s singing voice as imagined by her creator.
It is the beauty of that voice that sets the plot in motion.
It is the key to understanding the obsession that drives the superfan played by Ken Watanabe, a Japanese industrialist who flies to an unnamed South American country to hear his favorite diva sing at a private party. When guerrillas take diva, fan and assembled guests in formal wear hostage, in an incident loosely inspired by the 1996 hostage crisis in Peru, the beauty of that voice becomes one of the elements that brings captives and captors closer together.
It is a far cry from the typical Hollywood use of music. Ms. Fleming said that she tends to think of opera in film as “something incredibly romantic,” pointing to the role “La Bohème” plays in “Moonstruck” or “La Traviata” in “Pretty Woman.” But she agreed that classical music had been adopted by quite a few cinematic bad guys recently. “It’s the villains who are the most in control in their villainy who tend to be classical music fans,” she observed.
The cinematic trope that classical music is somehow villainous has dismayed some in the field. The critic Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker that the “tendency to associate classical music with murderous insanity is a curious neurosis of the American pop-cultural psyche.”
And the pianist Jeremy Denk, an acclaimed interpreter of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” once wrote for NPR about the use of Bach in “Silence of the Lambs” to accompany a scene of Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalism. It was “certainly one of the best face-chewing scenes I can think of,” Mr. Denk wrote wryly, even as he called its use of the music exploitative.
“Cunning, evil directors almost always use classical music as an ironic foil, a tool for dissociation,” Mr. Denk wrote. “This perpetuates a stereotype: Classical music is unnatural. It is not the music for normal events; it’s for massacres and deceptions of the soul (“Apocalypse Now,” “Clockwork Orange,” the end of “There Will Be Blood”).”
Making a film like “Bel Canto” in an age of irony gave pause to its director, Paul Weitz, who co-directed with his brother Chris “About a Boy” and “American Pie,” and got a feel for the classical music world while working on the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle.”
“The film is romantic and tragic in a way that is completely out of step with the amount of irony that one generally brings to serious subjects in contemporary storytelling,” he said.
“What I came to realize,” he said, “was that the whole plot of the movie is essentially operatic.”
His diva, Ms. Moore, said in an interview that opera had been foreign territory for her before she signed on to play Roxane in “Bel Canto” — and confessed that years ago she had ducked out of the first opera she ever saw, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” before it was over.
But she said that she had warmed to opera — and particularly to Dvorak’s lush and soaring “Song to the Moon” from “Rusalka,” a calling-card aria for both the real Renée Fleming and the fictional Roxane Coss — as she worked on “Bel Canto.”
To prepare for the role she took field trips to the Metropolitan Opera; studied singing with Ms. Fleming’s coach, Gerald Martin Moore, to help her lip-sync; spoke with Ms. Fleming; and went to the recording session to watch up close as she recorded arias for the film.
So how much of Ms. Fleming is there in her portrayal?
“You know, Renée is not a diva,” Ms. Moore said. “There’s nothing imperious or arrogant or withholding about Renée. She’s very present; she’s not mysterious or pretentious. She’s really direct. And what you feel from Renée is this is a human being who is a tremendous musician. All that I took from her, for Roxane. But certainly none of the imperiousness, none of the attitude. None of that. That was all from the Roxane of the book.”
And at least one line in the film comes directly from Ms. Fleming, Mr. Weitz said — from her explanation of the plot of “Rusalka.”
“Renée said, ‘Well, you know it’s “The Little Mermaid,” but it’s opera, so in the end everyone dies,’ ” he recalled. He thought it was funny, and added it to the script. “I think it says a lot about Roxane’s character — that she’s unpretentious, but she has an accurate sense of both how opera swings for the fences, and that it’s slightly amusing that it is swinging for the fences.”
Opportunities for opera to burst into the broader popular culture through films and television are rare. But it was not always this way. Opera interested moviemakers even before film had sound: Cecil B. DeMille made a film of “Carmen” in 1915 starring Geraldine Farrar, one of the great prima donnas of the day, even though audiences could not hear her sing a note. “We’ve got this great opera star, starring in a silent film,” David Schroeder, the author of “Cinema’s Illusions, Opera’s Allure: The Operatic Impulse in Film,” said in an interview. And since the earliest days of movies, filmmakers have delighted in subverting, or mocking, opera. Fast on the heels of DeMille’s “Carmen” came Charlie Chaplin’s parody, “A Burlesque on Carmen,” an early entry in a canon of opera spoofs (whose most famous entry, the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” was screened last month on the plaza outside the Metropolitan Opera House).
In recent years opera has grown scarcer in movies — not counting the simulcasts of real operas that companies like the Metropolitan Opera regularly screen at multiplexes around the world, which generally appeal to existing opera fans. There are some notable exceptions: a performance of “Turandot” at the Vienna State Opera formed the backdrop of a memorable action scene in “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” and a performance of “Tosca” at the opera festival in Bregenz, Austria figures prominently in the Bond film “Quantum of Solace.”
Once in a long while a film comes along that makes audiences see opera in a new light, or makes a hit of an aria. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 1981 film “Diva,” a gangster opera opus, introduced many listeners to a transfixing aria from Catalani’s “La Wally.”
And the 1985 Merchant-Ivory film “A Room With a View” seduced not just with picturesque scenes of Florence, but with Puccini’s aria “O mio babbino caro.”
Ms. Fleming said that she had programmed both the Catalani and Puccini arias in her concerts — and wondered if she would have had they not been in the films. She said that movies played an important role in exposing audiences to music that they might not know — from Diana Ross playing Billie Holiday in “Lady Sings the Blues” to Scott Joplin’s rags in “The Sting.”
“For opera, in particular, that’s been really good,” she said. “People remember how beautiful it is, and also how epic it can be.”
Ms. Moore said that playing a diva, and getting to hear one up close, had firmly convinced her of one thing: Film, television and recording is no substitute for the real thing.
“You need to be in proximity to them,” Ms. Moore said, “so you can get the shock of their abilities and their humanness at the same time.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/movi ... moore.html
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