Cinematic opera in a different key

NEW YORK • 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 serial killer Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs (1991).

In a video called Villains Love Classical Music: The Supercut, online magazine Slate once traced the trend back to the Grieg-whistling child-murderer played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's 1931 movie 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 (1990) play out to Cavalleria Rusticana.

In The Untouchables (1987), a bullet-riddled Sean Connery fights for his life as Robert DeNiro's Al Capone enjoys Pagliacci.

So the release in Singapore this Thursday 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 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 guerilla, plutocrat and revolutionary.

"It's about the power of art to humanise," star soprano Renee Fleming, who recorded the arias by Dvorak and Puccini that Moore lip-syncs to in the film, said.

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.

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.

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 (1972) to Scott Joplin's rags in The Sting (1973).

"For opera, in particular, that's been really good," she said. "People remember how beautiful it is and also how epic it can be."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Cinematic opera in a different key'. Print Edition | Subscribe