Opera – until the advent of film, perhaps the ultimate in multisensory spectacle – has long enjoyed a special relationship with the movies, a relationship that Opera News explores in the July issue. The cover story looks into the hugely successful “Met: Live in HD” series, while additional features address such phenomena as composer biopics; Zeffirelli’s big-screen opera adaptations; behind the scenes of The Great Caruso, with Mario Lanza and stars of the Met; HD transmissions of independent opera productions in Emerging Pictures’ new “Opera in Cinema” series; and the adoption of Hollywood-style marketing techniques in L.A.’s classical music scene.
Since its first transmission, in December 2006 – a condensed version of Mozart’s Magic Flute – “The Met: Live in HD” series has gone from strength to strength, winning both Emmy and Peabody Awards and bringing superlative live Met performances to opera-lovers all over the world. The brainchild of Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb, the project transmits high-definition video, live via satellite, to select venues, primarily movie theaters, in the United States and beyond. The success of the series, now in its fourth season, has enormous implications for opera-lovers and presenters everywhere, building a larger audience for the Met and generating excitement about opera and the arts at a local level. It is a measure of the series’ national success, for example, that audiences in Poughkeepsie, NY can once again enjoy opera performances in the Bardavon, which was originally built as an opera house in 1869 and is now returning to its roots with presentations of “The Met: Live in HD”. Overseas, the project has received a similarly warm welcome; when one patron claimed that seeing The Barber of Seville “Live in HD” in South London was even better than live at the Met, Gelb groaned, “We must be doing too good a job!” Barry Singer reports, in “Screen Tests”.
According to commentator Norman Lebrecht, “the composer biopic is a long-established Hollywood niche” whose “heyday was the mid-’40s.” It is to this period that we owe some of the most enduring examples, including Charles Vidor’s A Song to Remember (1945), a life of Chopin starring Merle Oberon as George Sand opposite Cornel Wilde as the ailing Pole. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) presents Robert Alda as George Gershwin; Night and Day (1946) offers Cary Grant as Cole Porter; in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Robert Walker plays Jerome Kern, while in Song of Love (1947), he portrays a young Brahms smitten by Katharine Hepburn’s Clara Schumann. More recent attempts to revive the genre include Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984), a life of Mozart featuring F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, and Immortal Beloved (1994), starring Gary Oldman as Beethoven. Ray Sawhill, who “does the best think-pieces of anyone around,” according to legendary film critic Pauline Kael, revisits some of his own favorites, in “Movie Music”.
Since the 1950s, Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli has also been a director of major opera productions on both sides of the Atlantic. After starting out directing Rossini, he went on to collaborate with Maria Callas on La traviata (Dallas, 1959); Tosca, also starring Tito Gobbi (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 1964); and Norma (Paris Opera, 1964). His work for the Metropolitan Opera includes La bohème, which opened in 1981 and has gone on to have more performances than any other production in the company’s history, and Tosca, a beloved staple since 1985. In the 1980s, Zeffirelli made a series of successful films adapting opera for the screen, including La traviata (1982), starring Plácido Domingo and Teresa Stratas, and Otello (1986), with Domingo opposite Katia Ricciarelli. More recently, he directed Anna Netrebko and Renée Fleming in an episode of “The Met: Live in HD” (2008). Stephanie Zacharek, a member of the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle, takes a look at how Zeffirelli adapted his directorial style for the big screen, in “Vista Vision”.
Nearly 40 years after the release of MGM’s 1951 biopic The Great Caruso, which stars Mario Lanza as the immortal tenor, Caruso’s son reminisced: “Vocally and musically, The Great Caruso is a thrilling motion picture, and it has helped many young people discover opera and even become singers themselves.” He added, “I can think of no other tenor, before or since Mario Lanza, who could have risen with comparable success to the challenge of playing Caruso in a screen biography.” Indeed, both Domingo and José Carreras have cited the movie as an inspiration to them when they were growing up. Besides Lanza, the highly fictionalized life features Ann Blyth as Caruso’s wife Dorothy, alongside such stars of the Met as Dorothy Kirsten, Jarmila Novotná, Blanche Thebom, and Lucine Amara. In “Mass Appeal”, Eric Myers, co-author of Screen Deco and Forties Screen Style, looks into the backstory of this most influential of opera movies.
In the past few years, film marketing and distribution company Emerging Pictures has begun to focus on distributing opera films from European opera houses and festivals such as La Scala and the Salzburg Festival. Its “Opera in Cinema” series presents such productions as Aida from Austria’s Bregenz Festival, with Tatiana Serjan, Iano Tamar, and Rubens Pelizzari, and Simon Boccanegra from La Scala, starring Domingo alongside Anja Harteros and Ferruccio Furlanetto. Eric Myers screens some high-definition presentations from the series, and reports back in “Opera Indies”.
The typical mainstream Hollywood movie is promoted with a poster, trailer, TV commercial spot, press junket, premiere, schwag, and more. As the New Yorker’s Polly Frost discovers in “Market Value”, some of these Hollywood-style marketing techniques are now being adopted by Los Angeles’s classical-music scene.
Also in the July issue, in “What Dreams May Come,” New York Times contributor David Belcher investigates the lengthy gestation of Life Is a Dream by American composer Lewis Spratlan. The work’s second act won a Pulitzer Prize back in 2000, yet the complete opera’s long-awaited world premiere is only now being staged at Santa Fe Opera. Conductor Leonard Slatkin and director Kevin Newbury lead a cast that features Ellie Dehn, Roger Honeywell, James Maddalena, and John Cheek.
Santa Fe Opera also presents Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, who sings both Mozart’s Papageno and Sid in Britten’s Albert Herring. Winner of the 2006 Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award and the Verbier Festival Academy’s 2008 Prix d'Honneur, Hopkins is the subject of July’s “Sound Bites” column with Editor-in-Chief F. Paul Driscoll.
Finally, comic icon Madeline Kahn, Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress for roles in both Paper Moon (1973) and Blazing Saddles (1974), started her career on Broadway and in fact almost chose a career in opera, as William V. Madison recalls in “Sweet Mystery”. As ever, there are special extras exclusively for subscribers and Met patrons at the substantially redesigned Opera News web site, including interviews with conductor Stewart Robertson, who paces this month’s performances of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land at Glimmerglass Opera, and Will Pomerantz, who stages Oscar Straus’s Shaw-inspired operetta, The Chocolate Soldier, at Bard’s SummerScape.