On Film and Opera

 September 18, 2019

Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) watching a performance of  Cavalleria Rusticana  at the Teatro Massimo in  The Godfather Part III  (Francis Ford Coppola, Paramount Pictures, 1990)

Connie Corleone (Talia Shire) watching a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana at the Teatro Massimo in The Godfather Part III (Francis Ford Coppola, Paramount Pictures, 1990)

Operatic! I’m sure you’ve heard this term used to describe certain films. Apocalypse Now (1979), according to filmmaker Mark Cousins, is one of the most “operatic films made about the Vietnam War.”[1] Film critic Roger Ebert has used the word to describe Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966), Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983), Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), and Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960).[2] Akira Kurosawa, according to Steven Spielberg, taught westerns how to “be more operatic.”[3] The word never feels unreasonable when describing these films since opera has historically possessed qualities shared by these films and countless others: lengthy running times, lavish production designs, and an expansive acoustic range. 


Opera has enhanced the development of film from the outset, and at the same time, film has made opera more cinematic. A review of the Seattle Opera’s recent staging of Verdi’s Rigoletto, directed by Lindy Hume, argues that “if you don’t distort its core concepts, you can do anything you like with opera’s details.” Performed at McCaw Hall, also the site of the annual Seattle International Film Festival’s opening gala, Hume updates the story’s details from sixteenth century Italy to 2019, with the villainous duke character recast as a pinstripe Versace-clad, Silvio Berlusconi figure. This approach to adapting previously performed source material is also a key component of film genre revision: dragging old stories into the present by drawing upon contemporary resources and public debates. In the case of Hume’s Rigoletto, Verdi’s story is repurposed for a post-#MeToo world: “Hume seems decidedly uninterested in letting the audience sit back and feel superior to the characters we’re watching.”  This recalls Bertolt Brecht’s thoughts on opera during the 1930s (“Opera Yes—But With Innovations”), arguing that opera should be given “contemporary content” and should be “technified” as a way to democratize an art form with a publication reputation for being reactionary. When we think about opera in this way, it no longer feels like an antiquated spectacle form being kept alive by aficionados. Rather, opera feels all the more exciting when one reflects on the possibilities afforded to by its longstanding relationship with cinema. 


Let’s take another look at the birth of film and consider the ways that opera influenced cinematic thinking. The first synchronized sound film was The Dickson Experimental Sound Film from 1894 (left), directed by Edison filmmaker William Kennedy Dickson. This seventeen-second-long film’s soundtrack was discovered during the early 1960s, categorized as the “Dickson Violin film,” and conserved by the Library of Congress. In the film, Dickson appears onscreen as a violin player, recording the sound of his violin directly into a phonograph horn as two men dance. The music that he plays is “Song of the Cabin Boy” from the opera The Chimes of Normandy (or Les Cloches de Corneville) by Robert Planquette.[4] At first glance, this may seem coincidental. Perhaps it was just piece that Dickson was fond of and knew how to play. He could have easily played “Oh! Susanna” or, being that he was from a Scottish family, a lament. Dickson may also have been foreshadowing early silent film piano and organ players who were well-versed in Classical music, opera, and traditional pieces – riffing on these songs during film screenings like a DJ doing a remix. 

Yet, consider this letter that Edison himself would later write in 1925 to early film historian F.H. Richardson:       

[In 1887,] the idea occurred to me that it was possible to devise an instrument which should do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear. I believe that in coming years, by my own work and that of … others who will doubtless enter the field, grand opera can be given at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York without any material change from the original and with artists and musicians long since dead.”[5]


Around this time, Edison would also write that the potential for moving images occurred to him in the wake of the invention of the phonograph:  

If only we could see the performers, as well as hear them? The desire to have accompanying sound came before film.”[6]


This desire to see and hear recalls Richard Wagner’s view on what made opera such a powerful medium: opera is the union of “music language” with “word language,” and “this union can only be successful when the musical language is linked intimately to those elements of word language that are congenial…the linking must occur precisely at the point where, in the word-language itself, an indomitable urge for true, sensuous expression makes itself felt.”[7] But what about the union between “music language,” “word language,” and a visual language? Consider the Parisian opera manuals of the nineteenth century – livrets de mise-en-scène– which featured stage-slides with detailed instructions on stage-positions, set décor, movements, and lighting effects, with each linked to specific music score cues.[8] These manuals can be seen as a forerunner to a production designer’s “look book,” detailed plans on how to visually realize a film script. This connections serves as a reminder of how much opera and film are both collaborative art forms. Opera as a fine art form, according to Wagner, achieves its full realization when there is a “union of all the arts…in their fullest realization.”[9]


Much of this “union of all arts” in opera and film centers on movement and perception. Consider production designer Robert Boyle’s (SaboteurNorth by NorthwestThe Birds) approach to planning a design: 

[I ask] where do these [characters] move, do they come in, and in what manner do they come in? Is this for suspense reasons or are we just being objective an introducing people to a particular place. Then I can begin my plot how of how people move in the space, because their movement in the space and the image’s size is very important. Whether you see somebody in a big head close-up or full figure is terribly important. Sometimes you need air and space around people to make a particular point.”  


Now, contrast this what Venetian composer and opera advocate Benedetto Marcello wrote about stage design in 1720:

The modern stage designer or painter must avoid any familiarity with perspective, architecture, decorating, or lighting. For that reason, he should see to it that all architectural sets are designed as if viewed from four or six different points at the same time, and that the horizon is assumed at a different level for each.[10] – Il teatro alla moda


With opera, and eventually with film, part of the spectacle was that it was colors in motion, in stark contrast to the black and white still photography that emerged during the nineteenth century. When we look at how color was used in early cinema, we find that these early attraction films used hand-tinting processes in ways that highlight opera’s influence on motion picture storytelling. As Joshua Yumibe points out, early films coincided with a time when color was undergoing a “period of immense transformation in art and in popular culture,” and a new set of ideas about the transformative properties of art emerged.[11] An example can be found in the film Annabelle Serpentine Dance (approx. 1895), directed by William Dickson, above. Notice how the presentation of colors are centered around a body in motion, the changing of the colors set to a rhythm and designed to draw the viewer into a world more sensuous than reality. Now, look at Alice Guy Blaché’s hand-tinted film Pierrette’s Escapades/Le depart d’Arlequin et de Pierrette (approx. 1900) below. In this film, a story told through bodies in motion is provided with a new layer of meaning by adding colors in motion, providing the world of the central character, Pierrette, with fantastical qualities. Although this video uses contemporary music, it is easy to imagine how that the figures and colors are staged in a way to be met with musical accompaniment, another early example of film drawing upon opera’s union between visuals, “word language,” and “music language.”     


The Neon Demon  (Nicolas Winding Refn, Wild Bunch, 2016)

The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn, Wild Bunch, 2016)

Let’s shift our focus forward several decades and look at films where colors are given an operatic function. Set in nightmarish vision of the L.A. fashion world, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) uses an expansive color palette to infuse a world, already familiar to us through our contemporary media landscape, with a menacing theatricality – drawing heavily on the films of Dario Argento, David Lynch, Michelangelo Antonioni, and, Refn’s personal favorite, Alejandro Jodorosky. Elsewhere, we can see this same colorful theatricality in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void(2009), Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017; drawing heavily from the color palette of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits), and in television series such as The Handmaid’s Tale (2017 – present) and Euphoria (2019). Colors in these films and tv shows provide more than just tone. They dance to an invisible music provided by the characters and overarching storylines – another way of thinking about the union between the (musical) language of a film’s visual storytelling and the (audible) word language of the film’s screenplay and plotting.       


We can find examples where operatic staging has also influenced film exhibition on a visual level: Clune’s Theater in Downtown Los Angeles (5th and Olive), before becoming one of early Hollywood’s most famous silent film venues during the 1910s, started out as Hazard’s Pavillion – opened in 1887 by the National Opera Company and notably performing Merry Wives of Windsor(Otto Nicolai), Aida (Giuseppe Verdi), Lohengrin (Richard Wagner), and La Boheme (Giacomo Puccini) in 1900; In April of 1927, Abel Gance would hold the premiere of his Napoleon at the Théâtre de l’Opéra in Paris. But what about opera’s influence on sound design? Sound editor Walter Murch (The GodfatherApocalypse NowThe English Patient) argues that although “image and sound are linked together in a dance,” a part of cinematic storytelling innovation throughout history has centered on trying to disrupt the unison of this dance and to shift the relationship between sound and image.[12]Murch also notes that one of the defining characteristics of the pre-cinema/pre-recorded sound era, when opera was at its peak of popularity, was that people did not possess “the ability to manipulate sound the way they’d manipulate color or shapes.”[13] Innovations in film sound, therefore, can be seen as part of a larger attempt to improve upon this deficiency while at the same time retaining the lyrical qualities that film storytelling has borrowed from opera. For example, look at this scene from The Godfather where Michael (Al Pacino) kills Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) in the film’s iconic restaurant scene. Murch notes that “Francis [Coppola] wanted to not have any music in that scene; he wanted it to come in after the murder was over, after Michael had dropped the gun the way Clemenza told him to. Only at that moment would these big operatic chords come in.”[14] The result brings to mind the Paris opera production manuals described earlier: movement and use of props explicitly linked to music cues. (Incidentally: moments like these in Coppola’s films may also echo the influence that Coppola’s father Carmine Coppola, a flautist for the NBC Symphony orchestra, had on him from a young age, which he has spoken at great length about in many interviews and behind the scenes featurettes).   


Apocalypse Now  (Francis Ford Coppola, United Artists, 1979)

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, United Artists, 1979)

 As mentioned earlier, one feature of opera found in film is an expansive acoustic range, and this connection is perfectly highlighted through Apocalypse Now’s pioneering of Dolby surround sound technology. Dolby earned a reputation during the 1970s as Hollywood’s major innovator in sound technology after developing equipment “that removed the audible hiss from Nashville(1975), Days of Heaven (1978), and other releases encoded with the popular A-type noise reduction.”[15] Leading to what James Lastra has described as “a reexamination of the relationship between the audio-visual constructions of the cinema and the human sensorium,” Apocalypse Now’s sound design is rooted equally in the rock and roll landscapes of Vietnam War cultural memory and late nineteenth century acoustic soundscapes crafted by theater designers.[16] The film, in this sense, is “Wagnerian in its aspirations,” intoxicating and flooding the senses. By borrowing these operatic qualities and sound configurations, Apocalypse Now, through its sound design, prompts the viewer to think about war differently, much in the way that opera’s fusion of music, lyrics, and visuals prompt the spectator to think about other worlds differently; war is removed from the nightly headlines and is transformed into a psychedelic experience, opening one up to the deeper questions of the heart.    


A Touch of Zen  (King Hu, Union Film, 1971)

A Touch of Zen (King Hu, Union Film, 1971)

What about films that are based on opera’s themselves? The first example that springs to mind is Ingmar Bergman’s adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1975), with its colorful vibrancy brought to life through Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. There is also The Tales of Hoffman (1951), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and based on Jacques Offenbach’s opera of the same name. Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954), starring Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte, is an adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen, retold through Cinemascope Technicolor. The Godfather Part III (1990) incorporates elements of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana, and also features scenes from the opera, filmed at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily. Outside of the West, legendary Chinese director King Hu borrowed heavily from Chinese opera, its “visual and musical symbolisms,” to create his own cinematic operas: notably films like Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971), and Legend of the Mountain (1979).[17] And although Tolkien has insisted there are no connections between his work and Wagner, there have been many connections drawn between The Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s Ring of Nibelung cycle, as well as other Wagner words like Parsifal


Opera, according to Rose Theresa, “offered early filmmakers a ready-made, proven, and flexible model for establishing and regulating visual pleasure” through its combining of spectacle and narration.[18] Film aesthetics and technology have been enhanced by opera’s influence from the days of early cinema, and, now into the twenty-first century, contemporary opera performances are noticeably enhanced by cinematic storytelling. Opera production, as a collaborative art form (a “union of all the arts in their fullest realization”), foreshadowed film art and production design in many striking ways, notably in both form’s attention to movement and perception. The role that color plays in creating movement and manipulating perception – adding a sensuous layer that infuses the story with more transformative properties – is an influence from opera that can be felt in early, classic, and contemporary cinema. We can also feel opera’s influence in early and recent film exhibition practices, as well as in the development of film sound design (technological innovations, such as Dolby Surround, owe as much to the architects of the Royal Opera House in London as they do to Woodstock). Lastly, opera has also provided filmmakers with stories and story elements that are readily adaptable to film, a reminder that film is a language of emotion that has been cross-pollinated by other art forms from the outset. 



Further reading


Clarke, Charles G. Early Film Making in Los Angeles. Los Angeles: Dawson’s Bookshop, 1976. 


Dienstfrey, Eric. “The Myth of Speakers: A Critical Reexamination of Dolby History.” Film History, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2016), pp. 167 – 193.


Jarrett, Michael and Walter Murch. “Sound Doctrine: An Interview with Walter Murch.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Spring 2000), pp. 2-11. 


Joe, Jeongwon and Theresa Rose. Between Opera and Cinema. NY: Routlege, 2002.


Lastra, James. “Film and the Wagnerian Aspiration: Thoughts on Sound Design and the History of the Senses.” Lowering the Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound(editor Jay Beck and Tony Grajeda). Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2008. 


Law, Ho-Chak. “King Hu’s Cinema Opera in his Early Wuxia Films.” Music and the Moving Image.Vol. 7, No. 3. (Fall 2014), pp. 24-40.


LoBrotto, Vincent. By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers. CT: Praeger Publishers, 1992. 


Murch, Walter and Frank Paine. “Sound Design.” Journal of the University Film Association. Vol. 33, No. 4 (Fall 1981), pp. 15-20. 


Savage, Roger. “The Staging of Opera.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. NY: Oxford UP, 1994. 


Street, Sarah and Joshua Yumibe. Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s. NY: Columbia UP, 2019. 


Weiss, Piero. Opera: A History in Documents. NY: Oxford UP, 2002. 

[1]The Story of Film: An Odyssey(Mark Cousins, Hopscotch Films, 2011)

[2]Ebert, Roger. The Great Movies. NY: Crown, 2002.

[3]Mifune: The Last Samurai(Steven Okazaki, Farallon Films, 2015)  

[4]UCLA Film and Television Archive

[5]Letter from Edison to Mr. F.H. Richardson of New York, January 24th, 1925. Seaver Center Archives, Natural History Museum, Exposition Park, Los Angeles.


[6]Clarke 1976, pg. 9

[7]Weiss 2002, 197

[8]Savage 1994, 382

[9]Weiss 2002, 203

[10]Savage 1994, 354

[11]Yumibe 2018, pg. 142; for further reading see Yumibe, Joshua. Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism (Techniques of the Moving Image). NJ: Rutgers UP, 2012.  

[12]Murch and Paine 1981, 15

[13]Jarrett and Murch 2000, 4

[14]Jarrett and Murch 2000, 8

[15]Dienstfrey 2016, 168

[16]Lastra 2008, 124

[17]Law 2014, 24

[18]Theresa 2002, 1