Bigger than Life: Opera and the Movies

December 20, 2011
Ann Thompson

Whenever I go to an opera, I leave my sense and reason at the door with my half guinea, and deliver myself up to my eyes and my ears. – Lord Chesterfield

Since Lord Chesterfield’s time, the price of going to the opera has changed, but opera’s power to transform us is stronger than ever. According to Ann Thompson, operatic themes spilled over into the movies more than a century ago, and since then, the two arts have become intimately intertwined. Thompson has been speaking about opera for 30 years and can often be found giving pre-curtain lectures before Houston Grand Opera performances. We visited recently with Ann Thompson to find out about her latest class, “Opera and the Movies.”

WIH Reporter: Tell us about your upcoming class.
Thompson: To begin with, it will be very amusing as we will cover lots of movies you had forgotten about and lots of operas you have never heard of. We will listen to lovely music, follow wild stories, and discuss intriguing bits of trivia.

My class will change the way you think about opera.  Opera stands for so much more than just a grand night out, great singing, an emotional orgy, and sometimes a confounding experience. Opera is used as a symbol to denote education, passion, temptation, otherness, sensitivity, grandeur, and history, as well as offering a chance for us to experience low humor and the laying bare of human folly.

WIH Reporter: What is the relationship between opera and the movies?
Thompson: Long before the movies came along, literature used opera to illustrate the more intense moments in people’s lives, to allow a glimpse into their interior lives, to provide the venue for a life-changing experience, and to offer a liberating ambience. This spilled over to the movies.

Farrar as Carmen

Many of the electronic firsts that we now take for granted were tested using opera. Thomas Edison hoped that his inventions would make it possible for people to enjoy opera in their living rooms. Early efforts in movie making looked to opera for subjects, acting styles, makeup. It was hoped, at the time, that well-known opera stars like Geraldine Farrar, would help popularize the new silent movies. Everyone at that time was familiar with stories and stars from the opera, even if they never actually attended performances.

WIH ReporterWhich modern movie embodies the strongest operatic elements?
Thompson: When it comes to embodying the spirit of opera, the Godfather springs to mind: the grand sweep of the story, the passions, the violence, the intensity, even the musical theme is reminiscent of the tenor’s trumpet aria in Don Pasquale by Donizetti; the final episode in particular combines operatic tragedy with family tragedy.

WIH Reporter: What don’t most people understand about opera?
Thompson: Opera was for most of its 411 years of existence a sensitive barometer of currents of thought and historical events and thus presents an unusual view of our past, be it social, political, philosophical. Much of the present flowering of interest in opera stems from this all inclusiveness bolstered by the new movie techniques: surtitles, acting skills, directing techniques, design styles. 

A Montreal Opera performance of Rigoletto

WIH Reporter: What makes opera still relevant to us in the modern world?
Thompson: Opera remains interesting because its themes are universal and basic. Everyone hates, loves, envies, entertains murderous thoughts, is subject to politically incorrect impulses. Through opera, we live these emotions vicariously as, on the opera stage, they are acted out to greatest effect, with huge sound, huge emotions, huge voices, bold colors, huge sets, huge everything. All we have to do is submit to the magic, the illusion and, for a while at least, live in top gear.

For more information about this class or to register, click here