From Films to Operas

New interpretations of It's a Wonderful Life, The Exterminating Angel, and more

Dewey Faulkner
Group of people on stage in dim light
Still from The Exterminating Angel.

Once, in the late sixteenth century when it was new, opera was conceived as a modern imitation of Greek tragedy and its subject matter was classical only. Serious operas remained that way through the eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century almost any topic could be considered suitable for an opera plot. A narrative merely had to be capable of working by means of opera’s standard forms—solo arias, ensembles, and so on. In mid-century Richard Wagner made opera truly serious again, returning it to its roots in myth but emphasizing its earnestness by jettisoning the standard forms. To Wagner, opera must now be a sung play, carried especially by the orchestral underlay of the sung text. Unfortunately, in following Wagner’s precepts composers soon forgot that their music must be interesting in itself and that how it was sung was a major part of why audiences came to opera performances. As Sir Thomas Beecham lectured to Maria Callas, the reason La Bohème has remained inordinately popular since 1896 is that it is full of “good tunes!”–which have had great singers performing them. The lack of both has doomed most new operas after Turandot in 1926; even Lulu (1937) did not become even somewhat popular until the 1970s. As is often bemoaned, opera today is a museum. Even the silliness imposed upon it by Regietheater and its producers cannot undo the continuing basic desire of audiences to hear great singers, few though there be nowadays, perform music that will move them.

But new operas continue to be written, and composers’ nets are being thrown ever more widely in the hope that new subject matter will save their pieces. Unsurprisingly, new operatic sources include films. New films, old films—if it has a plot and characters, composers will use it. Of course, since sung words take roughly twice as long as spoken ones, they will have to cut the film script. Likewise, they’ll probably need to reduce the number of characters, as well as the number of scenes, although modern staging and lighting techniques can get around this. More recent films, with their rapid cuts and jumps designed for the minuscule attention spans of modern younger audiences, make unsatisfactory sources, even for contemporary composers with their twitchy and irregular styles. But if carefully chosen, a film can be as good a basis for a successful opera as any other narrative. As always, the result depends on how it’s handled—and also on how it’s staged and sung.

The Metropolitan Opera has staged two new operas drawn from movies, whose composers (Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly) are currently flavors of the month in England and the United States, respectively. Their film connections have provided good fodder for critics (including this one) to chew upon. To these I have added a popular composer’s new film opera that is making the rounds of smaller American houses (so far) and a fourth that is in English and based on an American movie but composed in Austria. There are others, even a Howard Shore opera based on The Fly (who knew?), but these four will suffice to show the variety of film-connected work being produced and to enable us to assess (perhaps prematurely) its successes.

Successes. Operas are among the most expensive artworks to produce and almost always lose money, especially at first. Only repetition makes them financially viable. So the big question here is whether audiences will clamor to hear these works again and again, with different casts, conductors, and stagings to offer new perspectives on them. All have been recorded, one way or another, so the public has a chance to make informed judgments about them. Frankly, I doubt that any of them will ever rival Bohème—or even Lulu—but odder things have happened.

To facilitate matters I’ve prefaced each opera with some basic information, followed by brief summaries of the original films taken from IMDb, the international movie database.

The Exterminating Angel (El ángel exterminador, 1962), written and directed by Luis Buñuel. Opera by Thomas Adès and Tom Cairns, premiered at the Salzburg Festival 2016, first performed at the Metropolitan Opera 2017. Met production available on DVD and Blu-Ray (Erato 01902955) and from the Met’s On Demand streaming service; Buñuel’s film available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the Criterion Collection.

“The guests at an upper-class dinner party find themselves unable to leave.”

Director Buñuel grew up in Spain, where he was a friend of Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí, and where a showing of Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod (Destiny) convinced him that he wanted to make films. In 1925 he moved to Paris, became deeply involved with the surrealists, and eventually made two influential films, Un chien andalou (with Dalí, 1929) and L’age d’or (1930). Working between Paris and Spain, Buñuel then made several other films in Spanish. Because he was working in Europe for branches of American studios, he was sent with his family to the United States in 1938. Hollywood had little use for him, the Catholic Church opposed him (because of L’age d’or), and in 1946 he, his wife, and his son moved to Mexico City, where the film industry was flourishing and his work could be appreciated.

Buñuel made many films in Mexico, some exceptional and some potboilers, and came to know Mexico City, its cultures, and its actors quite well. By the early sixties he was ready to return to Europe and went to Spain to film the scandalous Viridiana (1961), which starred the Mexican actress Silvia Pinal, who appears in The Exterminating Angel as Leticia (“The Valkyrie”). By 1962 he was ready to leave Mexico for France, and he made The Exterminating Angel in Mexico City as something of a farewell gift. It uses a large cast of Mexican actors, many of whom had worked for him before, and is set almost entirely in a real mansion in Mexico City, or in a handful of rooms thereof.

The film’s guests, who are trapped in the large music room of the mansion, are all “cultured aristocrats” and have just attended Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. They are an accurate reflection of Mexico’s upper class, most of whom consider themselves hidalgo—that is, Spanish, not native; Europeans rather than Mexicans—and they act that way. (The host’s surname is “Nobile.”) They despise and denigrate the lower classes: “A third-class carriage was crushed [in a train accident]… . I must be insensitive because the pain of those poor, common people didn’t affect me at all,” says Leticia, to which another character, Rita, responds, “I think that the common people, the lower classes, are much less sensitive to pain.” A true horror of their entrapment to them is that they degenerate into the lower classes’ “vulgarity, violence and filth,” as Nobile laments.

If carefully chosen, a film can be as good a basis for a successful opera as any other narrative.

The actors must have enjoyed themselves playing these roles, as most were not of the upper social class and would have been looked down upon by their characters in real life. The lavish house is (or was) typical of the elite class’s homes; the servants (except for the Majordomo) are all obviously mestizos, as is still common in telenovelas today. Buñuel, with his wry sense of humor, clearly had a delightful time reducing them all to animals. As another character, Francisco Avila, says, viewing the accumulated garbage by the unpassable portal, “We live in a sty. Like pigs.”

Buñuel also clearly enjoyed subjecting his “nobles” to a variety of modes of deterioration. Many in the group become subjected to surreal visions (such as a disembodied hand); they all see three sheep (which they slaughter and eat partially raw) and a bear (which at least does not become trapped with them). Some return to peasant occupations, such as the once elegant Ana Maynar, who takes up magical chicken feet and cabbalistic incantations. They get into brawls. By the end they are preparing for human sacrifice. “Scratch a Mexican and you will find an Aztec,” as the Mexicans say.

Even more disturbing are the filmmaker’s repetitions–of movements, even of entire scenes. Eventually the guests conclude that repeating exactly the opening of the evening, where one of them, Blanca, was favoring them with a Scarlatti sonata, will break the spell holding them. It does, and they then all go to the cathedral to give thanks for their deliverance, only to find themselves trapped there. And everything begins again.

Thomas Adès, who conducts the Met’s production of his opera based on Buñuel’s film, and Tom Cairns, who wrote and directed it, have taken good advantage of the opportunities offered by the screenplay. Six of the film’s nobility are eliminated from the libretto, but fourteen remain, plus the Majordomo. Not surprisingly, Adès places them in numerous ensembles and gives a few of them solo arias of sorts. There are a few establishing scenes outside the entrapping two rooms, but the claustrophobia of the cinematic concept works well onstage. That is, the concept translates well from film to play. Several incidents are removed, but the text is true to Buñuel’s original, from which most of it is directly quoted (in English translation). One major deviation occurs at the end: the characters never make it to the cathedral but discover instead that they are on a stage–on which they are as trapped as before.

Adès’s music is almost entirely dissonant and is set in repeatedly jagged lines that run down to the end of scenes or sections of dialogue. Singers are required to leap up vocally, then rapidly descend, then rapidly leap up again, and so on. It works, but it is a device that is somewhat tiresome once one notices its prevalence. Poor Audrey Luna, who played Leticia in all three initial productions (Salzburg 2016, Covent Garden and the Met, both 2017), has the most stratospheric of these lines, as she did as Adès’s Ariel in his Tempest at the Met in 2012. Everyone else copes well with the ungrateful writing, but it does make the operagoer appreciate more than ever how delightfully varied and melodic the vocal writing is in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio (1942), which places a similar aristocratic group in an isolated country house, all played on one set. Lush melodies—how very outdated.

Film gave Buñuel numerous opportunities that Adès and Cairns do not have. His camera moves from group to group, from locale to locale, both in the room in which they are entrapped and outside the house (the opera does have occasional scenes outside the upstairs rooms), and uses close-ups, camera placement, lighting, and intercut storylines to create aspects of the drama that the stage cannot match. Still, The Exterminating Angel makes a fascinating evening in the theater. It has earned a place in the contemporary repertoire, though one can only wonder for how long.

Marnie, novel by Winston Graham (1961), film directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1964). Opera by Nico Muhly and Nicholas Wright, premiered at English National Opera (ENO) 2017, first performed at the Metropolitan Opera 2018. Met production available from Met Opera On Demand streaming service; film available on DVD and Blu-Ray; novel available in paperback.

“Mark marries Marnie, although she is a habitual thief and has serious psychological problems, and tries to help her confront and resolve them.”

Marnie opened at the English National Opera in late 2017 and at the Met about a year later. Like Adès, the American composer Nico Muhly has had an earlier opera performed at the Met, Two Boys, which had premiered at ENO in 2011 and appeared at the Met in 2013. This earlier work is based on a true incident in Manchester in 2003: a young boy (Jake in the opera) falls in love online with an older boy (Brian in the opera) and assumes numerous chatroom identities through which he participates in numerous outlandish plotlines–all of which Brian believes. When it becomes clear that the already depressed Jake’s love will never be reciprocated, using his false online identities Jake persuades Brian to kill him. D.I. Anne Strawson eventually pieces the facts of the “murder” together but can scarcely believe what she finds. Anne’s mother sums it up for her: “People see what they need to see, don’t you know? It’s all a masquerade. How do you think anyone gets what they want?” (This could be a summary of the theme of Marnie.) The opera was (and is) timely and sensational, unlike anything audiences had seen before. Its music cleverly reinforces each of its rapidly changing scenes’ impact. (Two Boys from the Met may be heard on Nonesuch 541941; 2 CDs.)

Muhly’s Marnie attempts to carry the interest in manufactured identities farther, but it hits some severe obstacles very soon. The opera is based on a substantial novel by Winston Graham (author of the Poldark series of novels). Alfred Hitchcock based his film on the same novel, but he changed both its time period (1959) and locale, whereas in the opera they are the same as the novel’s. In both Marnie assumes multiple identities, a different persona each time she changes jobs. All these personas have similar characteristics: excellent financial management skills, disengagement from contact with fellow workers except insofar as is useful for gaining knowledge of how the firm’s payroll is handled; and a pronounced ability to field questions about her past, especially her “deceased” husband. In the novel and the film, these changes in identity do not cause problems for readers or viewers; in the opera they lead to there being five Marnies, all dressed and coiffed alike, but each in a different color dress. The four lesser Marnies pop up frequently and act as background singers for the main character, vocalized and acted splendidly at the Met by Isobel Leonard. (Muhly calls them Shadow Marnies; I think of them as a girl group called the Marnettes. There are also six identical silent fifties-style faceless “organization men”/“investigators” who occasionally accompany the Shadow Marnies.)

In the novel Marnie’s multiple identities are those of daughter supporting her mother and her mother’s companion, Lucy, working woman (or women), horse lover (Forio is the only thing she cares about and is relaxed with), excellent poker player and gambler on horse racing, and reluctant (because coerced) wife of a well-off member of the gentry. Marnie has “serious psychological problems,” and in the novel she spends considerable time with a psychoanalyst, Dr. Roman, attempting to recover her past. (There was an obsession with psychoanalysis, especially Freudian, in the fifties. Marnie is “frigid,” in the parlance of the time.) At the end, when her mother dies, she discovers her mother’s “terrible secret,” something for which Marnie had falsely blamed herself all her life. Discovery, of course, frees her, and she can now face her past. Hitchcock changes the revelation, softening it; the opera simply hammers it home.

Muhly and Wright have made clear in interview after interview that their opera is not based on Hitchcock’s film; and over and over they have been ignored. Even so, working directly from Graham’s novel has posed problems. The book is narrated by Marnie, so everything is seen from her unreliable viewpoint; the opera is of necessity impersonally third person. Marnie is bright and unsentimentally British (to a fault), so we assume that most of what she says is accurate; still, the reader is never sure. Her main concern is “getting on with it,” primarily getting money to support her aged mother and “Aunt Lucy” and to stable Forio. The death of Forio at her husband’s fox hunt is the novel’s most emotional, traumatic moment. Hitchcock deals with this masterfully in his film; Muhly and Wright cannot and do not make much of it onstage. Apart from these issues, the opera’s abridgement of Graham’s novel is excellent, its overall staging is fluid and relatively minimal (lots of screens with projections), and its numerous scenes change with ease.

Muhly’s music has been pinpointed by some critics as the main problem with the piece. The Observer calls it “a shimmery but irrelevant soundscape” and complains that it all sounds alike. It’s better than that: the musical accompaniment to each scene is specifically designed for that scene. It has arias of a sort (Marnie opens Act 2 with an aria of resolution) and ensembles small (a duet between Marnie and her mother) and large (in Act 1 a massive ensemble with chorus on fear of discovery). It’s simply not very memorable music.

Though no one has faulted the Met cast, especially Isobel Leonard’s Marnie and Denyce Graves’s Mother, much else has been attacked, not always accurately. Criticisms range from such irrelevancies as its failure to address current “female empowerment” issues (that is, it’s not “relevant”–remember “relevance”?) to bemoaning its excess of plot, which is in fact handled with some elegance. (That critic must hate Trovatore.) The main complaints appear to come back to the opera’s not being Hitchcock’s film, which was abysmally reviewed at first (it wasn’t The Birds!) but which today has assumed cult status. No, it’s not, and too bad, but Marnie was never that except in the minds of inattentive reviewers. But neither is it engaging or compelling music drama.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), directed by Frank Capra. Opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer, premiered at Houston Grand Opera 2016, performed at San Francisco Opera 2018. SACD/CD hybrid available on Pentatone (PTC 5186631; 2 discs); film available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Paramount.

“An angel is sent from Heaven to help a desperately frustrated businessman by showing him what life would have been like if he had never existed.”

It’s a Wonderful Life was Frank Capra’s postwar cinematic offering to America to make Americans feel better after the privations of the Depression and World War II. George Bailey, a typical Capra hero, has fought the good fight locally but now faces defeat, leading him to attempt suicide on Christmas Eve; but an angel, Clarence, in the best Dickensian Christmas Carol fashion, shows him the value of his life. The rejuvenated George embraces life and has a Merry Christmas with his loving wife, devoted family, and cherished friends. The End.

This happy gift to America was not rapturously received on its release and was shut out at the 1947 Oscars by William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, with its more realistic (but still positive) view of servicemen facing life at home after the war. This was what the public wanted–along with increasingly popular and increasingly dark film noir–and Capra’s Christmas card of a film was forgotten for thirty years. Then in the mid-1970s it fell into the public domain and became a constant presence on television (it still is), falling on fertile soil in the sunny morning of Ronald Reagan’s America. It’s a Wonderful Life has since become a “beloved classic,” as the children of those years continue to share it with their children, and so on. It’s even been colorized, as today’s children cannot stand black-and-white films. Like George’s life, the film has been saved.

Those of us who missed out on the holiday fantasy aspect are left with the film itself, which is thoroughly professionally done and a monument to the thirties, when its kind of hopeful message fell on grateful eyes, especially in several Capra films. Unfortunately, it was made in 1946, and by 2019 it has come to seem hopelessly naive, saved by its two stars, Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. As the Baileys, they create their characters with astonishing believability and are a pleasure to watch still. No one could deliver Capra’s “Aw, shucks–gee whiz” dialogue better than Stewart; he had already done so for the director in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), especially in his great filibuster speech. Golly, he’s good (as is Donna Reed). The rest of the cast, from Lionel Barrymore to Thomas Mitchell to Gloria Grahame all deliver portrayals straight out of Central Casting in the thirties. But by the 1980s, no one remembered such matters, as Reagan’s Morning Again in America cast its neon glow over the landscape.

So now we have the opera. Sponsored by three houses, it was given first in Houston (2016), then at Indiana University (by its excellent School of Music, 2017), then at San Francisco (2018). Its composer, Jake Heggie, is a successful creator of numerous operas, including Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick, his most ambitious and serious music drama. He has had great singing actors (Joyce Di Donato, Frederica von Stade, Ben Heppner) lined up to play his roles. He has collaborated with skilled librettists, among them Terry McNally and, here, Gene Scheer, who also wrote the text for Moby-Dick. Heggie and Co. are an efficient and effective machine for turning out these things, the kind of operatic production line we had before the Great War.

The question is what kind of operas are produced, especially this one. It’s a Wonderful Life is well adapted. Scheer’s text skillfully reduces the large number of incidents in the film while maintaining its narrative coherence. Heggie’s music is tonal though almost totally unmemorable. No one will walk out recalling tunes, and no one is likely to want to see it again to hear its melodies. As would be expected, it is essentially a sung play (or film script), and its success depends upon its bringing up memories of favorite moments from Capra’s film. It would appear that opera companies are hoping that it will be an acceptable Christmastime substitute for Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. (Of course, that was tried both by Giancarlo Menotti in Amahl and the Night Visitors, less beloved now than it once was, and Hans Pfitzner’s Das Christelflein, which even Goebbels found less than enchanting.)

The recording features the original Houston cast, all of whom sing and act acceptably (though I never want to hear again Anthony Dean Griffey, or anyone else, sing all those “Ohboyohboyohboy”s that are given to Uncle Billy). Clarence has become Clara, a soprano angel, who has lots of other angels on wires for company. (Americans love angels.) Talise Travigne does well with the florid writing for Clara at the opera’s beginning, though it makes one long for Capra’s tasteful presentation of his angels as merely a group of flashing lights (nebulae?), at least until Clarence arrives. Overall, everybody who sings does just fine.

Still, issues remain. Heggie revised the opera between 2016 and 2018, making the piece more melodic, so the present recording is not truly representative of its current state. The 5.1 SuperAudio track helps the show very little, if at all. And, finally, with Capra’s film available in a splendid high definition transfer, do we really need this opera? Apart from generating holiday cash for performing companies, what does it accomplish that the film does not? Just saying …

Lost Highway (1997), directed by David Lynch, written by David Lynch and Barry Gifford. Opera by Olga Neuwirth and Elfriede Jelinek, premiered at the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz, Austria, 2003. Performed in Oberlin, Ohio, and New York by students from the Oberlin Conservatory, 2007; and in London at ENO, 2008. SACD/CD hybrid available on Kairos (0012542KAI; 2 CDs); film available on DVD and Blu-Ray (Region B only) from Universal.

“After a bizarre encounter at a party, a jazz saxophonist is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison, where he inexplicably morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life.”

David Lynch’s Lost Highway is not an ordinary movie, but then, none of his films is. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his lovely wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), live in a modernist house in a canyon in the Hollywood Hills. Fred is a jazz player at a club; Renee “reads.” They start receiving videotapes that reveal progressively more of the house and of the couple’s lives, some shot from above, culminating in what seems to be Fred’s murder of Renee. Fred is tried, convicted, and placed on Death Row, where he apparently changes into Pete Drayton (Balthazar Getty), a young auto mechanic. Pete is released. He soon becomes enmeshed in an affair with Alice (also Patricia Arquette), the “lady friend” of the mob boss, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia). In best film noir fashion, Alice leads the besotted Pete on to murder and robbery. (The victim, Andy, has directed her in porno films, one of which is showing during his grotesque death scene.) The escaping couple wind up at the desert cabin of the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), where Pete oddly changes back into Fred. The Mystery Man helps Fred kill Mr. Eddy, Alice disappears, and matters careen through to a conclusion–of sorts. All very much Lynch (and there’s lots more along the way). In editing the director condensed the script, by himself and Barry Gifford, greatly compressing the central trial and cutting several scenes that might have enhanced comprehensibility (or might not). Lynch gave several brief descriptions of his film, of which the two best are “A twenty-first-century noir horror film” and a “psychogenic fugue.” The opera is all that as well.

Its Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth studied in San Francisco, met Lynch, and is thoroughly at home in English. Her operatic version of Lost Highway is written in English, by herself and the Austrian composer and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature. As is true of the other operas under discussion, it abridges the film plot, often to extremes. Unusually, most of its dialogue, especially in the first (Fred Madison) part is spoken, not sung; in the second (Pete Drayton) part five characters, most notably Mr. Eddy, sing a texted jagged melisma at times. The recorded production attempts to keep the players’ speech at the same deadened pitch as Lynch does in his film–“every word has gotta be said a certain way,” as he said–though not entirely successfully.

What matters in the opera are its surrounding musical sounds and its environing visuals. Neuwirth prefers to keep her music in the background, where it sets mood and creates atmosphere. Some of it is played by live instruments from Klangforum Wien, some is prerecorded by instruments; much is played electronically by Neuwirth herself, using the recording’s 5.1 SuperAudio surround sound to approximate the staged version’s effect of sound moving across multiple speakers throughout the hall. The listener or spectator is placed inside both theatrics and music. As ever in these music dramas, in Neuwirth’s opera there is no real melodic invention (that is, you won’t leave humming the “tunes”), but the melos supports its odd drama more fully than in the other three operas we have glanced at.

Neuwirth and Jelinek also require several video screens surrounding the playing space on which prerecorded videos are projected behind the players. The stage space itself must be “aseptic and empty” and the videos made “an integral component of the stage space”–“it is the videos that actually create the stage space in the first place.” The content of and persons in the videos appear to be left to the Regie/dramaturg.

The drawbacks of this immersive “Musiktheater” approach are considerable. It requires audience familiarity with the Lynch film to enable understanding of its action, while offering little vocalism. Neuwirth and Jelinek have reduced Lynch’s plot, making it even less intelligible to an audience unfamiliar with the movie. Many will not consider it an opera at all, though in places it does require capable opera singers. In one aspect, it is Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) realized, minus the mythic element. In another, it is closer to the music dramas of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill, a tune from whose Dreigroschenoper is playing at Andy’s party (though not in Lynch’s film). Yet of all the operas derived from films discussed here, Lost Highway makes the most imaginative use of its cinematic source materials and employs the film script as something more than a play. It revels exuberantly in its surrealism and celebrates its deviations from conventional opera. It realizes a fused vision of Lynch and Neuwirth/Jelinek that advances the methods of operatic creation, rather than being entrapped by them, as the other three pieces decidedly are. Lost Highway combines the fluidity and fixity of film with the freedom of spontaneous stage re-creation. It’s not Bohème or Tosca, but it creates something new, something that carries Lynch’s exceptional vision into twenty-first-century live media. In doing so it actually advances opera from films into our time. In Lost Highway, Neuwirth and Jelinek point the way to a future for combined opera and film and provide a stimulating audience experience as well. Something like going out to a good movie.

Dewey Faulkner has taught at Yale and at the University of San Antonio. He has also worked for many years in newspaper, television, and radio as a music critic.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019


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