For 200 years, opera was the world's most grandiose popular entertainment. Today cinema is king.
Don't count opera out, however. Behind many of film's most memorable moments can be heard a classic song or melody from opera's golden age.
Listen to the magnificent sounds of Richard Wagner's “The Ride of the Valkyries” and the terrifying helicopter gunships of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now almost invariably come to mind.
The gentle strains of “O Mio Babino Caro” from Puccini's opera Gianni Schicchi might well conjure the beautiful Italian landscape offered up in James Ivory's 1986 classic, A Room With a View.
An operatic rundown of many of the cinema's greatest moments is on the agenda Saturday in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle when the Toledo Opera presents “Opera Goes to the Movies,” the centerpiece of its annual Opera Gala. Five vocal soloists will join conductor Thomas Conlin and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra for the 7:30 p.m. concert.
“We have crafted a collection of music that shows a lot of contrast in the many ways that the movies have borrowed from opera,” Conlin said.
“Putting these two things together is a natural. When movie directors want to impress an emotional state, they often turn to opera for its epic sweep as well as its deep sense of intimacy.”
One of the evening's most intimate moments will certainly be Ukrainian soprano and New York City Opera star Oksana Krovytska singing “La Mama Morta” from Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier.
Audience members might not know Giordano's opera, but they will in all probability know the song, which was featured in director Jonathan Demme's 1993 movie, Philadelphia. The song appears in a wrenching scene between Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and Joe Miller (Denzel Washington).
“In essence, Andy is living the opera. He uses this music to reveal his most human side and to tell us that he knows his own death is near,” said Conlin.
“The scene was almost removed before the final test screenings because the producers were worried that it would be too highbrow for a general audience. But they discovered that it wasn't. Just the opposite.” Tellingly, this was the scene they showed at the Academy Awards.
Among directors, there has always been a cross-fertilization between opera and the movies. The most recent product of a movie director's movement from screen to stage is Baz Luhrmann's current Broadway production of La boheme.
Movie directors who chose to put the stage on film include Ingmar Bergman, who in 1976 brought Mozart to a broader audience with his gentle movie version of The Magic Flute, and Franco Zeffirelli, who filmed a passionate La traviata in 1983.
In a more popular vein, George Lucas has said that he modeled Star Wars on Wagner's Ring Cycle. He chose outer space for the setting, but all the major elements from the operas are apparent in the film series.
Such combinations have been in place almost since the birth of the cinema. Wagner's Valkyrie music has appeared in some 30 films, beginning in 1915 with D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.
The same music powered the Chicago car chase in 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers. Then there were the antics of Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny in the 1957 cartoon classic, What's Opera, Doc?
Opera in film ruled in Europe as well.
In the movies and at home, Krovytska remembers a childhood filled with the music of opera.
“My uncle was a voice teacher and we all lived together in one apartment. I heard his voice lessons every day. Everyone in my family was always singing and talking about opera,” she said last week from her home in New Jersey,
Krovytska also sought out opera music in the movies. One high point, she said, was watching Sophia Loren portray Aida in Carlo Ponti's 1953 film version of Verdi's opera of the same name. (The great Italian diva Renata Tebaldi, not Loren, handled the singing chores.)
“Sophia Loren was so beautiful. How could anyone not like that?”
Especially when looks were supported by the voice of an angel. It's a combination movie producers have taken to heart.
Vocalists Oksana Krovytska, Patricia Andress, Carolyn Gronlund, Scott Piper, and Matthew Walley will join conductor Thomas Conlin and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra for the Toledo Opera Gala production, Opera Goes to the Movies, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets range from $10 to $48. Information: 419-255-7464.