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Friday, October 31, 2014

Movies for Opera Singers

I talk all too often about the need for young opera singers to watch movies. One of the reasons I do this is because, as a director, I reference way too many movies in my attempt at inspiring a moment onstage. Sometimes it's just easier to say "you know, it's just like that moment in Philadelphia Story when Kate Hepburn walks out onto the veranda after drinking too much the night before and retracts in the bright sun, almost like a vampire?!" instead of directing Don Giovanni to put his arm up over his face to hide himself from the light. Bad director. Or maybe not...

However, the problem sometimes occurs, while working with the younger generation especially, when the singer has no knowledge of The Philadelphia Story or who Kate is. I usually turn to another movie, and then another, then in frustration I say to the rehearsal room out loud "who here has seen Young Frankenstein?" and then maybe one hand goes up.

So I have to say up front that this blog is a bit of a "please watch some of these movies" plea to my current students, but also is a blog that may hope to inspire other young singers to look at other types of acting (and movie acting, in certain genres especially, can be quite operatic!) in order to further their own thinking about acting, about gesture, about creating internal emotional lives, about how a costume can make a moment, or about how Gene Kelly really could move in any direction and make it look simple.

So it's a list -- apologies to those of you who don't like lists. I've put next to the movie, what I think someone might glean from watching it.


Moonstruck: Cher earned an Oscar for acting while talking with her hands. Also of note, Cage's eyes and his use of over-the-top vocal tactics.  Actually, every single person in that movie gives an incredible performance.  One of the most quoted movies in opera rehearsals, at least among the people I work with out there in the professional world.

A Lion in Winter: Kate Hepburn is incandescent and manipulative and vulnerable. She earned another Oscar for this role. Peter O'Toole is also fascinating. A great period piece. Movie debuts of Anthony Hopkins as a gay Richard the Lion-Hearted and his ex-lover played by a great actor who went on to play 007.

Babette’s Feast: First of all, there's an opera singer in this movie, the great Jean-Philippe Lafont. Secondly, Babette's utterance at the end of this movie about what it means to be an artist is something that everyone who is an artist needs to hear. A home run of a movie. I watch it every year.

The Godfather Trilogy: Great acting from great actors. Operatically edited episodes. Even a love story. Number three even ends on the steps of the Palermo opera house!

The 1st original Star Wars movie: I think that this movie is an opera and many of the actors chose to act in a terrific old-school Shakespearean manner. Not Luke or Leia or Han Solo, but certainly Chewbacca is an opera singer... At least he sounds like some I know...

Any Alfred Hitchcock film (particularly Rear Window and North by Northwest)
If you haven't watched at least a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock films, you really shouldn't be trying to create a character having a bad day (as in what happens to so many opera characters). Hie thee to the master of bad days, watch and learn.

Indiscreet: Romance with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. It's a great movie and she's spectacular in it. He's also rather good.

La divina ossia Meryl Streep Movies:
Kramer vs Kramer or Sophie’s Choice -- start with them. Watch her listen while others talk.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or The Shining: Because of Jack, baby. Go where he goes next time you need to raise your stakes in an aria. He's a whole opera all by himself. A one man show. 

Three Period Pieces that are informative:
Dangerous Liasons - Again, the performances I'd describe as operatic. John Malkovich's particularly
Valmont - Better getting the period, and it shows how the same story can be done with a bit more subtlety
Amadeus - Great opera scenes, and wonderful performances from everyone on that screen.

Great operas for finding humanity in violence:
Pulp Fiction -- one of the great films 
Kill Bill volumes 1 & 2 -- each one of these fights is an aria
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- again, each one of the fights was created to be an operatic duet of sorts

Any MGM musical (particularly Singin in the Rain and American in Paris)
Okay, I'm a Gene Kelly nut. But he could teach every single singer I've ever worked with something about how to express love through just the use of his arms held out.  He's an amazing mover and he tells stories with his body. This is something that all opera singers need to be able to do.  Plus, those old musicals are very much like today's operatic style. Many of those singer/actor/dancers came from the theatre where they acted BIG. We still need to make sure that what happens on the operatic stage can be seen from far away. Enough with this close-up, in-the-rehearsal-room-it-is-vivid-but-in-the-big-theatre-it-looks-really-boring, style of production. Make sure your audiences know what you are feeling by both your voice AND your body.  They can't see eye contact in row double UU up in the balcony...

Much Ado About Nothing (Branaugh’s version)
Emma Thompson - her performance is radiant, funny, smart, and physically beautiful

Young Frankenstein
Surely one of the most quoted movies ever. Frau Blücher (cue the horses)...
Surely there's no need to say why this movie should be memorized, yes?!

Classic Screwball Comedies: These are terrific to watch when you're working on a Nozze, or a Pasquale, or an Albert Herring
His Girl Friday
Bringing Up Baby
Philadelphia Story

Romantic Comedies (old school): I mention these because of the holidays. Watch them to see what a leading man looks like while being strong AND sensitive. A great combo, but hard to replicate...
The Bishop’s Wife
It’s A Wonderful Life

There are a myriad of others, but those are the ones that have come to mind these last few years.  Please just watch and enjoy them, then watch them again more carefully and see if you might learn a thing or two; or see if there's something in them that can be translated into your own craft.  I bet there will be!