My History With Opera
I cannot claim that I have a foundation in opera. Nor can I claim, as I can with ballet, that I have a very active appreciation of it.
What my history with this artform is, in all likelihood, not unlike that of most people. Pieces that were featured in Looney Tunes shorts either in part, or as the basis for entire stories I know well. In fact, two of my more memorable Looney Tunes viewing experiences were shorts of this type, Rabbit of Seville being one of the funnier ones, and Long-Haired Hair being one that as a kid made me a bit uncomfortable because I did start to feel bad for the pompous Mr. Jones (I got over that eventually).
My first true introduction to opera appropriately enough was through a film. In French class we watched Franceso Rosi’s Carmen (1984) as one of our screenings to get more acclimated with hearing the language; this time through Bizet. I absolutely loved it. I later found what I thought was the same film and didn’t like that interpretation of the story at all (that version being Saura’s 1983 version).
There was a long hiatus after that where I really didn’t take another jump back in. As I discovered the works of Dario Argento, Opera quickly became one of my favorite works in his oeuvre. In that film I did learn both a bit about Argento outside film and also about the operatic version of Macbeth; and how it has similar tales of misfortune associated with it.
Later on I would, again going through the works of a particular director, this time Ingmar Bergman; come to know The Magic Flute. Yes, heathen that I am, I first experienced Mozart’s tale with all-Swedish libretto. I enjoyed that version a lot and then viewed it in German, as it was written, at a Fathom Events screening at a local movie theater.
Since then, while I may not have gained too much narrative or other insights into operas in general, I have listened to a lot more of them through a few means. Namely borrowing CDs from the library and on Spotify (I’ve used both these means to become more versed in classical music as well).
The Magic Flute (2006, or 2013 as the case may be)
That brings me to the present and my latest brush with the artform in Kenneth Branagh’s only-recently-distributed English rendition of The Magic Flute. What Branagh does with this film is not that unlike what many have done with Shakespeare: the text is the same albeit translated and the setting is updated. This tale taking place during World War I.
Branagh’s doing this makes perfect sense when you consider that most are familiar with him through his Shakespearean adaptations. However, this film is perhaps the best assimilation of his sensibilities: there’s the classical dramatic sensibility he’s familiar with in Shakespeare and parlayed well in Thor, but also a zany, irreverent humor that he possesses as he’s shown as an actor in the Harry Potter series that fit this film as well.
Being an opera on film it will invariably have its stagier moments, but it has infinitely more cinematic ones. The camera, and at times even the characters in motion, accompany the movements of the music. This is especially true in the “Queen of the Night Aria” which is as mind-blowing cinematically as it is musically in this version.
In short, after all prior re-introductions to opera on film are taken into consideration the Looney Tunes are a wonderful warm up, but Kenneth Branagh’s The Magic Flute is the perfect introduction to opera for the uninitiated.