Film music and opera — the same or different?


"If Wagner were alive today, he would write film music." –Max Steiner

Listen to the music. It will snap you to attention, tell you where to cry, and when that long-awaited kiss is coming. The villains have their own dark motifs and the luminous sounds that accompany the hero are as clear as his white hat.. Movie music?

Yes, but those words could apply to the opera as well. The two genres, so rigidly separated in public perception, have more in common that first meets the ear. In fact, when five-time Oscar-winning film composer John Williams was asked where he believed his music fit in the classical spectrum, he answered immediately, "With Verdi, Puccini, Wagner. My music supports the dramatic action on the screen and moves the story forward."

Would it be too bold to compare Williams's music for the bicycle scene in which E.T., Elliott and friends soar over police cars and ride across the moon to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries?"

Williams is not the only film composer who remarked on these similarities.

Max Steiner, who composed the ground-breaking score for "King Kong" and the gorgeous music for "Gone with the Wind," once said "If Wagner were alive today, he would write film music."

And when you think about that composer's flowing style, Steiner has a point, though it is hard to imagine the egotistical Wagner ceding creative control to a mere film director!

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who wrote the score for "Robin Hood" and "The Sea Hawk," once observed, "Puccini's 'Tosca' is the best film music I've ever heard." What's going on here?

Why are these three opera composers being cited as models by some of the country's greatest film composers? There is an affinity. Movies and opera tell stories that confront timeless topics such as death, violence, betrayal, ambition, revenge, hubris, lust, greed, as well as love, grace and salvation.

And opera even does it all without car chases! Williams, for example, unabashedly employs the Wagnerian device of leitmotifs, giving each central character his or her own theme. In one memorable scene in a "Star Wars" prequel, Anakin Skywalker finally turns to the dark side and we hear the Darth Vader theme. It tells us more eloquently than words the sinister direction the former Jedi knight will now take in his life.

Film music invades all areas of our consciousness and often becomes iconic: "Star Wars," of course, and "Indiana Jones" scores, as well as "Tara's Theme" and the music from "The Third Man" from years past. And so have opera themes. Rare is the person who does not recognize the "Harbenera" from Bizet's "Carmen."

And among the top 10 operatic hits, no aria is more secure than "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's comic opera "Gianni Schicchi." A few years back a television commercial for Ghirardelli chocolate used the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' "Lakme" as background. The music was as scrumptious as the chocolate it was selling and sent viewers clamoring to know its source.

Did that translate into more productions of "Lakme" and lead people to the opera house?

No. So why not?

"Because opera and film are two completely different art forms," insisted James Conlon, music director of the Ravinia Festival, who is also music director of the Los Angeles Opera.

"Film music is a function in a movie. It can convey tension and mood, but the film is about the story, never about the music. Whereas opera is music and while there is a story, opera is still very much about the music."

Film music, he added, is shorter, episodic and rarely evolves into a stand-alone piece.

An exception to that, of course, would be Williams's poignant theme from Steven Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's List," which was played on the soundtrack by violinist Itzhak Perlman and has become a popular concert piece.

On the face of it, there is no reason why those who enjoy fine film music could not easily be seduced by the enchanting, exhilarating world of opera. In fact they might find CDs of operatic overtures and intermezzos as intriguing as their discs of movie music "hits."

Let's examine, then, some of the barriers that have kept these fans apart. Language certainly was the first one, but it is gone. For decades, audiences in American opera houses, unless fluent in Italian, German or French, had to try to approximate what was happening on stage.

With the advent of supertitles, the words flash above the stage and you hear real laughter, a reaction previously reserved for pratfalls, obvious farce, or as Verdi's corpulent Sir John Falstaff was being dumped, hamper and all, into the Thames.

As for the admonition, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" (which, by the way, was originated by a sportscaster!) the only reply can be "Have you seen opera singers lately?"

Today's generation is in good shape, rarely skinny but by no means fat. So what are the barriers to opera that remain today in public perception, despite supertitles and svelte, sexy sopranos.

Ticket price is one. Staged opera is the most expensive of the art forms, requiring a full orchestra, a large chorus, any number of main characters, and some superstars receiving high fees. Elaborate sets are often necessary, as are costumes for everyone on stage. Main floor seats cost hundreds of dollars.

And then there is the aura of elitism. Grand operas are given in beautiful halls, and while there is no written dress code, Sunday best or evening wear is certainly in evidence.

Still opera is certainly not faltering. Regard the success of the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD program, in which stage performances are beamed to movie theaters throughout the world. It began in the 2006-07 season with six operas broadcast to eight countries, with about 325,000 viewers.

The following season eight operas played in 18 countries, viewed by 935,000, and last season 11 operas were shown in 35 countries, reaching an audience of 1.72 million. On Oct. 10 the current season will begin with "Tosca"  suggesting the headline "Popcorn and Puccini."

Ravinia audiences have always loved opera. From 1919 to 1931, the park was dubbed the American summer opera capital.

The original wooded pavilion, strung with little Japanese lanterns, hosted performances by internationally known stars and Italian choristers, many of whom took lodging with fellow countrymen who had settled in Highwood, just north of Ravinia's Highland Park home.

Fast forward to the period from 1973 to 1993, when James Levine was music director at the festival. He conducted with great success numerous operas in concert version, including Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" and Puccini's "Tosca" and "Madama Butterfly" to name only a few.

Last summer, Conlon presented two performances each of two Mozart operas "Don Giovanni" and "The Abduction from the Seraglio" in the festival's 850-seat Martin Theatre. All performances were sold out. On Aug. 15 he will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Verdi's 1851 opera "Rigoletto" in the 3,200 seat Pavilion. "Rigoletto" springs from a Victor Hugo play and has enough debauchery, corruption, cruelty and revenge to match any on-screen drama. Sex and violence collide in its grim conclusion, but the opera also contains one of the most famous tenor arias in the repertoire, "La donna 'e mobile."

Despite his full commitment to the operatic world, Conlon himself made has been a bridge to movie music.

In 1999, while director of l'Orchestre de Paris, he was filmed conducting Bernard Herrmann's score for the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film "Vertigo." The conductor wore a black turtleneck and the camera focused on his hands and face. The result was a spellbinding 75 minutes of music and unique visuals.

"David Gordon came to me about this project," he recalled. "I don't know why he chose me. But I like artists who think outside the box and try to do something completely different, so I agreed." He thoroughly enjoyed the project, though he would not equate the powerful score with opera. When it was suggested the music sounded like Wagner, he referenced the dramatic symphonies of Gustav Mahler instead.

The score, considered Herrmann's finest, and the film, called Hitchcock's masterpiece, combine to make a movie which grapples with operatic-style themes such as intrigue, deception, obsession and eventually madness. And  attention movie music fans  while no film is about the music and opera is all about the music, there is more music in "Vertigo" than there is dialogue. So why not give opera a try? All you have to do is listen to the music.