Snippets from Opera Used to Great Effect in Movies

Maria Callas “Casta Diva” | Vicenzo Bellini – Norma, 1957

The extracts from operas that you hear in movies possibly prepare opera haters to undergo a valuable conversion and change of heart.  Operatic excerpts can add much to a movie. There was a movie that came out fairly recently called “The Iron Lady”, a biography of Margaret Thatcher. At one point in the movie you could hear Maria Callas singing the great prayer to the moon goddess in the opera “Norma”.  Norma is a high priestess in Gaul during the Roman occupation. She is revered and consulted as a military expert, the person the Celts/Gauls go to in order to know when to make an important decision such as launching a revolt against the Romans.  When  you hear Callas sing this prayer (“Casta Diva/Chaste Goddess” ) in the movie you see Margaret Thatcher on the screen giving orders to send the British fleet to the Falkland Islands (1982 aprox.).  Here are two women, both Celts/Saxons, both powerful military leaders even though they are separated by 2000 years of history. Whoever chose to insert this aria as backdrop and thematic parallel in the movie had a brilliant idea. It certainly resonated with me as soon as I recognized the music and put two and two together.  Another powerful passage from opera occurs in “Catch 22”, the scene where the American soldier in Rome throws an Italian prostitute to her death off the balcony of her apartment.  The operatic background for this terrible scene is “Una Furtiva Lagrima” which states that one can die of love: “si puo morir d’amor”.  Indeed.  A third example of how opera is used effectively occurs in “The Great Dictator” with Charlie Chaplin, the scene in which Chaplin, dressed in a Hitlerian kind of uniform, toys lovingly with a huge model of the planet Earth.  The way he bumps  and slaps the globe is amusing, even a bit erotic. The background music is delicate, highly sensual, eerie, shimmering, Teutonic  and noble. The violins are playing the overture to “Lohengrin” by Wagner.   I saw this movie excerpt  (with music) on a PBS special on Hollywood and the Holocaust i.e. the Holocaust as depicted in Hollywood movies and I am not certain that the Lohengrin music  figured in the actual movie of “The Great Dictator”. Whatever the case PBS made great use of it.  Of course these movies can be enjoyed without recognizing the operatic musical background but if one does recognize the operatic piece and the themes contained in it (and the relevance of these themes to themes in the movie) it adds a lot to one’s appreciation of the movie. A parting shot: read the words to “Che gelida manina” from “La Boheme” and then watch the movie  “Moonstruck” starring Cher.

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