Opera Goes to Hollywood — The Uneasy Marriage of Two Disparate Art Forms

Mario Lanza (mariolanzatenor.com)

Mario Lanza was dressed to the nines as Enrico Caruso, one of the world’s greatest and most beloved opera stars – and his lifelong tenor idol. Lanza was fulfilling his childhood dream of making a film biography of the great man’s life for MGM Studios. It was to be called, appropriately enough, The Great Caruso. But if Mario had had his way, it would have been titled The Great Lanza.

As the conductor nodded for him to proceed, Lanza opened his million-dollar throat and proceeded to bawl out the aria, “Celeste Aida,” at the top of his lungs, capping the romantic piece off with a loud and protracted final B-flat.

Never mind that the work’s composer, Giuseppe Verdi, marked the high note to be taken softly; never mind that the film’s script, supposedly based on Dorothy Caruso’s 1945 biography of her late husband, was a complete and utter fiction, replete with numerous fabrications concerning the tenor’s life and career on and off the stage; and never mind, too, that there was no audience present to wildly applaud Lanza’s self-indulgence and lack of musical taste.

What mattered most to Lanza was that his legion of fans would soon be going to their neighborhood movie theaters to see the world’s most famous “opera” star make good on his boast that he was, without question, Caruso’s heir apparent – if not on the stage, then in the cinema.

Even though he was probably the best known classical artist to appear in pictures, Mario Lanza was the least “operatic” opera tenor ever to have graced the silver screen. Not that it ever prevented him from becoming one of Hollywood’s starriest attractions, as well as a bringer of highbrow entertainment to the unenlightened masses. It helped that he was an established pop idol who sold millions of hit records all over the world.

Remarkably, even during the silent-film era, opera on the screen was a widely accepted form of diversion, rivaling the Western, slapstick comedy, and serious melodrama in popularity and appeal. This may strike modern-day viewers as a bit of an oxymoron, but that was the attitude back then, in the burgeoning days of silent cinema where sight was more precious than sound.

With the advent of the all-talking, all-singing motion picture, opera and classical music, together with popular songs, musical comedy, dance-hall numbers, and all manner of variety acts – the proverbial “dog and pony” shows of yore – became increasingly heard as well as seen.

Theater, the Absurd

Before films, the only acting available to the paying public was in the legitimate theater and along the well-traveled vaudeville route, which stretched from the predominantly Jewish “borscht belt” in upstate New York to the hundreds of small-town gathering halls and recreation centers blanketed across the continental United States.

Opera, for better or worse, was a regular part of musical life in just about every one of these whistle-stop stages, mostly throughout the latter part of the nineteenth and into the early-twentieth centuries. Wherever there was a rough and ready theater available, one could typically find opera coexisting nearby.

Thus, a long-established performance tradition of opera had already been established just as the fledgling film industry began making its way across the country. The logical leap from stage to screen – and from music drama to movie melodrama – seemed not only plausible but well-nigh inevitable.

As a result, opera singers became frequent participants in a fairly large number of modest film productions. But despite their appearances in either silent or sound form, these artists’ acting abilities tended to mirror those of the stage in terms of melodramatic content and style.

And nothing could be more incongruous to moviegoers than to have opera performed within the structural confines of celluloid (or nitrate, as the case may be). For opera, as an art form, is by its nature a thoroughly theatrical endeavor. It demands — no, it insists — upon the presence of a live audience to be fully effective and appreciated.

Nevertheless, both silent and sound films starring famous opera singers in scenes, acts, arias, and ensembles were a common occurrence – a case of the art transcending the medium in which it originated. Often, it was the only way for audiences to enjoy opera performances; for many, in fact, it would be their first, if not only, exposure to this singular entertainment form.

On a personal note, opera is a subject I am very well versed in. As well I should be, after almost 45 years of listening to it on the radio and in recordings, seeing it performed on the stage, and watching it on television and on DVD. What has always attracted me about this under-appreciated but most fascinating of cinematic sub-genres, however, is the singing, in addition to the incredibly larger-than-life personalities who gave their all in helping to shape it.

But talk is cheap, as they say, and the proof is always in the pudding (or singing). So now, without further ado, let the curtain be raised on “Opera Goes to Hollywood.” Please enjoy the show! Oh, and no talking during the performance. Thank you!

Early Silent Offerings

There is some controversy among historians and scholars as to which piece of film was the first to feature an operatic performance.

Clearly, it’s difficult to count a thirty-second clip of Carmencita, a Thomas Edison-produced short made in 1894, of an actress performing the Habañera; or a brief two-minute showing of Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, made in New York around the year 1898, as the first of these pioneering efforts. All the same, they both can share the honor of being the earliest of such historical records.

An hour-long silent version of Gounod’s opera Faust appeared a few years later, and is more likely the first “full length” operatic treatment. Shown in 1907, Faust incorporated a rudimentary form of prerecorded, synchronized sound that, if eyewitnesses from that era can be deemed reliable sources, proved quite a novelty around the turn of the century.

Other, more elaborate productions soon followed, some with live orchestral accompaniment, others with simultaneous vocal arrangements added to live screenings. In fact, many of these projects were built around the personal magnetism, or “star quality,” of the individual performers involved.

Interestingly, some singers’ acting abilities actually complemented their silent screen images, while others no doubt detracted from them, most likely due to their lack of the most elementary of thespian skills.

Enrico Caruso (far right) in My Cousin (popscreen.com)

Two of the best examples of the latter were the ones that starred the twentieth-century’s leading opera figure, Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso. The first, My Cousin, was made in 1918, and the second, The Splendid Romance, a year later. They came fairly late in Caruso’s career and did nothing in the way of furthering this extraordinary artist’s already cemented reputation. They might even have caused a few cracks in his legacy.

My Cousin proved such a dismal flop that his second feature went unreleased. It was one of the great man’s relatively few missteps in an otherwise stellar career.

Incidentally, it is his voice the dog Nipper happens to be listening to in the world-famous His Master’s Voice advertisements of the period. But the failure of so celebrated a stage figure as Caruso led to doubts as to the merits of the whole inflated enterprise from its very inception.

Woman’s Work is Never Done

A few years before the tenor’s ill-fated film foray, his frequent partner on the stage, American soprano Geraldine Farrar, had shown how it could be done. Her own silent-screen debut occurred in a movie version of Carmen (1915), based not on Georges Bizet’s tragedy but on the original Prosper Mérimée novella.

It was directed by movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille, who brought out Farrar’s beauty, charm, flirtatious nature, and beguiling presence, so much so that it captured the fancy of movie fans. The crafty DeMille’s insistence on absolute realism throughout – which included a live, onscreen bull fight, the first to be staged in Los Angeles in many a year – made the film a runaway hit.

Geraldine Farrar (flickr.com)

Farrar filmed five more features for the demanding Mr. DeMille, including one of Joan the Woman (1916), a very theatrical retelling of the story of the Maid of Orleans, and the first of the director’s religious pictures. But the bulk of her studio output was unrelated to opera. She left Hollywood for good in 1920.

All things being equal, it was Farrar’s stunning success in motion pictures that inspired Caruso to attempt a screen sojourn of his own. Still, the pleasures and pitfalls of a career in filmdom left many a hit-or-miss affair for singers great and small.

Not to be outdone, producer Samuel Goldwyn secured the services of another great soprano of the period, the Scottish-born Mary Garden, for the then-staggering sum of $10,000 dollars a week. She committed one of her most memorable stage roles to film, that of Massenet’s exotic courtesan Thaïs, in 1917.

Though she was without doubt Farrar’s chief rival on the stage, Garden was unable to score a bulls-eye with discriminating audiences, despite interest in the venture from the Vatican itself. She gave the genre one last try, in the unsuccessful The Splendid Singer (1918), and then promptly bid farewell to Hollywood for the stage.

Another beauty from that bygone era – one equally renowned for her amorous affairs as well as for her scantily-clad revues with the Paris Folies-Bergère – was the Italian diva Lina Cavalieri, who participated in a British-made Manon Lescaut in 1914, with her third husband, Metropolitan Opera tenor Lucien Muratore.

Adapted for the screen from the Abbé Prévost novel about the desirable young French coquette, it was the first of several productions Cavalieri starred in prior to 1921. Despite her obvious good looks and seductive charm, her lack of acting talent forced Cavalieri to abandon the cinema for the remainder of her career.

A rather offbeat 1915 production of Madame Butterfly starred, of all people, America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford (she of the waif-like golden curls), appallingly miscast as the Japanese geisha girl, Cio-Cio San. Because of copyright infringement laws, the film followed the original John Luther Long story instead of the composer’s more familiar setting.

There are many such examples of both the fortuitous and the egregious nature of opera stars in the silent era. Perhaps the most telling of these took place in French director Abel Gance’s massive six-hour historical epic Napoleon, released in 1927. Ever the creative visionary, Gance relied on the effective casting of Russian tenor Alexander Koubitzky as the revolutionary firebrand, Georges-Jacques Danton.

The rightness of his choice bore fruit in the great scene where Danton leads the seven hundred “bloodthirsty” extras at the Club des Cordeliers in an overly exuberant rendition of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. The emotional content of this scene proved all the more powerful, given Koubitzky’s stirring delivery of the song and the active involvement of all concerned – done, oddly enough, without the benefit of sound.

The Lion Sings Tonight

Mae Murray & John Gilbert (allposters.com)

Spearheading the no less frequently plowed field of operetta was the scandalously opulent, and staggeringly over-budget, MGM production of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (1925). It boasted a bizarre combination of actress Mae Murray with the elegant John Gilbert, one of the screen’s most passionate lovers (next to Rudolph Valentino, of course).

At the helm was Viennese actor-director Erich von Stroheim, once billed as “The Man You Love to Hate,” and for good reason. The frequent clashes between the martinet director, his female lead, and MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, led to Stroheim’s walking off the set on a number of occasions, and to his eventual banishment from movie-land for his wanton wastefulness.

These backstage machinations did not prevent the film from becoming a huge hit with the public (if not the critics), despite the obvious lack of operatic talent. It was an interesting reversal of the commonly held notion that female divas, not their directors and producers, were the “prima donnas” of the art form.

The studio followed this up with a silent version of La Bohème (1926), which became an even more potent box-office draw. It brought to the screen the delicate and fragile Mimi of the lovely Lillian Gish, in her highly-publicized MGM film debut. Her co-star was the ever-dashing John Gilbert (in one of his most “overripe” assumptions) as the poet Rodolphe.

Again, due to copyright infringement issues, the photoplay was based not on the popular Puccini work but on the stories found in Henri Murger’s book, Scènes de la vie de bohème, the same source Puccini’s librettists had used for their stage version.

Gish was singled out for her fine screen work. Indeed, her heart-rending death scene was particularly poignant. With comedian Edward Everett Horton as Colline (a musician in this version), Renée Adorée as Musette, and Gino Corrado (Hollywood’s perpetual Italian waiter) as the painter Marcel, and directed in sumptuous fashion by King Vidor, La Bohème left mascara stains on just about every cheek — a five-handkerchief tearjerker if there ever was one.

Basso Cantante

The Adventures of Don Quixote (1933), an early sound production, starred yet another singer from the halcyon days of the gramophone era: the Russian émigré bass Feodor Chaliapin.

But unlike his contemporary Caruso before him (who passed away in 1921), the formidable Chaliapin was nearing the end of his operatic career when he was lured out of retirement for a chance to capture for posterity his striking persona in one his most vibrant stage portraits.

George Robey & Feodor Chaliapin (dvd.es)

Surprisingly, this Don Quixote was not the Massenet version of the story, which Chaliapin had premiered in some 20 years prior, but a more faithful rendering of Miguel de Cervantes’ great novel, filmed in simultaneous French, English, and German-language versions, by Czech-born director G.W. Pabst, with music by Frenchman Jacques Ibert.

Chaliapin even got to deliver four new songs composed especially for the film, which introduced viewers to his mellifluous vocal style.

The moving finale has the bass intoning a final adieu to his loyal friend, Sancho Panza (played by George Robey), as the pages of Cervantes’ huge tome miraculously reappear after having been thrown into the flames by the Spanish Inquisition.

Tenors, We Have Tenors

With the European community thriving as a cultural magnet for international talent, opera stars (in other words, tenors in particular) continued to dominate musical films in the period between the two world wars.

These films served to introduce a bevy of beautiful voices to the silver screen. Among the many productions released were sweetly sentimental trifles from pudgy Italian sensation Beniamino Gigli: Forever Yours (1937), with Joan Gardner and Hugh Wakefield, directed by Zoltan Korda and Stanley Irving; and Solo per te (1938), with fellow opera stars Maria Cebotari and Michael Bohnen.

There were marvelously musical ones from Austrian operetta king Richard Tauber, who appeared in a number of German and British-made quickie features during the thirties (Das Land des Lächelns from 1930; Blossom Time and April Romance, both 1934).

Polish tenor Jan Kiepura was another favorite who enjoyed a high degree of popularity away from the proscenium. He appeared frequently with his wife, soprano Marta Eggerth, in many a European-style production, among them The City of Song (1931), Tell Me Tonight (1932), My Song for You (1933), My Heart is Calling (1934), Give Us This Night and Thank You Madame (1936), and The Charm of La Bohème (1937), yet another version of Puccini’s poetic opera.

And Italian troubadour Nino Martini made his mark first in England, then in Hollywood, with several low-budget items, among them The Gay Desperado (1936), co-starring Ida Lupino and Leo Carrillo (The Cisco Kid), wherein he got to sing the lovely “The World is Mine Tonight,” a dead-ringer for Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. It was directed by the stylish Rouben Mamoulian; and Music for Madame (1937), with Joan Fontaine and lantern-jawed Alan Mowbray.

Martini’s acting style was, to put it mildly, straight out of the Chico Marx School of Artificial Italian. He succeeded only in perpetuating the stereotype of the dimwitted foreigner who stumbles onto the American dream through dumb luck and his own latent musical talent. You could say that Martini was the Forrest Gump of his generation.

Moving to our own shores, Hollywood can boast of the wavy-haired presence and stalwart tenor voice of the late, great Allan Jones, the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner.

Allan Jones (leadinglightsautographs.com)

Jones’ first appearances were on the Broadway stage before embarking on a movie career, where he made many delightful musical films. Some of the more rambunctious were with the Marx Brothers, especially A Night at the Opera (1935), where he served as Kitty Carlisle’s love interest and sang the gorgeous musical number, “Alone”; and A Day at the Races (1937).

He then teamed with comics Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in their hastily thrown together screen debut, One Night in the Tropics (1940). In between, Jones co-starred in the sound version of Rudolf Friml’s Rose Marie (1935) with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; the excellent Universal sound remake of Jerome Kern’s Show Boat (1936) opposite Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan, who recreated her Miss Julie; and one his best roles ever, opposite MacDonald again, in The Firefly (1937), directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Movie audiences got to hear Jones sing “Donkey Serenade,” which became closely identified with him throughout his career.

He continued to appear in countless musicals of the period, including The Great Victor Herbert (1939), the Rodgers & Hart production of The Boys from Syracuse (1940), Moonlight in Havana (1942), and various others.

He dropped out of sight after the war’s conclusion, only to resurface in the mid-sixties in two disappointing film duds: the humdrum Western Stage to Thunder Rock (1964), and the mediocre teen musical A Swingin’ Summer (1965).

Major Female Attractions

Thankfully, tenors were not the only talents to attain celebrity status on the screen. Women opera stars were also part of the vogue. Two of the best loved were the blonde Tennessee-born soprano Grace Moore, and the diminutive French singing sensation Lily Pons.

Moore, too, began on Broadway; only later on did she migrate to the stage of the Met before Hollywood beckoned. She made several pictures for MGM, where she was initially teamed with another budding young screen talent, the baritone Lawrence Tibbett, in a lavish version of New Moon (1930), set in pre-revolutionary Czarist Russia instead of the original eighteenth-century New Orleans.

The studio’s production head, wonder boy Irving Thalberg, became increasingly distressed over Moore’s expanding waste line, so he allowed her MGM contract to expire. This would not be the last time that august studio would get into a haggle over such a “weighty” issue (vide tenor Mario Lanza).

Moore was eventually picked up by Columbia where she went on to do her best work, even earning an Oscar nomination for her film, One Night of Love (1934). Her other features included Love Me Forever (1935) and I’ll Take Romance (1937). She was even invited to participate in Abel Gance’s film of the Charpentier opera, Louise (1938), with the leading French tenor of the day, the thrilling Georges Thill. It was to be her last screen appearance. She perished in a plane crash over Denmark, in 1947, while on tour in Europe.

During the height of Moore’s popularity and fame, RKO Pictures decided to tout the petite coloratura Lily Pons as their answer to the perky American. Unfortunately for RKO (and for Pons), her movie roles were mostly mediocre efforts. They included I Dream Too Much (1935), That Girl from Paris and Hitting a New High, both from 1937.

Pons was never able to captivate movie audiences with her acting as she had in the theater with her warbling. She made one more screen appearance, in the concert film Carnegie Hall (1947), singing Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and the “Bell Song” from Delibes’ Lakmé, before calling it a night.

In France, the popularity of vivacious music hall actress and chanteuse Yvonne Printemps (née Wigniolle, near Paris) helped launch her European film career. She appeared in several beautifully mounted productions, many of which capitalized on her on captivating stage charm and classically trained voice. A real find, for once!

Yvonne Printemps (lucywho.com)

Some of her films were operatic in theme if not in substance; for example, La Dame aux Camélias (1934) and Adrienne Lecourvreur (1938). Her other major successes included Les Trois Valses (1938) and La Valse de Paris (1948), a screen biography of famed Opéra-Comique composer, Jacques Offenbach (highly fictionalized, that is), co-starring her longtime lover, actor Pierre Fresnay (The Grand Illusion).

There’s a typically farcical scene onstage where Printemps sings the romantic ditty “Dite lui,” from La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, directly at first to a Turkish caliph, then to the Russian czar and his son. The czar tosses a bouquet, which happens to land on the podium where Offenbach is conducting his work. He throws it onto the stage just in time for Printemps to snatch it up and blow kisses in the direction of the czar’s box. Charmante, charmante!

Despite several return trips to the States, Printemps never achieved the kind of meteoric rise in America as she had in France and Europe. She remained an attractive performer nonetheless, with an effervescent screen presence.

Less successful was New Yorker Mary Ellis, who started at the top and worked her way down to the bottom. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera, continuing on to the Broadway stage and eventually to Paramount Studios, where she made several unsuccessful attempts at challenging the reign of Grace Moore and Jeanette MacDonald.

Ellis left La-La-Land for England, where she continued to appear on the London stage, and on British television, for years thereafter. She died on January 30, 2003 at the ripe old age of 105 (no thanks to Hollywood).

A Baritone Lover’s Delight

A gifted actor and charismatic stage performer in his own right was the American baritone Lawrence Tibbett (the son of a San Francisco sheriff, believe it or not), previously mentioned in connection with Grace Moore.

Laurel, Hardy & Tibbett (doctormarco.com)

Similar to what happened to the multi-talented Moore, Tibbett earned an Academy Award nomination as best actor in his very first film outing: The Rogue Song (1930), rather loosely based on Léhar’s operetta Gypsy Love. It was the first Technicolor talkie, and featured the comic duo of (wonder of wonders) Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, with direction by stage and screen star Lionel Barrymore, a fanatical opera buff.

Film preservation being what it was, the work has been all-but lost. Outside of a few stills and a brutally savaged European cut, relatively little remains of Rogue Song to document Tibbett’s magnetic ability to hold an audience spellbound. Fortunately, he did leave numerous 78 rpm’s of songs, scenes and arias, voiced in that still-glorious golden timbre of his. A star of the first magnitude!

Tibbett’s other MGM output never matched his propitious screen debut. They include the aforementioned New Moon (1930), with colleague Grace Moore, The Prodigal and The Cuban Love Song, with Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez (both 1931), his last for the studio. His works for other studios included Metropolitan (1935) and Under Your Spell (1936).

Sadly diminished vocal resources, augmented by heavy drinking, led to later disillusionment with his singing career. Tibbett died in poverty in 1960 after a long battle with alcoholism – a tragic end to a superb artist.

Another great singing-actor of the stage, who gravitated more to the movies, was American bass-baritone Paul Robeson. His impeccable athletic skills (Rutgers University) and academic credentials (Columbia University Law School) should have guaranteed him a comfortable living, but did not because of his skin color and leftist-leaning attitudes.

Robeson was popular in both Europe and New York, and made a few memorable appearances in the cinema. Among his best was an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Joe in Show Boat (his most famous role), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), and Tales of Manhattan (1942).

The song, “Ole Man River,” from the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II work, became a theme of resistance for Robeson. He would sing the number at many of his concerts, often changing or adapting the lyrics to fit the times or the venue.

Robeson became a political activist for social causes in the late thirties, and was involved in many domestic and international movements for peace, racial equality and better working conditions for the poor and oppressed. His liberal political stance and constant contacts with Communist Russia, however, earned him the enmity of the U.S. State Department.

He never appeared in opera, but his natural cello-like voice had the quality and resonance of a truly one-of-a-kind instrument. Robeson enjoyed working in films, and frequently said that it afforded him a more natural and relaxed way of singing, freeing him up from the worry of having to pump his voice up for volume in order to be heard.

Some of his other films included Jericho (also known as Dark Sands, 1937) and The Proud Valley (1940). Robeson remains an enigmatic figure, full of unrealized potential. What a fabulous Sarastro or Boris Godunov he would have made!

Enchanted Evenings

Already at the end of an imposing opera career, Italian basso Ezio Pinza made a huge splash on Broadway in 1949, alongside the ebullient Mary Martin, in the hit Rodgers & Hammerstein musical South Pacific. He also starred in Fanny in 1954, this time opposite Florence Henderson (The Brady Bunch).

Ezio Pinza (fanpix.net)

In Pinza’s autobiography, he recalled the incredible difficulty he had in memorizing his lines (remember, he was a non-native English speaker) due to constant changes to the book by the producers and the other, more experienced cast members, a normal practice in the theater. As he was a completely self-taught artist incapable of reading music, Pinza suffered greatly as a result of his inability to keep up with the rest.

That issue aside, he helped popularize South Pacific’s most romantic number “Some Enchanted Evening,” which completely revitalized his stage career. It also served as a springboard to a relatively brief dalliance with the silver screen.

Pinza was a casting director’s dream: he always managed to appear self-possessed as well as suave and sophisticated, a sort of elder Latin statesman with matinee-idol good looks, graying hair, and a wandering eye for the ladies – a personality not too far from his own.

His two major film contributions, Mr. Imperium with the platinum blonde Lana Turner, and Strictly Dishonorable (both 1951), were strictly minor affairs, while an earlier cameo role as himself, in Carnegie Hall (1947), was decidedly better, as was his later guest shot in Tonight We Sing (1953), the film biography of impresario Sol Hurok (David Wayne). In this one, he played the Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin, albeit with a distinctly Italianate touch and accent.

Pinza’s untimely death in 1957 forced Twentieth Century-Fox to look for a senior singing actor of the same exalted caliber who could play Emile de Becque in director Joshua Logan’s film version of South Pacific (1958). The studio thought it had found the perfect type in romantic leading man Rossano Brazzi, who turned out to have the same chiseled features, mild Mediterranean temperament, and salt-and-pepper coif as the debonair Pinza.

Despite the ready-made appearance, it became aurally apparent that Brazzi couldn’t carry a tune, much to the producers’ chagrin. Whereby Metropolitan Opera bass Giorgio Tozzi was hastily recruited to supply the actor’s singing voice. Why Tozzi, who was appearing opposite Mary Martin at the time – and in the same South Pacific musical – was not hired on-the-spot for the role remains an impenetrable mystery.

Even more irksome to Tozzi was the fact that Brazzi later claimed to have actually sung most of his role, with only a few high notes doctored in for good measure. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Toast of Tinsel Town

It was in the late 1940s that Philadelphia-born Mario Lanza (real name Alfred Arnold Coccozza) came to the forefront as the reigning king of celluloid opera performers – and reasserted the dominance of the tenor in pictures.

Mario Lanza & Kathryn Grayson (rense.com)

Virtually all of his movie roles were variations on his own highly extroverted (and exceedingly volatile) screen personality, displayed to perfect “prima donna” perfection in MGM’s That Midnight Kiss (1949), wherein his role as a singing truck driver all-but guaranteed his success; and The Toast of New Orleans (1950), both with the long-suffering Kathryn Grayson.

In the aptly named Toast, the boorish Lanza has a grand old time as Grayson’s singing partner in the Act I finale to Madama Butterfly, which ends up as more wrestling match than love duet. He shared many an off-screen temper tantrum with his leading lady; there was no love lost between these two artists.

Other Lanza productions included Because You’re Mine (1952), with opera-loving Sgt. James Whitmore singing an excerpt from Verdi’s Il Trovatore; The Student Prince (voice only/1954), Serenade (1956), The Seven Hills of Rome (1958), and For the First Time (1959).

The enormous girth that Lanza sported, which he brought to the studio prior to filming Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, resulted in his suspension from the production. Only his sterling vocals remain intact on the soundtrack, mouthed in uncomfortably stilted fashion by the stiff-as-a-board Edmund Purdom. Ann Blyth was his main love interest.

Blyth previously co-starred with Lanza in The Great Caruso (1951), playing his wife Dorothy. That film was noteworthy for its abundant opera excerpts, in addition to being packed to the rafters with opera luminaries, among them Dorothy Kirsten, Jarmila Novotna, Blanche Thebom, Giuseppe Valdengo, Lucine Amara, Nicola Moscona, and Marina Koshetz, all of them regulars with the Metropolitan Opera — a place Lanza never set foot in.

Because of his emotional instability, high-flying lifestyle, and prodigious eating binges, Lanza was put out to pasture by MGM. Shortly afterward, he left the States for European fields of gold.

In 1959, while attempting to slim down for his next film project, Lanza died suddenly of a heart attack, at age 38, under what some would later describe as “suspicious circumstances.” His last breath was drawn, ironically enough, at a health spa in Italy. Arrivederci, Roma!

We All Make Mistakes

Not everyone made the successful transition to the screen, or arrived there with as much fanfare as Lanza.

Take, for example, the lovely American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, who made several film forays in the forties, most notably in Going My Way, starring Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as Catholic priests. She was the opera-singing friend of Der Bingle’s Father O’Malley, performing several well-vocalized extracts from Carmen. Stevens also displayed her lush singing voice in Carnegie Hall as well as other minor features, but there were no stampedes to the ticket office where she was concerned.

Lauritz Melchior, seated at left (heroictenor.com)

Wagnerian tenor Lauritz Melchior (born in Denmark) was another prime example. A huge man, with an exceptionally rotund exterior and a jolly sense of humor to match, Melchior made a name for himself, first on the radio, and then in motion pictures with Thrill of a Romance (1945), Two Sisters from Boston (1946), This Time For Keeps (1947), and Luxury Liner (1948). Along with the equally hefty S.Z. “Chuckles” Sakall, Melchior was everybody’s favorite film uncle. But a major film star? Not likely.

And who could forget Brooklyn’s own Robert Merrill, in his disastrous debut flick, Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (1952), famous (or infamous – take your pick) for having given most of its musical numbers not to baritone Merrill, but to the movie’s non-operatic female lead, the bubbly Dinah Shore. Then-general manager of the Met Opera, Rudolf Bing punished Merrill for having abandoned his duties at the house for such a ridiculous endeavor. With hat in hand, and tail planted firmly between his legs, Merrill returned to the company the following year and resumed his contractual obligations. And that ended that!

Not to be outdone, Sergio Franchi was a rising tenor star with the voice and looks of a young Corelli. He eventually branched off into Lanza mode, but without that performer’s self-indulgent antics. Franchi not only participated in opera, but had a thriving crossover career in the theater, appearing frequently on Broadway (the musical Nine, for instance), in cabarets, nightclubs, and such. He sang and recorded show tunes, as well as operatic selections and hit songs, and was a frequent guest performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, in addition to appearances on game shows, talk shows, variety and other programs. His sister was the actress/singer Dana Valery.

Franchi’s lone screen venture, however, was as the lovesick Italian peasant in Stanley Kramer’s overlong The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), with a powerhouse ensemble headed up by Anthony Quinn, Anna Magnani, Hardy Kruger, and Virna Lisi. In such highfalutin company, Franchi vanished into the woodwork. His stillborn film career floundered as a result.

Anna Moffo (images.com)

Another one-shot-wonder was the beautiful American soprano Anna Moffo. A stunning Violetta in La Traviata, a memorable Mimi in Bohème, and an emotionally compelling Cio-Cio San in Butterfly, Moffo’s unfortunate screen debut occurred in the artificial surroundings of an all-star soap opera that was Harold Robbins’ The Adventurers (1970). It was an abysmal three-hour-tour of bedrooms and boudoirs of the rich and famous, an insipid tale of a South American banana republic gone amok that tanked ever-so-badly at the box office, taking Moffo’s acting career with it.

Even legendary diva Maria Callas got into the action, so to speak, in her one and only screen sortie, but in a non-singing/non-operatic capacity, as Euripides’ Medea (1970), written and directed by neo-Fascist auteur, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Not surprisingly, it was a notorious disaster for the former opera star. Callas died, alone and in poor health, in 1977.

But the most disreputable debut of the lot involved one of the Three Tenors: Luciano Pavarotti. There is precious little to recommend in Yes, Giorgio (1982), his fiasco of a feature film debut, which was commandeered by his manager, the late Herbert Breslin. It co-starred (if that’s the proper term) Kathryn Harrold and a perilously unfunny Eddie Albert as a Herbert Breslin-lookalike.

With additional music by John Williams, guest appearances by soprano Leona Mitchell, San Francisco Opera director Kurt Herbert Adler, and conductor Emerson Buckley, and indifferently directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes), it had all the makings of a lemon before it was even ripe. The plot, such as it was, involved an ailing tenor (Pavarotti, naturally) who happens to fall in love with an American throat specialist (Dr. Harrold) after she miraculously “cures” him of his ailment – more like a heavy case of stage fright.

The movie is rather silly, to put it mildly, a precious waste of talent – especially Luciano’s – and fraught with situations that are unreservedly cliché, even by Hollywood standards. Not to mince words, but the whole project was just plain awful. Buy a Pavarotti CD, if you must, but avoid this “comedy” at all costs.

Yes, Giorgio became Luciano’s Achilles heel, and a major thorn in his side for many years. Curiously, the film became a prophetic portent of the caricature the tenor was to become in his later years; which only goes to show that, no matter how great one is on the operatic stage, you can’t always make it on your own in front of the camera.

Artificial Creations

This leads us into the next cycle of films: that is, operas or opera-like works created specifically, and exclusively, by and for the film medium. No finer examples of this exist than Orson Welles’ magnificent Citizen Kane (1941) and The Phantom of the Opera (both the 1943 and 1962 versions).

The thrust of the action of Citizen Kane reaches a climax in the debut of Kane’s wife, Susan, who delivers an ersatz solo. Kane’s score was written by the dean of film-score composers, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s regular working partner. His challenge, as suggested by Welles himself, was to write a fake opera excerpt, from a bogus work called Salammbô, that appears at key moments in the drama.

The aria was supposed to be in the French Oriental style of the late nineteenth-century, a form still very much in vogue at the time of the film’s creation. Herrmann did Welles one better: he wrote an unbelievably difficult air that flirted with the highest registers of the female voice, sung to annoying imperfection by an unidentified member of the San Francisco Opera Company.

Welles was a rabid opera buff who had personally seen Mary Garden in the flesh, along with other famous stars of the day. His love of the art form resulted in his interspersing of small snippets of tunes into his films, including Rosina’s aria “Una voce poco fa,” from The Barber of Seville. But as far as disastrous stage debuts went, Susan Kane’s bow in Salammbô took the cinematic cake, and then some.

Early on, we had the epic Anthony Adverse (1936), which boasted an original score by child prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold (Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk). No complaints there. However, the brief operatic sequence featured in that production was curiously not by Korngold, but composed instead by one Aldo Franchetti. It was called The Duchess of Ferrara.

Although the film is supposed to take place during the Napoleonic Era, the opera sounds like a mishmash of the worst works of Jules Massenet, but with a perfectly charming melody quite out of place on the early nineteenth-century stage. Olivia de Havilland is Madame Georges, the mistress of Napoleon, and former lover of the title hero, the noble Fredric March.

Lest us recall, too, the incongruously named Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936), which called for horror-movie icon Boris Karloff to play a put upon bass suspected of committing murder and mayhem at the matinee. The opera sequence of the title, Carnival, was composed by none other than iconoclastic musical misanthrope (and perpetual hypochondriac), Oscar Levant. Talk about a throwaway!

Claude Rains & Susana Foster (photo lunch.com)

The first sound Phantom of the Opera by Universal Pictures, starring Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy, Edgar Barrier, and Claude Rains as the mild-mannered Phantom, boasts a fairly unique score by British composer Edward Ward, in which themes from Chopin piano sonatas and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony were combined to make two phony operas, Amour et Gloire and The Masked Prince from the Caucasus. Otherwise, two excerpts from Flotow’s Martha (used because they were in the public domain) were interpolated into this horror hodgepodge. Anything to save a buck.

A second Phantom of the Opera, from 1962, produced by Hammer Studios and starring Herbert Lom and Michael Gough, had better makeup effects and provided more chills, pound for pound, than the dull Rains version. The main highlight happened to be a modern-sounding (to our ears, anyway) interpretation of the Joan of Arc story scored by Edwin T. Astley. Our Phantom seems to bring out the originality bug in film composers.

Other examples of fake opera, and there are quite a few of them, include one from the British film The Glass Mountain (1949), with a major score by Fellini’s favorite composer, the classically trained Nino Rota (La Strada, The Godfather: Parts I & II). It featured a charming performance by La Scala baritone Tito Gobbi, who co-starred with Italian actress Valentina Cortese. It’s biggest claim to fame was that the faux opera was filmed on the stage of the real Teatro La Fenice, in Venice. Va bene!

As mentioned above, Rota was also responsible for scoring Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II. He did not, however, incorporate the delightfully quaint Neapolitan light opera Senza Mamma into the mix. This being a family affair, that honor was reserved for (you guessed it) the director’s maternal grandfather, Francesco Pennino.

The entire sequence features young Vito Corleone (played by a characteristically stoic Robert De Niro) enjoying a night out with his friend Genco, by watching a performance, in authentic Neapolitan dialect, of a local melodrama in a crowded theater. The part of the singer who holds a pistol to his forehead was sung by tenor Livio Giorgi. So much for play-acting.

Unsung Heroes

Speaking of play-acting, the persistently annoyed fellow who played the vocal coach in Citizen Kane, the Spanish-born Fortunio Bonanova, was, in fact, an actual opera singer earlier in his career, as well as a novelist, a playwright, and a composer of several operettas. He is best remembered as Lou’s Uncle Bozzo in a 1953 episode of TV’s The Abbott and Costello Show.

Another actor, Basil Ruysdael, held leading bass-baritone status at the Metropolitan Opera for a number of years. He appeared alongside Caruso and Farrar at one time, and even coached Lawrence Tibbett for a spell. Ruysdael also worked as a radio announcer and Broadway stage actor prior to going into films in featured character parts (Pinky, Broken Arrow, The Violent Men, The Horse Soldiers).

The menacing stage and screen villain Eduardo Ciannelli (Gunga Din) obtained a medical degree in his native Italy, before pursuing a career in opera as a baritone, primarily in Italy, then throughout Europe. He emigrated to the U.S. after service in World War I, appearing in several musical comedies (Lady Bill and Rose Marie). He began his long association with the cinema in mostly character parts, and was usually cast as the heavy due to his harsh features. (But he was such a nice guy…)

Walter Slezak, son of the portly Wagnerian tenor Leo Slezak, was never a singer to begin with, but more of a romantic lead in silent films. Because of his inability to control his weight, he switched to character parts and enjoyed a prolific career in films for many years. Slezak appeared in a variety of roles, both comic and villainous, throughout the forties, fifties and sixties, acting with everyone from Abbot and Costello and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to Ronald Reagan and Bonzo the Chimp.

His only operatic excursion was in a 1957 production of Johann Strauss’ operetta The Gypsy Baron at the Met, in an English-language adaptation. He played the pig farmer Zsupan, and was surrounded by such notables as tenor Nicolai Gedda and soprano Lisa Della Casa. Bravo, Walter!

Salvatore Baccaloni (periodicolabarra.com.ar)

Salvatore Baccaloni was another legitimate opera star – a basso buffo, to be exact – who appeared frequently in Italy and at the Met alongside such stalwarts as Ezio Pinza, Robert Merrill, Bidu Sayão, and many others. Baccaloni found a new source of income in films of the fifties and sixties. Some of his film work included Full of Life (1956) with Judy Holiday and Richard Conte, Rock-A-Bye Baby (1958) with Jerry Lewis, the film version of the Pinza hit Fanny (1961) starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer, and the Charlton Heston vehicle The Pigeon That Took Rome (1961) with Elsa Martinelli and Harry Guardino — probably the least funniest comedy of that year. Baccaloni never sang a note on the screen. How rude!

Finally, another character actor well known for his repertory of Italians, Greeks, Poles, Indians, criminals, priests, good-guys, fall-guys, tough-guys, and the like was the late Anthony Caruso. He, too, started vocal lessons early in life, until someone pointed out to him that despite his musical surname, actors make more money than opera singers. Thank goodness Caruso took that advice to heart. TV and sci-fi fans may recognize him as one of the alien gangsters in the Star Trek episode, “A Piece of the Action.”

Something Different This Way Comes

To coin a phrase from Monty Python: “And now for something completely different,” and brother, do we mean different. Here goes:

First up is an all-dance version of Carmen, directed by the Spanish Carlos Saura (talk about type-casting), who brings an authentic flamenco flavor to Bizet’s passionate opera. It’s a highly successful film adaptation — the dance episodes are unbeatable — which wisely uses the London/Decca recording of the work featuring rich mezzo Regina Resnik (an alumnus of my high school, by the way) and powerhouse tenor Mario Del Monaco.

Next, we have first-time French postmodern director Jean-Jacques Beineix, who helmed the vastly entertaining 1981 film Diva. He also wrote the screenplay. It was a sleeper hit in America due mostly to its “way too cool” approach to the staid subject matter of a publicity-shy opera singer who wishes to remain anonymous, and unrecorded. Real-life African-American soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez appears as the reluctant diva. She gets to sing the emotionally charged aria, “Ebben, ne andro lontana,” from Catalani’s La Wally. She’s befriended by a young mailman and opera lover Jules (Frederic Andrei), who in turn is pursued by some nasty criminals. It’s all in good fun, and successfully mixed highbrow classical fare with witty Continental farce.

Plavalaguna (tumblr.com)

This is followed by The Fifth Element from 1997. Directed by another Frenchman, Luc Besson, this one’s a science-fiction fantasy story whose highlight is a blue-toned, curved-headed, far-out space-alien opera star named Plavalaguna, who winds up singing part of the Mad Scene from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. She ends it, however, in a rousing rock-techno-disco combo filled with outlandish high and low notes — hugely augmented by a Moog synthesizer-like instrument. Donizetti would be spinning in his grave.

The role of Plavalaguna is performed by French actress Maïwenn LeBesco (Leon, the Professional), Besson’s girlfriend at the time, and sung by Albanian lyric soprano Inva Mulla Tchako. The theater used in the film was the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, in London. Outside of Signor Donizetti, the so-called “Diva Dance” was composed and produced by Eric Serra, who wrote the multi-ethnic film score. Nice try, Eric.

And last but not least, one of the strangest film adaptations of all involving seemingly familiar territory – but completely reworked to suit our “modern” sensibilities — is the esoteric Aria from 1987. Employing several famous directors (Ken Russell, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicholas Roeg, and six others), each one illustrated a particular aria or piece from a famous (or not-so-famous) opera, among the chosen being Lully’s Armide, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, and Puccini’s Turandot.

Elvis in Aria (dvdtalk.com)

Aria can best be described as a Disney Fantasia for adults. Well… yes and no, and even that’s being kind. Perhaps it’s more in the style of a musical potpourri, something we used to find on MTV, when that station was still putting out music videos. Be that as it may, nothing can top the sight of an overweight actor dressed up as Elvis Presley (in a white jump suit, high collar, and dark sunglasses), rocking and rolling in time to the music of “La donna é mobile,” sung on the soundtrack by Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus.

On that sour note, we conclude this survey of opera in the movies. May the Phantom continue to hit that high note – preferably, off-screen and out of ear shot. ♫

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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