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Over the past 17 years, British filmmaker Penny Woolcock has made a name for herself in the opera world. After directing a film adaptation of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer (which won the Jury Prize at the Brussels European Film Festival and the Prix Italia), Woolcock staged John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera. She followed Doctor Atomic with a production of The Pearl Fishers at the English National Opera (ENO) in 2010, which ENO revived last year and which also had a successful run at the Metropolitan Opera. Now, Woolcock has brought The Pearl Fishers to Los Angeles. Before a rehearsal, we sat down with Woolcock to discuss her entry into the opera world and how she brings The Pearl Fishers to life.
You’ve had a successful career in film and television especially with the Tina trilogy, Tina Goes Shopping, Tina Takes a Break and One Mile Away. What drew you to opera?
I love music. When I was a teenager, I lived in Buenos Aires and I used to go the Teatro Colón with a friend. We were so high up, you couldn’t see the stage unless you held the other person’s legs while leaning over the balcony. [laughter] It’s been something I’ve always had a feeling for but I never imagined I would get a chance to direct it.
I’d also really loved John Adams’s music. I remember going into a record shop in Newcastle in 1988 and they were playing Nixon in China. I asked the guy in the store and asked, “What is this? I must have it!” Then, in the late ‘90s, I went to a concert performance of the The Death of Klinghoffer choruses. I was really moved by the way the first two heartbreaking choruses express the claims of two traumatized, dispossessed people over the same piece of land. It brought me to tears and the friend I was with saw that and said, ‘You should make a film of it,’ and I thought, ‘Yes, I should.’ I emailed the head of Channel 4 Music and to my surprise my phone rang immediately and she said, ‘What a fantastic idea!’ I was sort of known for making films about tough inner-city communities, not opera, but she thought that I might invent something different than just filming a staged performance. Then, obviously, I had to see if John Adams would approve. Again, it was one of those right place, right time moments, because he said that he’d always wanted someone to make a movie of one of his operas.
So, I made The Death of Klinghoffer.
We filmed John conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and we recorded the singers in isolation booths at Abbey Road Studios (where The Beatles famously recorded).
Once we had that, we hired a cruise line and sailed across the Mediterranean. We shot the film on location. John’s assistant conductor came with us and was running around behind the camera, conducting the singers as we shot them with a handheld camera. It was quite a magical experience and funnily enough we ended up using over 80% of the live sound in the final mix.
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Look up most major opera composers on IMDb and you’ll get a list with hundreds of credits. Georges Bizet –famous composer of Carmen– is no exception. Music from Carmen can be heard in a variety of works, including the Pixar film Up. Carmen has also inspired several film adaptions, including the Academy-award nominated 1954 Carmen Jones.
We’ve rounded up some uses of Carmen on the silver and small screens to check out before seeing our production on September 9.
In Up, Carl Frederickson, following the death of his wife Ellie, fulfills his lifelong dream of moving to Paradise Falls, but unbeknownst to him, eight-year-old Russell has tagged along. “Habanera” from Carmen is used early in the film, showcasing the monotony of Carl’s life without his wife.
Ever since last season’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, we’ve been eagerly waiting to stage another one of Mozart’s work at LA Opera. Next month, we get to do just that! Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio opens on January 28 and here are five reasons to see this riotous opera.
Did we mention that it’s Mozart?
Mozart’s effervescent score is sure to thrill audiences—even though Emperor Joseph II asked that Mozart cut a few notes from the piece when it was first presented to him. (Check out that moment and the finale of Abduction as depicted in the Miloš Forman biopic Amadeus below.)
Between “Nessun dorma” (Turandot) and “O soave fanciulla” (La Boheme), Puccini’s compositions are arguably the most widely used operatic music in cinema. Yet, it is not only his music that has been used, but also his dramatic storylines. Take Madame Butterfly. The story follows the trials of Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha, who marries American naval officer Pinkerton. She loves him, but he abandons her and returns to the United States. Pinkerton returns three years later – a new American wife in tow – and demands that Cio-Cio give up their son. Puccini’s tragic east meets west tale has been adapted into many films (including a 1975 filmed opera starring Mirella Freni and Plácido Domingo and a 1995 filmed opera conducted by James Conlon).
Madame Butterfly (1915)
This film is what happens when one of the greatest silent movie actresses – Mary Pickford – tackles Madame Butterfly.
Madame Butterfly (1932)
Marion Gering’s film is not a musical, but it does utilize a significant amount of Puccini’s music and stars a dashingly youthful Cary Grant as Pinkerton.
- Butterfly (1993)
David Cronenberg (who made his LA Opera debut directing The Fly in 2008) updated Puccini’s tale to 1960s China, just before the Cultural Revolution. In the film, a French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) falls in love with a Chinese opera diva, unaware that she is actually a man (played by John Lone).
For Ben Bliss, playing Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute is like coming home. Not only is he back at LA Opera (he was part of the Young Artist program from 2011-2013), but Tamino was also the first opera role Bliss ever sang.
As an undergrad at Chapman University studying film, Bliss also sang in the choir. When his voice coach threatened to lower his grade if he didn’t try out for The Magic Flute, Bliss auditioned and won the role of Tamino. It was a defining moment, because even after a few years’ stint working for Dr. Phil post-college, Bliss couldn’t quite shake the opera bug and has been singing ever since.
A celebration of true love conquering all, The Magic Flute transports us into an enchanted world where good faces the forces of darkness. It follows the story of Prince Tamino, who is tasked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter, Pamina, from the supposedly evil Sarastro.
Tamino is a fun character to tackle. “The music is divine and there are so many different directions you can go with the character,” says Bliss. His favorite Tamino moment occurs in Act I, when Tamino finds himself at the gates of Sarastro’s kingdom. He sings a dialogue with an animated Speaker, who guards the gates. It’s an interesting scene, because it’s the first time in the opera that Tamino thinks the Queen of the Night might be lying to him about Pamina’s situation. Is Sarastro really the evil one? Bliss also enjoys the scene, because it’s unlike many other tenor moments in Mozart operas. It’s a conversation as opposed to a moment when everything stops, so the tenor can sing gloriously about how much he loves the soprano.
The Magic Flute is a roaring-twenties set vision. It has the beauty of a classic Louise Brooks film (like Pandora’s Box) , but live. Here, the production team – Suzanne Andrade, Barrie Kosky, and Paul Barritt – talk about the concept behind their vision for Mozart’s fantasy opera.
How did you come up with the idea of staging The Magic Flute with 1927?
Barrie Kosky (stage director; Intendent of the Komische Oper Berlin): The Magic Flute is the most frequently performed German-language opera, one of the top ten operas in the world. Everyone knows the story; everybody knows the music; everyone knows the characters. On top of that, it is an “ageless” opera, meaning that an eight-year-old can enjoy it as much as an octogenarian can. So you start out with some pressure when you undertake a staging of this opera. I think the challenge is to embrace the heterogeneous nature of this opera. Any attempt to interpret the piece in only one way is bound to fail. You almost have to celebrate the contradictions and inconsistencies of the plot and the characters, as well as the mix of fantasy, surrealism, magic and deeply touching human emotions.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past year, you’ve probably heard that the great Ron Howard is releasing his next film, In the Heart of the Sea, on December 11. You probably also know that it stars Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, and Brendan Gleeson, and that it’s based on a true story of a whaling ship terrorized by a giant sperm whale in 1820. But, did you know that this story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick?
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“There are mysteries which men can only guess at, which age by age they may solve only in part.”
– Bram Stoker’s Dracula
There are mysteriously thrilling stories from literature that have inspired excellent additions to the horror film genre. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula is one such story. It’s the grandfather of the eternally pop-culture-relevant vampire fandom – American Horror Story: Hotel, Underworld, Only Lovers Left Alive, Interview with the Vampire (my personal favorite) and The Lost Boys, to name a few. While Stoker’s Dracula has been adapted into a television miniseries and has inspired several television characters and episodes (including the short lived series, Dracula), the story really shines on the silver screen.
Probably the greatest of them all is Universal’s 1931 silent film, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. The film’s original release coincided with the shift from silent pictures to “talkies.” With limited sound technology in existence, the film had no musical soundtrack and few sound effects. For its 1998 restoration of the film, Universal commissioned legendary composer Philip Glass to write a hypnotic new instrumental score, blowing the cobwebs off the horror classic and adding depth to the emotional layers of the drama.
Tomorrow night, LA Opera presents Dracula with a live performance of Glass’s score, providing an eerie counterpart to the suspense of the creepy classic projected on the big screen. Philip Glass will share the stage along with the celebrated Kronos Quartet for the performances (running through October 31) at the gorgeously restored Theatre at Ace Hotel.
In honor of LA Opera’s presentation of Dracula, here is a list of film adaptations we found that you should check out to get in the vampire spirit:
Nosferatu (1922) – The Count may have a different name in German director F.W. Murnau’s silent film adaption (he’s called Count Orlok), but he gets up to many of the same antics as Stoker’s Dracula. Nosferatu is a hauntingly cinematic piece known as one of the great influences on the later film noir genre.
VERISMO (22 Scrabble points) – Italian – Verismo literally means “realism” or “truth.” It is a genre of opera made famous by Puccini, Mascagni, and Leoncavallo in the late 19th century – think cinema’s Italian neo-realism movement, but for opera.
Since the July release of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the internet has been ablaze with stories about opera in film. In the movie, Tom Cruise plays spy Ethan Hunt, who thwarts an assassination attempt during a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Rogue Nation is the latest in a long line of films that feature opera performances – utilizing arias to tell a story or illustrate elements of a character’s psyche. Franco Zeffirelli (whose production of Pagliacci returns to LA Opera this Saturday) specialized in making cinematic adaptations of operas in the 1980s, often collaborating with Plácido Domingo and Teresa Stratas. His 1982 adaptations of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are particularly stunning.
Two of the most famous arias to be used in film are “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The former is a persuasive aria, which Lauretta uses to convince her father Gianni Schicchi to stop fighting with the family of Rinuccio, the man she loves, while the latter is sung by Canio in Pagliacci after he discovers his wife’s infidelity. Both arias have been included in a plethora of films and television shows for decades.
Here are a few examples:
“O mio babbino caro” – Gianni Schicchi
A Room with a View (1985) – In the film, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) is torn between her fiancé Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the free-spirited George Emerson (Julian Sands), after meeting the latter in Florence. “O mio babbino caro” (performed by Kiri Te Kanawa) is the film’s main theme, expressing Lucy’s choice between a light-hearted romance and a passionate romance.