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Tosca at the Movies – The Sequel

January 20, 2009
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 So, I had every intention to post something last night.  I finished up relaxing from my three day weekend, turned off my TV, and off went the power.  I thought I must have blown a fuse, and then when that didn’t work realized that power was off on the entire block.  Either I made a lot of people mad, or that was pretty amazing timing.

 Last week I spelled out how Tosca was referenced in Milk and Quantam of Solace here.  I thought this week I’d just put some thoughts on how the opera was signficant in both of those movies.

In the Bond movie, while the writers said the opera’s storyline related well to the movie’s plot, to those unfamiliar with Tosca, the opera setting was simply used for scenery.  The strong female characters and focus on political allegiences in both stories offers an interesting connection to those who realize it, but has the impact of an Easter Egg more than essential to the plot.  The opera’s main purpose in telling the story is primarily setting a scene where a bunch of priveleged and powerful people gather (and that awesome eye above the stage).

So why is this important?  Isn’t it just reinforcing the stereotype that opera is for people in tuxedos who like to sit around and listen to someone sing at them for 2 hours?  Maybe, but I think the spectacle of the opera in the movie is more noticeable than the stuffiness.  After all, despite the surface impressions, James Bond is still able to create a good deal of chaos and reveal ‘more interesting’ goings on at the opera house than a bunch of children singing a Te Deum

In Milk, the opera’s political ideas are also not fully explained, but perhaps Van Sant’s expectations for his audience were slightly higher than the directors of Quantum of Solace.  A cursory knowledge of Tosca, its tragic ending (beyond us seeing Tosca jumping off the stage in the movie), and the political ideas presented would impact the storytelling.  More importantly, Van Sant explores the emotional impact the music has and ties it directly to Milk’s life.  As much as people describe Milk as a celebration of his life, there is plenty of turmoil that is annotated by the music.  Once someone makes that connection to a non-opera listener, I hope it would definitely pique their interest to explore this ‘opera thing.’

As for Tosca itself, I think the storyline in it is one of the most captivating in opera.  The story’s history is explained in depth here.  Needless to say, ideas of political occupation and liberty are still in play today.  I wonder if anyone has considered staging Tosca in a modern setting for that reason.  I don’t think the story would suffer because even with the historical background of the opera, Tosca is still a story about individuals whose actions may be triggered by that historical background, but affect only other individuals.  Tosca’s tragedy is one not brought on by fate, but by human actions, which I think ultimately is more accessible.

Tosca does more than just dress up the classic tragic love story that many operas explore.   The interactions between people are realistic, and the dip into melodrama in the opera is not overwhelming.  As such, I feel the music more often is supporting the story rather than controlling it.  I believe, with translations, modern audiences could understand and appreciate Tosca at face value. 

Also, and this is something I will come back to again – the female character in Tosca is very strong.  In fact, much of the opera (and Tosca’s character) reminds me of Fidelio, whose ideas of democracy are often addressed, but in my view, the strength of Leonore is so much more interesting. 

I think the main problem with the depiction of opera in both of these movies has nothing to do with the movies at all, sadly.  I wish there were opportunities for people to come to see opera without all of the (affirmed) assumptions about what grand opera is like.  Why can’t the music world find a way to stage opera in school theaters and churches?  I’m not saying Tosca would be possible with its large orchestra and virtuosic singing roles in this context, but surely there are works that can be stage cheaply in communities for people enjoyment.  Sadly, I feel like most modern operas talked about today seem to go more in the direction of Bigger Louder Faster than intimate accessible and participatory.  We don’t live in an age anymore where people often feel comfortable being passive for two hours.  Even with the most passive medium of culture available – TV – once we get bored of something, we can just change the channel.  This is a problem that needs to be fixed… and then supported by classical music organizations.

P.S.  After I published this, I saw that WordPress had linked up my post to this WordPress blog that noted the similarities to Casablanca and Tosca.  I don’t have much to add, but found it really odd that Casablanca would make a third movie in 3 months or so that had a connection to Puccini’s opera, since I watched that over the holidays.  Do they really have no original ideas in Hollywood?

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