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I want this 10-15 minutes to be my very brief love letter to opera, from ancient to modern through the lens of this film.

  • To show people what opera is in a real way (through singing it!),

  • To explain how and why it is used in this film

  • a brief link into the state of the opera industry in the UK atm (which is relevant as there are ignorant people trying to kill it, much like in the film!)

  • that opera isn't dead and is evolving to find new audiences and how this audience can discover, enjoy and hopefully embrace opera

Some of my content here is purely exploratory and isn't for the project itself, as it spoilers the film or goes into detail that would be impenetrable for an audience that had not yet seen the film. For example, going into explicit detail about the plot in terms of the themes of the film.


Some things are not yet fleshed out or quite vague, without justification or proof of findings.... but this is a 10-15 minute talk, not an academically rigorous and impenetrable viva for a PhD! I want this talk to be something that opens up and inspires new people to look at an art form they haven't explored, rather than bolster the egos of those already enjoying the art form.


Audience spioler caveat?

We all know that this film is about a man called Fitzcarraldo who wants to 'make opera in the jungle'. And if you have seen the poster for the 1980s film, or indeed noticed the nautical theme of this series, you may realise it will also involve a boat! So no claims of spoilers from me please :)


Is this film about the titular character Fitzcarraldo's love of opera? Yes. Definitely.


Is this film about the director, Herzog's, love of opera? Well, probably... but there are some interesting bits to unpack here. I'm interested in how Herzog chose the music he did for the film, as he himself, as well as making films, is also an opera director. Despite directing A LOT of operas, he has not directed any of the operas he chose. However, they do all feature the voice of one singer who is crucial to the plot, a real life operatic figure called Enrico Caruso, an Italian tenor superstar of the time the film is set.


In his 2004 book on the making of the film, entitled Conquest of the Useless(!) he says:

A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that had sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong.


How much of the music that Herzog chose was dictated by his love of the voice of Caruso and was he rather than opera itself Herzog's inspiration? Is this more about the cult of the diva, the star tenor whose level of fame (going outside the world of opera) wouldn't be seen consistently again until Pavarotti nearly half a century later? Or are Caruso as an artist of opera and the opera itself too closely entwined for this to matter at all?


It can be argued that Fitzcarraldo is not desperate for the opera house as much as Caruso going there to sing in his opera house. The film is full of music about love and unrequited love. Are these about Fitzcarraldo's pains of love for Caruso? Or a foreshadowing of the doom that his opera house will never be built and his love letter will go unanswered?

Quote from David Salazar's Opera Wire essay on what part opera plays in Fitzcarraldo:

“A man on a mission to build an opera house in the middle of a hostile jungle. This is a statement that can apply to anything relating to art, the modern world often hostile to the advancement of the arts, despite their importance to our social development.”


In some ways, the same problems that Fitzcarraldo is trying to overcome (not being able to persuade people to want opera in the remote jungle in the 1920s), is a similar problem opera as an art was starting to have in the 1980s, which Herzog (as a film and opera director) must have been aware of as someone so heavily involved in the industry. Did he think that like Fitzcarraldo's jungle opera house in the 1890s, opera in the 1980s was doomed? There is a fascinating graph produced from data provided by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, one of the world's most prestigious and well funded opera houses, which shows how many operas were performed at the MET which were composed in the preceding 50 years, ie. Are contemporary art.


I think we can agree that by the 1980s, opera was in a bit of trouble. It's not dead, but as a contemporary art form, it had morphed into a more niche category of entertainment. This film is about preoccupation with a futile goal (a common theme in Herzog's work) but opera -and many other arts- are fighting to stay relevant, in the face of cuts etc (Arts council funding cuts

  • ENO etc -super dramatic and interesting events are taking place, which would make an amazing film BTW!)


There is however, hope! Fitzcvarraldo may have been doomed, but opera definitely isn't!


The state of modern opera:

Opera, like any art form, will die if it doesn't evolve. UK opera is definitely evolving. There is a fantastic art form that lots of people feel they can't access.


Why do they still feel they can't access it?


Gone are the days of only accessing it in opera houses wearing ballgowns and tuxedos, with no A/C and no idea what the people singing are saying. Even the smallest UK fringe companies almost all now use subtitles by default and have for decades now for inclusion and audience engagement. Companies are making huge strides in engaging new audiences in new places: you can now see it on the streets, in car parks, even on boats! Contemporary operas are being written and selling out, with adaptations of The Handmaids Tale and The Hours recent big hits. As for older works, similar to theatre and film director's adaptations of Shakespeare and other older works, opera directors are finding new ways to tell the stories, bringing the plots up to date to engage with a new generation and the things that are important to them. eg. Bellini's I Puritani, about the English Civil War, set in a modern post-apocalypse by Grange Park Opera anyone?

What can I do in this performance to connect people to opera now?

  • Make sure my content is understandable and accessible to new audiences (no exclusionary terminology or gatekeeping -which ain't my style anyway!)

  • Make sure the audience can understand the words they are hearing (Subtitles? Sing in English?) and that it makes sense to them (modern translations without antiquated language?).

  • Find common threads between the subject matter and the film / modern and modern subjects

  • Break down the stigma of it being an art form which is exclusive. In the film's opening Fitzcarraldo himself is denied entrance to an opera house. This film is about making opera inclusive (eventually performed on a boat in the Amazon!) -that opera can be performed anywhere

  • Show the audience a wide variety of what opera is and that it is more than just the stereotype of horned helmets and breastplates – being close to my audience -maybe walk amongst them? (on a boat, in a small space), puppetry,


Themes of the film:


Communication (and lack of it):

Fitzcarraldo can't communicate with either the rubber barons / townsfolk or the indigenous people (because of language barriers, cultural barriers and him not speaking the right languages (money, Spanish, indigenous languages etc) and neither of these groups respectively understand what he is trying to get them to achieve (building the opera house, moving the boat etc). The people of Iquitos don't understand the need for opera. The indigenous people don't understand the intruders or the opera and misinterpret it.


Dolkart 'Civilization's Aria: Film as Lore and Opera as Metaphor in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo':

“The most significant and enduring lore embraced by elites in Latin America is the division between civilization and barbarism. The separation into two Latin Americas, one civilized...another barbaric...has shaped the foreigner's views, as well as the self-image of the region, as has no other concept...for five centuries... . This dichotomy lies at the heart of...Fitzcarraldo, presented as a conflict between European music and Latin American reactions to it. The result is one of the strongest filmic treatments of polarized cultures.”


Ironically, even if the indigenous people were able to communicate with Fitzcarraldo in English/Spanish, as all the opera in the film is in Italian no-one would understand it anyway! There is a stubborn myth that C19th audiences were either fluent in the languages they were listening in OR that they could tell what the plot was from the emotions expressed through the voices and the action on stage. This is false: C19th opera audiences wouldn't necessarily speak the language of the opera they were listening to and there was a culture of previous preparation and libretti were widely sold and used, including being sold and/or distributed for free by the opera houses themselves before performances!


Dreams: their coming at a price, their invisibility to others (seeing is believing), perseverance, trying to persuade others to share yours. The people on the boat are looking to share a dream (art) and embrace art and mystery/new experiences.


Identity: Similar to communication in that there is a feeling of being 'other'. A sense of not belonging and the opera maybe not belonging and maybe that's how some people view opera now?

Going back to identity briefly, and quoting Dolkart:

“Fitzcarraldo remains a national hero in Peru...because he insisted on Peruvian sovereignty over an area where Bolivian and Brazilian machinations threatened a takeover.”

There is a thread of belonging and nationalism in the film, and this is mirrored in A LOT of opera plots. Including many operas by Bellini, Puccini and Verdi (but ironically not particularly in these operas, especially I P which is incidentally v similar to Lucia di L which came out a year later... but is set during the English Civil War story -accidentally- set in Scotland and only features one nationalistic number...which is actually about France?! 'Suoni la tromba').


The film is very reliant on soundscapes and they contrast strongly with the music (opera)



Music in the film (not including the soundtrack by the Popol Vuh collective):

  • Verdi's Ernani (fruitless love)

  • Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (broken heart)

  • Puccini's La bohème (love ensemble between men talking of their beloveds)

  • Bellini's I puritani (love song)


Obviously, all the opera arias in this film are written for tenors! There aren't many famous arias for women in these specific operas / necessarily things I feel comfortable singing or are inappropriate to the subject matter... or are just too long and aren't easy to cut!

Mi chiamano Mimi - Puccini's La bohème (1896) EXTRACT

Both introduction to me and music similar to that in the film:

  • Maybe walk amongst the audience during this? Engage directly in conversation with them?

  • Subtitles. Colloquial subtitles?

From the start until “Lei mintende?”

Approx 1 minute 30


Casta Diva – Bellini's Norma (1831) EXTRACT

From the start until just before “si”

Approx 1 minute 45

Possibly one of the most famous pieces of opera ever written. Strongly affects people. About division between duty and love: “Pure Goddess, whose silver covers These sacred ancient plants, we turn to your lovely face unclouded and without veil...”

  • Possibly use a sound scape to accompany this? Rainforest?

  • And or visual content to accompany? Rainforest clouds or shots like at the start of film?

  • Subtitles. Colloquial subtitles? English (ENO translation)?

And now for something completely different / From the sublime to the ridiculous:

The Dead Sheep Aria* - Thomas Adez's The Exterminating Angel (2016)

An opera based on the 1962 surrealist film of the same name, which I enjoyed so much, both musically and as a spectacle, that after attending the dress rehearsal I bought a ticket for the opening night as I had to see and hear it again immediately, and then went to the closing night too!

  • Use puppet for this aria? Baby/sheep?

  • Possibly use a sound scape to accompany this? Rainforest?

  • And or visual content to accompany? Rainforest clouds or shots like at the start of film?

  • Subtitles for accessibility (it is in English)

*nb. This is my title for this aria as no one really uses it out of context and it's not titled in the opera!

Complete aria

Approx 2 minutes

Ye gentle spirits of the air - Purcell's The Indian Queen (1692) EXTRACT

An opera that like the film is actually set in the Peruvian amazon! (13% of Amazon is in Peru)

I leave you now with one more aria, which couldn't be more appropriate for this project,

And with this, I call you through song to attention, to watch and enjoy this excellent film:

From the start until just before “Appear appear”.

  • Still thinking about what to do with this one. Either:

  • Picture frame to be a portrait? Or as a modern performance dressed as a news hack on the TV giving an outside broadcast?

Approx 1 minute

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