Not another brilliant movie being made into a bloody opera…

Not another brilliant movie being made into a bloody opera…


norman lebrecht

November 07, 2017

We had The Exterminating Angel, by Thomas Ades, after the film by Luis Bunuel. An evening-length meander by a huge cast of characters, none of them defined. All the hype in the New York Times can’t get audiences excited about it.

In London, we’re about to see Marnie by Nico Muhly, after Hitchcock, at English National Opera.

Sophie’s Choice was a dire opera at Covent Garden. Dire, dire, dire.

What ever became of Brokeback Mountain, the movie composed by Charles Wuorinen? It premiered in Madrid, was seen once in Germany (at Aachen) and then faded from sight.

Now here’s another one: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, composed by Keeril Makan, is showing at LA Opera.

Has opera lost all creative invention?

Do we have to cannibalise movies?

Can no-one think of any new stories?


Oh, here’s another: Houston Grand Opera presents, The House without a Christmas Tree, based on a 1972 TV film.


  • Peter says:

    Should we discount all the operas made from Shakespeare plays or from ancient Greek drama? But I think I hear what you’re saying.

  • Nicholas Riddle says:

    Actually, Norman, Brokeback Mountain will be staged at New York City Opera finally in Spring 2018, in a way where it was originally intended to be premiered, although not strictly the same company. As you will know already, it has been produced previously in Madrid, Aachen, and Salzburg, which is not bad for a contemporary opera. There is good reason to think there will be more productions as well.

  • Lee Hickenbottom says:

    I think you mean Sophie’s Choice dear

  • Lawrence Kershaw says:

    Given the huge ‘revision’ done by Hitchcock to the Graham novel, I think we can say that ‘Marnie’ is based on the book not the film!

  • John Borstlap says:

    Of course there are people who can invent new stories. They can even invent new music that audiences actually want to hear. But then, they have to turn their back to trendy nonsense and that requires – for people writing operas and librettos – giving-up their cultural identity as “Modern Individuals”, as it has been practiced since 1950.

    When opera houses, after very long periods of deep deliberation and struggle to overcome both financial and aesthetic inhibitions, decide to produce a Modern Opera, they look into the New Music Circuit, a field they usually try to avoid on all costs, and see what is ‘hot’ there. And then, they pick-out the composer who is talked about most of the time – i.e. within that circle – without realizing that, like a drain pipe, the new music which is talked about most, is the Most Conventional Outdated Music possible, the type which sinks the most easily to the level of degradation which has been cultivated with special care since Le Grand Macabre by Ligeti:

  • Barry Michael Okun says:

    Isn’t “The Marriage of Figaro” the greatest opera of all time? Isn’t it based on a pre-existing play?

    I don’t think I understand this objection.

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    Here’s a fun game. Try coming up with the name of an opera that’s NOT adapted from a prior source such as a book or play; film is simply a relatively younger storytelling medium (at 100+ years) that required the invention of new technologies.

    • norman lebrecht says:


      • Respect says:

        Hard to top that, norman!

        • Richard says:

          Akhnaten, Satyagraha, Einstein on the Beach, Galileo, Kepler, Appomattox, all by glass and none based on préexisting material.

          Same goes for Nixon in a China, Klinghoffer, Doctor Atomic…

          Emmeline, Muhly’s Dark Sisters and Two Boys…etc etc…it’s not difficult to come up with a long list of notable original operas.

          • Marnay says:

            You’re naming practically all operas based on history. That in itself makes the content “unoriginal”.
            Most of the most famous and beloved operas are based on plays, or books, or plays based on books, or plays based on history, or history itself. This doesn’t mean opera and originality is dead, it just means that modern opera has modern source material. We could just let opera fester and die, or we can at least allow composers and librettists to create work without dismissing it on sight.

            It’s disappointing of you, Norman, to pass judgment on a work just because it’s based on a film.

      • David Geary says:

        Lortzing wrote an ópera called Hans Sachs based on a play. The libretto has aprendido lot of similarities to Wagner”s and he almost certainly knew it.

    • Sue says:

      “Dardanus” (Rameau)?

  • William Osborne says:

    Add Cold Mountain, Dead Man Walking, The Fly, Lost Highway, and Silent Night, among others. Disney has turned nine of its films into stage musicals.

    • Bruys says:

      A good list. I enjoyed Dead Man Walking, the Jake Heggie one, but then I wasn’t familiar with the movie. Would you call that movie brilliant?

  • David Boxwell says:

    Another angsty Bergman flick just opera-ized: AUTUMN SONATA.

    (Nobody now has a problem with Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, though–since it’s got “tunes.”)

  • Scotty says:

    Some of these operas are, in the long tradition of opera, based on literary works, not movies.

    Sophie’s Choice is a novel by William Styron. Alan Pakula directed and produced a film based on the novel. (Spielberg had nothing to do with it despite being mentioned above).

    Brokeback Mountain is a short story by Annie Proulx, which was adapted into a movie.

    Marnie is a novel by Winston Graham.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Opera is a dead art from. The only way to get audiences these days to go to the opera house is to have the work be a staged orgy with techno music in the background. Everything else is derivative.

  • Ungeheuer says:

    In agreement with NL. Given the choice between film and post-film opera I will opt for the former. These new operas are nothing but post-modern (post-mortem?) deconstructivist exercises in art school “process” or “method”. But hardly inspirational let alone noteworthy aesthetically or dramatically. They will be as quickly forgotten and discarded as any student art project exhibit up in flames.

  • Robert Paterson says:

    In case anyone is interested, here’s an opera that’s not based on a movie, or even a novel, and it’s entirely original, with a libretto by David Cote, and music by yours truly. It was recently premiered by Nashville Opera, and had it’s NYC premiere at BAM Fisher this past June. We have John Hoomes and Nashville Opera to thank for having the courage to tackle a premiere that doesn’t try to use pre-existing movies or novels to sell the work.

    Here are a few links…

    Three Way page:



    Parterre Box Review:

    Opera News:


    • John Borstlap says:

      Interesting: a new opera firmly rooted in tradition (what the authors call ‘convention’ – apparently unaware of the difference). Their point of departure is postmodern, in the sense that every sort of means are permissable and thus, also ‘operatic conventions’. According to the clip, the music seems enjoyable, expressive and lyrical, and well-made. But why such incredibly trivial subject, treating the most abject and primitive underling pastimes as a lighthearted, ironic comedy? The plot of Cosi (a comparison made in the reviews) is also trivial and lacking credibility, but its treatment explores much deeper meaning. But then, Cosi’s triviality is innocent and decent in comparison with this distasteful ‘postmodernist’ expository. How could the music, ANY music, redeem such plot? What could be heard in the clip did not encourage jmuch confidence.

      Also the well-meaning, lighthearted and welcoming treatment of the reviews is quite distasteful: as if ‘we all know’ that this is life as it is. Imagine the plot of Strauss’ “Salome” being described as an enjoyable, ‘naughty’ evening at a king’s court.

      If any sort of means are postmodernistically available, why are the best available means so conspicuously avoided?

      • Sue says:

        Your comments and observations ALWAYS interest me. You may find this discussion enlightening too: these two great public intellectuals go hammer and tongs at post modernism and it’s difficult to disagree with either of them.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I looked into that video until 13:46 and will see out the rest at a later moment, but obviously, Camille is going-off like a canon against poststructuralists in academia.

          Sir Roger Scruton has already minced the movement, also called ‘deconstruction’, to very small pieces and then thrown into the dustbin, a movement which is often seen as a submovement of postmodernism, in his ‘Modern Culture’, in the chapter ‘The Devil’s Work’. Especially Michel Fuckhaule is found-out as some sort of philosophical criminal. And Derrida has given the terms ‘derrision’ a new meaning.

          But postmodernism in the arts merely means: the situation after modernism, somewhere in the seventies when people began to realize that what was called ‘high modernism’ with all of its ideological assaults on culture and the past, had run its course. So, a default term. But in philosophy and in academia, something else happened, an infestation of philistine demagogy, well-described by Camille, although her diction somehow undermines her points.

          • Sue says:

            I admire Dr. Paglia for her outspoken bravery. One need not always agree with what is said here but it’s stimulating to hear two phenomenally intelligent people exchanging ideas like this. And I’m forever grateful that the internet provides us access to all that.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    The most important thing about opera is the music, not the dramatic action. It’s this combined with the dual nature of opera that limits its ability to come up with new stories. A novel or a play is not hampered by having to coordinate the story with a second medium, music. So it can be, inherently, more original. The same with film – the music is utterly secondary to the telling of the story. When the music has to come first, as with opera, original storytelling is radically more difficult. This is why no one has ever heard of the librettist (unless you’re an opera buff).

    • John Borstlap says:

      Much to be said for all of this. One could say that in opera, the music offers emotional involvement with what happens inside the plot, and what we see is the outside. The music explores what happens in and between the protagonists, which – in case the music is truly expressive – can be subjectively experienced by the audience, while we can follow the actions and situations visually.

      But it seems to me that the ‘newness’ of the story is less important than the way a subject is treated. Hence the immense differences in all the operatic variations of doomed love triangles and conflicts between love and obligation, etc. To mention only one striking and extreme example of difference: the subject of Wagner’s Tristan is more or less imitated in Debussy’s Pelléas but the works could not be further apart in the way such subject is treated.

  • Alex Davies says:

    In principle, I see no reason why art in any form ought not to be made into an opera if it is done well enough. As has been noted several times, many operas are based on plays, novels, epic poems, works of history, etc. Perhaps films do present particular problems. Whereas a play, a novel, an epic, a history, etc. is a narrative that can be adapted in countless different ways, a film is at once both more and less than that. A film is a complete work of art (a Gesamtkunstwerk if you like) which combines script, direction, performance, location, set, costume, lighting, makeup, soundtrack, etc. Furthermore, all of these things are preserved permanently in one definitive form (allowing for a director’s cut or a remake). Whereas in the theatre no two performances are the same, in the cinema no two performances are different. Therefore to adapt a film is to do something that the artist almost certainly never intended. Shakespeare would have known that his plays would be performed by different actors in different theatres, often with very significant changes to the script (since so many of his plays are based on Greek and Latin classics he presumably also foresaw the likelihood that he would himself be translated). Sets, props, costumes, lighting (such as it was), and music would all be different with each production. He probably would not be astonished to see that his plays have been adapted as films, operas, and ballets. A film is intended to be replicated exactly every time it is screened, shown on TV, streamed online, etc. The other problem I foresee with many potential film-to-opera adaptations is that music is already an essential part of many films. If Psycho, The Third Man, Schindler’s List, or any film in the oeuvre of Woody Allen were to be adapted as operas the soundtrack would need in some way to be carried over into the opera score. An opera of Hannah and Her Sisters with the music of Bach, Puccini, and Cole Porter, or an opera of Manhattan that does not open with Rhapsody in Blue? It sounds impossible. No doubt good film-to-opera adaptations are possible, but I think it presents very particular problems.

    • hans van der zanden says:

      very interesting assay! – to adapt the original music for the opera. Imagine ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, by Maurice Jarre – the main theme could be composed into a wonderfull aria – T.E overlooking the desert…..plenty of drama

  • Scotty says:

    Coming soon: The Lego Opera, which is based on the Lego Movie, which is based on Legos, which are little plastic shapes that snap together.

  • Furzwängler says:

    The Sopranos : The Opera
    I can’t wait

  • Dan says:

    This Marnie is based on the book, not the film.

  • Peter Owen says:

    and let us not forget Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire much as one might wish to. I’ve long thought that opera composers choose stories already known because audiences are more likely to attend – for a start there’ll be no impenetrable plot to deal with – and, because they know what’s going on, they are more likely to focus on the music or at least return after the interval.

  • James says:

    Brokeback Mountain? You mean the one having its US premiere in New York in May 2018..?

  • Don Niperi Septo says:

    Andrew Lloyd Webber could cobble an opera together I am sure if he was asked and paid.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Every prostitute, if well-paid, will be subservient.

      • Alan says:

        Its very odd the 21st century has seen advances in medicine, science and technology undreamed of 100 years ago. The same cannot be said of “classical” music, the quality of which is worsened in 100 years! Fancy that. Two world wars killed off any talent for sure.

        • John Borstlap says:

          It’s a bit more complicated than that…. In art, there is no progress as there is in science and technology, and apart from the wars depleting the amount of spiritual hope, which is the basis of serious music, since the 19th century composers have felt the need to imitate the progress noticed in other fields. (But the only thing getting ‘better’ is the cumulative territory of means, NOT artistic quality.) Hence the extreme fear of composers to be seen as using means ‘from the past’, which may give them an image of being ‘conservative’. It is all an enormous misunderstanding, eating away at the art form. For audiences, music by Beethoven or Chopin is not old at all, but something timeless and much alive. For composers, it is merely a historic relict, so that they cannot learn anything from that music. Interestingly, many ‘modern composers’ who consider themselves ‘progressive’, perpetuate the ‘new’ of half a century old. They don’t seem to understand that if you are looking back to go forward, you better look farther back, to better periods.

          This taboo has meanwhile also spread in the orchestral field: if obligation requires, occasionally, a ‘new work’, programmers are very anxious to put something hip or modernistic in the program, not based upon quality or wether it will be accessible to the audience, but whether it will be a ‘modern gesture’. So, audiences remain oblivious of the few composers who explore older musical languages and turn them into their own personal expression, like David Matrthews (UK), or Nicolas Bacri (FR), or Peter Fribbins (UK), or a composer I recently discovered and who writes superb chamber music rooted in 1900 France: Jeremy Cavaterra (USA).

          • Alex Davies says:

            I’m not sure that it needs to be as complicated as that. I tend simply to say that there is music that I like and music that I do not like, and it does not necessarily have anything to do with when the music was written or whether the composer was self-consciously modern.

            For example, I enjoy Valentyn Sylvestrov, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Arvo Pärt, but I do not enjoy Boulez, Stockhausen, or Birtwistle. Is this because Sylvestrov, Gubaidulina, and Pärt are less modern? Is it because something in their melody, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration, and so on is somehow grounded in earlier models? Interestingly, Gubaidulina, and Pärt are devout Eastern Orthodox Christians. I am not sure about Sylvestrov’s personal faith, but I do know that he at least draws inspiration from the same Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition.

            I’ve also long admired that group of Polish composers who came to prominence either side of the Second World War: Lutosławski, Panufnik, Górecki, and Penderecki. I understand that Panufnik eventually rejected the Catholic faith, whereas the other three were all more or less religious people. Certainly a strong religious influence is seen in the work of Górecki and Penderecki. If not grounded in a strong religious faith, Panufnik was nonetheless profoundly interested in Polish history and the history of Polish music. Perhaps there is a correlation between this sense of connection to something ancient, and perhaps even timeless, and the ability to produce a modern kind of music that nonetheless retains an appeal to a wider public and to the ear and the heart as well as the mind.

            That said, John Rutter, though I believe not himself a believer, composes explicitly Christian music which I find wholly lacking in interest, if superficially pleasing. And Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man draws upon Christian and non-Christian religious traditions, classical, English, and Japanese poetry, musical history, and the history of warfare, and, though hugely popular, is generally considered to be a work of little musical interest.

  • Hilary says:

    and let us please not forget Gerald Barry’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” which word for word sets all of the Fassbender film and dispatches it in less time. A wonderful, bracing experience, and one of ENO’s finest commissions.

    Spot-on, by the way in your judgement (“an evening length meander”) on Adès’s latest opera.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Barry likes to insult and humiliate:

      Ades is gifted but has difficulties to get under the surface and thus should better avoid such undertaking like an opera.

      • Hilary says:

        Thanks for the link to this typically deadpan piece from Barry. A thin line between success and disaster with this kind of aesthetic , and Barry gets it ‘right’ on this occasion. His recent opera ‘Alice’ slipped into self-parody.
        Whatever the case, wildly different from either John Barry or the composer who shares his same initials: George Benjamin.

  • trolley80 says:

    Not another tiresome opinion about something that hasn’t even been written yet

  • John Borstlap says:

    It should be noted that on the announcement page of LA Opera, the name of the composer is not mentioned, and can only be found in the list of the ‘creative team’, among other contributors. This clearly demonstrates that the ‘music’ is considered only a minor part of the whole production and quite inconsequential. So, if the opera company already thinks beforehand that the music is inconsequential, this shows that it thinks that it is normal that de music cannot contribute much. So, the degeneration of the art form is already entirely accepted by the company, hence the LOUDLY advertised link with the Bergman movie.

    So, a theatre play with sounds between the thoughts, really.

  • hans van der zanden says:

    Alex, it sounds a bit ‘stupid’ that Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man, is, ‘though hugely popular, is generally considered to be a work of little musical interest’.

    • Alex Davies says:

      What I mean is that it is very popular but is not very interesting. It ranks at no. 88 in the Classic FM Ultimate Hall of Fame and is the 13th most popular work by a living composer in the most recent edition of the Hall of Fame. And yet it is simply not a very interesting piece of music. It fails to stimulate the mind and does nothing to reward further listening. Of course, that is only my personal opinion. I prefer to listen to the composers mentioned above: Sylvestrov, Gubaidulina, Pärt, Penderecki. Similarly, Thomas Kinkade and Jack Vettriano are considerably more popular than, say, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, or Klee and Kandinsky, but I do not believe that anybody with a serious interest in art would describe them as better or more interesting painters.