As an opera lover I find it extremely annoying when opera is raped by people who in a quest to show how sensitive and artistic they are pick poor opera as their medium. You know when you are dragged through all their thoughts and feelings at the sound of this particular note or this particular phrasing. They babble on and on, add intellectual angles, return to their feelings, add historical facts and feel oh so precious about it. Why not just enjoy the music and leave the rest of us alone, for crying out loud?
And yes, this is just the beginning of my rant.
The other day I came by a scene from Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia from 1993 in which Tom Hanks shares his feelings about an aria sung by Maria Callas.
I was 14 in 1993.
And I loved it.
And that is over now.
Whoever wrote the manuscript teams up with Tom Hanks and together they manage to present a beautiful array of prejudices in their using opera to create “gay-man-with-AIDS-shares-his-built-up-agony-at-the-realisation-of-his-own-mortality-through-his-love-for-opera-and-his-typically-gay-adoration-of-Maria-Callas+wavy-hands”. Presenting the whole thing as an insight to the bottomless pain of a poor, sick man. It is like you take all the most warped assumptions of gay people and combine them with all the silliest assumptions of opera lovers. Now that is some potent cocktail, I tell you! And I think it is exploiting a genre that deserves better and a complete miss on the real agony of someone in that situation.
But let’s watch the clip:
And here you have my version of events:
Tom: Do you mind this music – do you like opera? (already Tom is a bit dreamy, enjoying himself with closed eyes, as a true opera lover should be at the mere sound of Maria Callas)
Denzel: I am not that familiar with opera (thinking “oh, shit, here goes the gay person with his fancypancy opera”)
Tom: Hm. Now this is my favorite aria. It’s Maria Callas. It’s Andrea Chenier, Umberto Giordano. (phony Italian accent)
(Denzel looks at his watch, already desperate)
Tom: This is Maddalena (repeat phony Italian accent)
(Tom raises the volume as any true operalover would do so that the music can destroy the neighbours’ sleep and so that he can talk over the music)
Tom: She’s saying how, during the French revolution, the mob set fire to her house. And her mother died…
(first view of the drop stand that he will waltz around with for the rest of the scene. Because he’s sick, you know. He’s actually dying. He is sick!)
Tom: …saving her. She says ”look the place that cradled me is burning”
(During this hands hand is articulating wildly – as it should be since this is an opera lover who needs hands, jazz hands Italian style hands, to express his feelings. Without the hands he would not only be handicapped when trying to drink his fair trade esprrrresso but also be a wretch unable to express what his heart tells him to share with the world)
(Maria sings and sings)
Tom: Do you hear that heartache in her voice (oh please). Can you feel it, Joe? (oh puuuurleeeaase)
(Leave, Denzel, before it’s too late, the opera lover is about to gush his feelings, oh his larger than life feelings, all over you. It will get ugly now. Leave while you can. But no: Denzel raises eyebrows, nods, mumbles in assent)
Tom: Now, in come the strings and it changes everything.
(Classic, ”I have listened to this so many times and know this so much in detail that I can help you understand. Also – I understand composing, the technical part you know, I know about that – the strings change everything. I know and now you do too. Because I helped you.”)
Tom: The music, it fills with a hope. That’ll change again, listen (yeees, I know, and I will educate you, LISTEN)
Tom: Listen (I told you he would repeat that)
Tom translating from the Italian, beacuse he knows Italian as we already gathered from his perfect pronunciation of the composer’s name: ”I bring sorrow to those who love me”
(Tom puts on pained/blissful face and sighs, because he’s in pain you know)
Tom: Oh, that single cello! (troubled voice. Like someone pooping)
(Denzel looks slightly intrigued/thinking ”when can I leave without hurting the faggot’s feelings?” Then blinks slowly, not because he’s tired, no, no, but because he feels it now, he does, he feeeeeels the single cello)
Tom (still quoting): It was during this sorrow that love came to me (inaudible due to croaking) voice filled with harmony. It said ”Live still. I am life. Heaven is in your eyes (tear filled voice breaking)
(Denzel holding the position of feeeeeling the music, strange flames flickering over his face. As his heart expands and his mind is illuminated the lighting over his face changes from darkness to light)
(Tom moves free hand to head while crying silently. You see the wetness under his eye. Drop stand in frame again. Because he is sick)
(Denzel looking on, full of compassion, eyes moistening up. As one commenter on youtube put it: “At that moment, Joe (Denzel) undergoes a conversion of the soul; he is seeing not a gay man with AIDS, but a man who loves life.”)
(Tom has a vision while quoting on and on and on about ”something something divine and oblivion” crying heavily now ”I am the god that comes down from the heavens to the earth and makes of the earth a heaven”)
(Denzel building up even more feeling in his otherwise rather deadpanned face)
Tom raising his fist as la Callas reaches her climax: I am LOVE. I AM love.
(Music ends, Tom pants, lights change from warm to cold because, well, this was all just a dream)
I think I love the part with the single cello most but the clenched fist is definitely up there contending with it. OMG. Do I hate this? Yes I do. As one commenter put it: The whole sequence is about as subtle as a pick axe to the back of the head.
If you’re interested in a much more cool and rational view on how Philadelphia fails in its portrayal of HIV, gay people and the people surrounding them go here.
And now – to clean our palates: soprano Christine Schäfer sings Mozart’s aria Ruhe sanft from the opera Zaïde.