The Elevated Status of Opera in Cinema

This post is written by Dr. Johanna Ethnersson Pontara.

During the last few decades scholars have paid increasing attention to how cinema deals with traditional aesthetic values in its representations of opera. Marc A. Weiner (2002) and Marcia Citron (2010) have explored films from the late 1980s and 1990s (Moonstruck, 1987; Pretty Woman, 1990; Philadelphia, 1993; The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) and shown how they connect operatic song with transcendence of particularity and emotional liberation. The opera performance, whether staged live in the opera house or mediated by technology, generates a special experience for attentive listeners in the fictional world at a pivotal moment in the narrative. Recently, Citron (2011: 318) has argued that this idealization of opera is challenged with the James Bond film Quantum of Solace (2008). Here, a staged opera performance is fragmented and serves to reinforce an action scene. Moreover, the performance is not associated with attentive listening. Lawrence Kramer (2013) has, just like Citron, pointed to a new conception of opera in recent cinema. According to him two conceptual supports on which the representation of ‘classical music’ has depended have been removed: ‘the status of a relatively stable whole’ and ‘a model of consciousness and attention’ (Kramer, 2013: 42-43). He exemplifies this removal by showing how the habanera from Bizet’s Carmen is used in the film Up (2009). The specific music and the specific opera, here, only have overall semiotic value – as recognizable classical music – for the film viewer, and the music ‘does not act as a token of a larger whole’ (Kramer, 2013: 48).

Scenes from recent films, however, show that cinema nonetheless continues to uphold an idealized image of opera. Of interest, though, is that this idealization does not revolve around the operatic song as a sonic entity or representation in a staged setting, which is the case in the mentioned films from the 1980s and 1990s, but around the presence of the singer as a real-life singer. This promotion of the singer appears to be connected to cross-promotion strategies between cinema and the classical music industries. Opera singers make use of cinema to promote themselves, while cinema in turn makes use of the real-life celebrities in order to market films containing opera.


Citron, M 2010 When Opera Meets Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Citron, M 2011 The Operatics of Detachment: Tosca in the James Bond Film Quantum of Solace. 19th-Century Music, 34(3): 317-318.

Kramer, L 2013 Classical Music for the Posthuman Condition. In: Gorbman, C, Vernallis, C, Richardson, J The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 39-51.

Weiner, M A 2002 Why Does Hollywood Like Opera? In: Joe, J, Rose T Between Opera and Cinema. New York: Routledge. pp. 75-91.


Dr. Johanna Ethnersson Pontara is Associate Professor of Musicology at Stockholm University.