“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment we will take a look at James Grey’s ode to opera, “The Immigrant.”
To talk about James Grey’s “The Immigrant” it to talk about a film which is operatic by its very nature. In fact, Grey has stated quite clearly that he was inspired by a night at the opera to make this movie.
And opera is embedded in the film’s DNA. We will explore that in a future installment, but in this one, we will highlight the moment where the film and the world of opera explicitly collide.
It is exactly halfway through the movie and our protagonist Ewa is on Ellis Island and slated for deportation. This moment changes her life in many ways. She meets Emil, who would become her lover. And then she sees Enrico Caruso perform.
In this film, Caruso is famously performed by tenor Joseph Calleja and he sings “Ma come puoi lasciarmi” from Puccini’s “La Rondine.” For those not so familiar with the passage, Ruggero is asking his beloved Magda not to leave him. He can’t bear to be without her.
Everything about this choice of aria makes sense in a number of contexts. The text itself speaks to Ewa’s own conflict as an immigrant. She doesn’t want to leave or be left behind. Her sister has already been stuck at Ellis Island for some time and she can’t bear to relive that situation.
But it extrapolates to the other characters. Throughout “Caruso’s” performance, Grey cuts from her to Emil with Emil’s gaze fixed on her. It’s his inner monologue, expressing a desire to be with her, amplified by the longing of the singing.
And the other major character of the story, Bruno Weiss, who isn’t present, will relive that very scene between Magda and Ruggero at the end of the film. After developing a major attachment to Ewa, he implores that she not leave him, which she ultimately does.
Grey’s choice here might not necessarily read clearly to those not familiar with Puccini’s work. But it plays on a deeply emotional way. In a film layered with nostalgia about the American Dream, bringing the famed art form to the forefront adds to this high romanticism laden in the film. With its sunny colors, this scene coupled with Calleja’s warm tone create a sense of ethereal beauty that you don’t find in other sections of the film, often grimy and dark.
In this way, it contrasts Ewa’s first meeting with Bruno, who has been cruel to her, with her first meeting with Emil, who is a true romantic. It’s inclusion in this context is as operatic as anything you might expect in an opera. In opera, the singers explore their deepest and richest feelings to one another. Film doesn’t move in those patterns of expression, except in such a case as this one, where the music, operatic music no else, externalizes the inner emotions.
And there’s still so much more working in this opera that a future installment will explore with this incredible film.