“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 features Pete Doctor’s “Up.”
Over the last few installments, we have repeatedly turned to opera to see how a filmmaker derives symbolic meaning from the intertextual dialogue between film and operatic work. But sometimes that intertextuality isn’t so deep or important as the simple importance of combining music with the image.
Such is the example in an early sequence of Pixar’s “Up.”
The famous Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen,” or “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” expl ores the titular character’s view on love and in its ever-changing nature. Ironically, the opening sequence of “Up,” in which director Pete Doctor utilizes an orchestral version of the piece, depicts the main character Carl’s morning routine. The film and music could not be more diametrically opposed in their respective meaning.
But it works. How?
As noted, the mezzo soprano voice is non-existent here, which then allows the listener to hear the piece in its orchestral homogeny, allowing for other elements to come to the fore. For example, the repetitive bass rhythm that creates the habanera feel is repeated incessantly throughout, even when the main melody starts moving in different directions. This alone creates the sense of routine that we see in Carl’s morning.
But the main melody itself does something quite unique in this reading. When you listen to the aria with voice, it is the singer who leads the listener on and her choice of colors influence our perception. But in this recording, the orchestra seems to build on itself, with first violins taking the melody before more and more orchestral colors fill it out with every repetition. Suddenly it comes to life, much in the way Carl’s morning is progressing.
When we get to the climax, which is scored with some percussion and the precise rhythmic strikes, the music seems to be opening up, much in the way the film shows Carl opening his door.
As we arrive at the climax of the entire scene, the final notes of the Habanera are cut to widening shots of the world around Carl’s home, creating a jarring but also poignant conclusion to the sequence. We now feel a sense of finality for this particular character moment and now feel ready to start a new sequence with a completely different setting.
Take a look at how it all beautifully comes together.