9 Famous Filmmakers Who Have Directed Opera

By Francisco Salazar

Opera has been used in the mainstream throughout history with many film directors like Martin Scorsese, Tom Ford, Francis Ford Coppola and Joe Wright inserting the art form into their films for crucial scenes.

Some, like James Gray, have even been influenced by the art form and have made films that evoke opera. Gray’s “The Immigrant,” was made after he saw “Suor Angelica” at the Los Angeles Opera and included pieces from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and “La Rondine” in that movie.

But opera has also influenced a number of film directors to direct the art form. This week Sofia Coppola’s 2016 Rome Opera production will have its premiere at the Palau de las Arts in Valencia. The production, which made its debut in 2016, marked her first operatic production and included a collaboration with celebrated fashion designer Valentino.

Coppola ranks as one of many film directors and OperaWire takes a look at some of the other great auteurs to take this step in their careers.

Anthony Minghella 

Minghella  was well-known for his stage work in London and later became distinguished for his work in film when he won the Academy Award for “The English Patient.” He went on to direct “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain.” His final film came in 2007 with “Breaking and Entering.” However, before his untimely death Mingelela made his mark with his production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” The production first premiered at the English National Opera before going to the Metropolitan Opera where it opened the 2006-07 season and went on to be featured in the Live in HD series. Mingle was scheduled to direct a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” but he died before he could get to do it.

Liliana Cavani 

Cavani is most famous for “The Night Porter” which starred Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling. She also directed a sequel to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” entitled “Ripley’s Game” as well as the award-winning film “La Pelle.” While becoming a successful filmmaker, Cavani also held a successful career as an opera director. Her first production came in 1979 when she directed Berg’s “Wozzeck”for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. She then directed Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” in 1984 and Cherubini’s “Médée” in 1986 for the Opéra de Paris. She did four productions for la Scala including the 1990 “La Traviata,” the 1993 “La Vestale,” the 1998 “Manon Lescaut” and the 2001 production of “Un Ballo un Maschera.”

Cavani also directed Hindemith’s “Cardillac” in 1991 and Janàcek’s “Jenufa” in 1993 for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. For Bologna she directed Giordano’s “La Cena delle Beffe” in 1995 and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” in 1996. Cavan also directed for the Ravenna festival where she showed off a new production of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” in 1998 and at the Zurich Opera she directed Massenet’s “Werther.” Her final operatic production came in 2006 when she directed “Macbeth” at the Teatro Regio di Parma. 

Richard Eyre

Like Minghella, Eyre came from the London Theater School and has directed numerous films. In 2004 he directed “Iris,” which garnered Oscar nominations for Kate Winslet and Judi Dench and won Jim Broadbent his first Academy Award.  He also directed “Notes on a Scandal,” which was nominated for Academy Awards, including Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Other films included “Stage Beauty” and “The Other Man.” Eyre recently directed a new film with Emma Thompson which is expected out this year.

Like Cavani, he has balanced opera, film and theater and created some of the most iconic productions. His most iconic production came in 1994 with Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House when he directed the breakout for Angela Gheorghiu. Since that debut he directed Bizet’s “Carmen,” Massenet’s “Werther” and Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” for the Metropolitan Opera and Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” for the Baden-Baden Festival and the Metropolitan Opera.

Michael Haneke

Haneke is one of the most celebrated directors of today. He is one of the rare directors in cinema to have won two Palme d’Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival for his work on “The White Ribbon” and “Amour.” He has also been celebrated for his work on “The Piano Teacher,” “Funny Games” and “Caché”as well as “Code Unknown.” For most it is a big surprise that Haneke would take a step into opera but in 2012 he took on Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” at the Teatro Real de Madrid. The production was a modernistic take on the work and it was quickly released on DVD.

Franco Zeffirelli

Perhaps the most iconic of all filmmakers going to opera, Zeffirelli is recognized in cinema for his adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet.” He was nominated for Best Director for “Romeo and Juliet” and then went on to direct “Tea with Mussolini.” Zeffirelli is one of the rare directors who combined his filmmaking with opera as he directed numerous opera movies including “La Traviata,” “Otello,” “Carmen,” “Pagaliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana.” “La Traviata” even went on to get nominated for the Oscar for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

On stage he directed all over the world putting on some of the most opulent, lush and detailed productions. Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Puccini’s “Tosca” and Puccini’s “Turandot” remain his most iconic for their sheer size. However, he did productions of Verdi’s “Otello,” Bizet’s “Carmen,” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” and the double bill “Pagliacci” and “Cavalleria Rusticana” among others.

Werner Herzog

On of the most iconic filmmakers around has dedicated his art to narrative and non-fiction works including “Grizzly Man,” “Rescue Dawn,” “Bad Lieutenant,” “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” “Fitzcarraldo,” “Salt and Fire,” “Into the Inferno” and his Oscar-nominated film “Encounters at the End of the World.” However at the same time he has kept a busy schedule directing operas.

His first production came in 1986 when he directed Busoni’s “Doktor Faust” the Teatro Comunale Bologna. He went on to direct a number of Wagner works including “Lohengrin,” “Tannhauser,” “The Flying Dutchman” and most recently, in 2008, “Parsifal.” He also directed Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” twice and Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” at La Scala. Herzog also delved into Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” Carlos Gomes’ “Il Guaranty” and Bellini’s “Norma.” His most recent production came in 2013 when he took Verdi’s “I Due Foscari” at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.

Woody Allen

One of the most unlikely to be included on this list is Woody Allen as he has strictly directed film for the past 40 years. He has won Oscars for “Annie Hall,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Hannah and her Sisters” and has been nominated for “Blue Jasmine,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Match Point” and “Radio Days” among other classics. However in 2008 Allen used his comic timing for Puccini’s “Gianni Schichi” and repeated it in 2015 with Placido Domingo in the title role. The production was a big hit amongst audiences in Spoleto and Los Angeles.

William Friedkin

Friedkin’s is most known for his film, “The Exorcist,” which is  ranked among the most frightening movies of all time. However, he also directed “The French Connection,” for which he won the Oscar, “Killer Joe” and “Rules of Engagement.”

His first operatic production came in 1996 when he took on Berg’s “Wozzeck” at the Maggio Musicale.” He directed Samson et Dalila” as well as Bartok’s “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” and Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi.” Most recently he did Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” and “Il Tabarro” at the Los Angeles Opera. He also staged Strauss’ “Salome,” Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” and Verdi’s “Aida.”

Luchino Visconti

Visconti is regarded as one of the most important Italian filmmakers.  His diverse filmography includes “Il Gattopardo,” “The Damned,” for which he was nominated for the Oscar, “Death in Venice,” “White Nights” and his final film “The Innocent.”

He was equally famous for his operatic work which began when  directed a production at the Teatro alla Scala of “La vestale in 1954. He went on to direct a famous revival of “La traviata at La Scala with Maria Callas and an equally famous “Anna Bolena with Callas. He also directed Verdi’s five-act Italian version of “Don Carlos” as well as Verdi’s “Macbeth.” In 1966 Visconti’s “Falstaff” for the Vienna State Opera was critically acclaimed and his austere 1969 production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” with the singers clothed in geometrical costumes was controversial.

Other filmmakers that have also taken the step include Roman Polanski, Julie Taymour, Mario Martone and Shirin Neshat.


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