Opera Meets Film: How Giuseppe Di Stefano’s Inclusion in ‘Mean Streets’ Explores Generational Conflict Through Music

By David Salazar

“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 looks at Martin Scorsese “Mean Streets.”

Martin Scorcese’s movies are full of music. The famed director has famously been known to even include specific song titles within his scripts as an indicator of the mood and character that he aims for with his scenes.

And while his films are dominated by lots of rock music, there are also numerous instances where the legendary director turns his attention to the world of opera. We have already previously analyzed how the filmmaker utilizes “Lucia di Lammermoor” to depict the character of Frank Costello in “The Departed,” a development of a similar strategy that he utilized years earlier in his “Mean Streets.”

In a soundtrack dominated by music of The Rolling Stones, The Chips, The Nutmegs, The Aquatones, The Charts, Derek & The Dominos, The Marvelettes, etc. we get some intermittent interjections from one of the big operas of the mid-20th century – Giuseppe Di Stefano. The Italian tenor, who was Maria Callas’ favorite stage partner, sings three Italian songs throughout the film in close association with the restaurant that the protagonist Charlie hopes to run one day.

The very first appearance of Di Stefano’s voice plays out as a typical scene setter with Charlie coming to collect from the restaurant owner. It is a quiet scene where the music’s power is allowed to shine through at its strongest.

But returning associations and the development of the musical narrative slowly shows something far more complex beneath the service – a divide.

As Charlie and his friends’ escapades at the bar or elsewhere are underscored by rock tunes, Di Stefano’s second appearance comes when we see Charlie’s uncle helping settle a situation for another family. In this particular scene, the association with Charlie’s uncle, who is subtly Charlie’s biggest adversary toward his fulfilment as a person, emphasizes his old-world way of running business. He’s the big boss, working behind the scenes. People come to him for help. This isn’t a far cry from the romantic portrait of gangsters we see in “The Godfather.”

It serves as a contrast with how Charlie runs the streets with his friends in improvised manner, often finding themselves in trouble. His “musical associations” are far more present and explosive by comparison to Di Stefano’s voice, generating a contrast between the cultures of the older generation and the younger.

The restaurant belongs to the golden age, a bygone era and way of doing things, the music seems to suggest, while Charlie and his friends are a bunch of ragged rock n’ rollers. Charlie’s actions, that are ultimately in contrast with his uncle’s wishes, seem to further the suggestion that the newer generation is ready to move away from the old, chaotic as it might ultimately be.


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