Opera Meets Film: How ‘Teen Spirit’ Provides Healing For the ‘Madama Butterfly’ Narrative of Family Abandonment

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 Max Minghella’s “Teen Spirit.”

About halfway through Minghella’s character piece “Teen Spirit” Elle Fanning’s Violet Valenski hits a big low. A girl living on a lonely British Island, all she wants to do is sing. She takes a chance at a singing competition, makes it to the semifinals and then… loses. 

She heads home to her mother to find out that her favorite horse has been sold off so that the two can survive. As she enters the house to be comforted by her mother, the film starts to play a bit of “Addio fiorito asil,” first with just an orchestral version of the vocal line and then with the tenor coming into the soundtrack. It’s a major aural departure for a film that has placed an onus on pop music, mostly sung by Violet, to propel its several montages. But the sadness of the aria, while another similar montage, slows the film down for a bit to allow the audience to come to terms with Violet’s low point. 

Then it suddenly cuts to Vlad, her voice teacher and former tenor, as we find him listening to that recording. This edit, while just a seeming cut intended to unit the two scenes actually plays a stronger narrative role in how it will refocus not only the relationship between the two, but the narrative at large. 

To this point, the movie has been about Violet finding a way out of her boring and mindless existence which is often expressed as her hanging out as a bar tender or singing to a lonely audience of one person (Vlad). Her winning in this singing contest is her ticket out of there. 

But as Vlad listens to the aria, Violet reappears and asks him if it is an old recording of him. “Is that you?” She asks. “That was me.” He goes on to explain the story behind the aria, emphasizing the character of Pinkerton, his abandonment of Butterfly, and the shame he feels over his cowardice of not facing her. 

Violet then reveals the story of her father, who left his mother and her when she was little. Her mother has been waiting for him to return ever since, though Violet herself knows that he never will. 

While the narratives coincidentally (and conveniently) mirror one another, the film actually has a very different intention in linking them. It suddenly transforms “Teen Spirit” from a story of individual success to familial healing. 

Healing the Family

Puccini’s opera explicitly emphasizes the impact that Pinkerton’s abandonment has on Cio-Cio San, with Vlad telling Violet of the famed character’s tragic fate. But the opera rarely delves into the psychological impact this will all have on the innocent child, with only a dissonant and unresolved chord at the opera’s end suggesting his fate. 

But “Teen Spirit,” in taking on the “Butterfly” narrative is almost a “spiritual” sequel, looking at those ramifications and the impact that the child has to encounter after being abandoned by a child. Violet is parentified in that she has to help take care of her mother. We see Violet constantly giving money to her mother to pay for bills with the inverse action rarely shown onscreen. 

In this context, the sins of the father truly weigh on the child. But the film doesn’t just place the blame on Violet’s father, but also mentions her mother’s infidelity as the source of all the family’s issues, reversing the “Butterfly” narrative regarding Pinkerton’s own infidelity with another wife. Puccini never makes Butterfly anything more than innocent in her fate, but there is no doubting that her suicide will have dire consequences for her child. Without reverting to suicide in his story, Minghella is developing this shared blame in “Teen Spirit.”

But the story doesn’t stop here in this development of the story. The aria becomes connective tissue for Vlad and Violet as they become more than teacher and student – they become family. 

When Violet hits another low point during the finals of the competition and has a falling out with Vlad over a contract, the aria returns yet again, this time seemingly commenting on yet another abandonment. But this time the role is reversed. Instead of a parent abandoning his child, it is the surrogate child Violet abandoning her surrogate father Vlad (he acts as her appointed guardian throughout the competition). The circle of abandonment is thus complete and the story is allowed to have a happier ending with all of the characters coming to terms with their need for one another. Violet ditches the contract, wins the competition, and gets to heal her relationship with her mother and her new mentor. 

One Final, Though Underdeveloped, Layer

There is an added though perhaps somewhat underdeveloped wrinkle in this story of fathers and abandoned children. Vlad’s backstory is never fully developed though there are hints of his failed career dovetailing with his daughter’s own burgeoning development as an artist.

We never find out why he stopped singing and became a drunk in England. And we never really know why his daughter and him are estranged despite both being successful artists. There is a hint in his monologue on Pinkerton’s story that he might be at fault for their falling out and that Violet is his “second chance,” but there is little more to truly develop the parallels.

In any case, at the end of the story, he heads to Paris to reunite with his daughter, another case of the Pinkerton story being reversed. Pinkerton reunites with his child at the end of “Madama Butterfly,” but only under the most tragic of circumstances. In this film, he reunites with his daughter as Violet rides home a winner. 


Opera Meets Film