Opera Meets Film: How the Meditation of ‘Thais’ Develops Character in ‘Transamerica’

By Francisco Salazar
Credit: Weinstein Company/Metropolitan Opera

“Opera Meets Film is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will hone in on a selection or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perceptions of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Duncan Tucker’s “Transamerica.”

“Transamerica” tells the story of Bree, a preoperative transgender woman who takes an unexpected journey when she learns that she fathered a son, now a teenage runaway hustling on the streets of New York.

The film is a road trip that sees the main character struggling to come to terms with who she is. She believes that once she has her sex reassignment surgery she will be happy and her problems will be resolved. However, throughout the road trip with her son, she realizes the voids in her life and what she must do to finally obtain that happiness.

It is a movie about transformation and growth and the opening of the movie depicts the overall theme. “Transamerica” opens with a voice therapist video which instructs the viewer how to speak. The mantra for the video “This is the voice I want to use.” It then cuts to Bree imitating the video and trying to change her voice.

Over the video is the Meditation from Massenet’s “Thais.” The piece represents the moment in which the protagonist Thais contemplates giving up her life as a courtesan and taking up a life of religion.

In many ways the Meditation represents Bree’s own struggles and her own journey as she attempts to obtain the happiness she seeks and the fulfillment in life that she has yet to obtain both as a woman and as a human. Bree imitating the video at the beginning only shows her nonconformity with herself and while she has accepted she is a transgender woman, she has a hard time identifying to others. She pretends at each moment of the film like this opening where she is unable to accept her natural voice.

Only when she is able to confront her family, past traumas, and tells her son the truth of her true identity, can she finally reach some semblance of happiness. That is Bree’s mediation and that connects with Thais’ own journey of self-discovery and transformation.

The film also uses Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in Earth.” After Bree gets the news that her social worker will not approve her surgery unless she goes to New York to look for her lost son, she begins to listen to Dido’s iconic Lament. And while he use of the music in this particular instance can call it “mickey-mousing” as it almost indicates to the audience what they are supposed to be feeling rather overtly, Bree distorts the music by putting her hand on the vinyl. In this crucial moment as she rubs her hand over the player, she makes a key decision. Unlike Dido who decides to kills herself of depression, Bree decides to go to New York. It is obviously not the most subtle of musical cues, but it gets the point across effectively nonetheless.

While the film doesn’t ask viewers to over analyze the pieces it chooses, the inclusion enhances the viewer experience and makes the scenes all the more potent.


Opera Meets Film