Opera Meets Film: The Common Humanity of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Magic Flute’

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 will showcase Ingmar Bergman’s “The Magic Flute.”

To this point in this series we have yet to actually turn toward operas adapted into narrative films. But we sure will as there are several works that make incredible movies in their own right.

One of these is Ingmar Bergman’s incredible “The Magic Flute,” which is combination of a staged opera within a narrative film. Bergman constantly blurs the lines between the two during the actual performance of the Mozart masterpiece and does so with tremendous style. For those wondering how live opera should be filmed, Bergman essentially lays down the gauntlet for doing it incredibly well (hint: it doesn’t involve cutting every other note from a closeup to a wide shot because of fear that the audience will have a low attention span).

The Overture

While I could write an entire essay on his interpretation of the opera as a whole (and at some point we shall include such a feature), we are going to turn to arguably the most impactful moment of the entire film – the beginning.

With Mozart’s famed overture getting underway, Bergman establishes not the stage, but the audience. It all starts with an extreme closeup of a blond girl, her gaze fixed on something far off. Slowly but surely Bergman starts cutting away from her to reveal other audience members, each getting their own distinct closeups. As the music builds and builds, the cutting between audience members grows more and more rapid.

What also emerges is a wider range of people of all races, nationalities, and ages.

As the overture comes to a close, Bergman cuts back to the little girl that initiated the montage sequence as she settles in for the performance.

All Kinds of People

This sequence is pure genius on a number of levels. Watch any number of opera performances on tape and all we usually get, when there is nothing going on on stage during the overture, are closeups of the orchestra and conductor. It’s all about the performers.

But Bergman cares little for the orchestra in his overture sequence.

He cares for the audience, both onscreen and watching the screen. The people that he constantly cuts to reflect us, the viewer, engaging in this storytelling ritual.

More importantly, by showing such a diverse range of characters he is creating this glorious idea that opera is a unifying force, bringing together all kinds of people. It isn’t an art form for one distinct type of person or class, but for everyone. It is a populist artform, not a classist one. We all share in the storytelling rituals because they pertain to all of us. The effect for the viewer is undeniably cathartic. You just want to rewind the film to the start of the overture and rewatch the sequence with the same level of rapture.

Bergman saw this common humanity back in 1975, but that message still hasn’t quite been understood to this day.



Opera Meets FilmSpecial Features