Opera Meets Film: The Powerful Thematic Contrasts of Music in Visconti’s ‘Death in Venice’

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 features Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice.”

We’ve taken a look at Visconti’s “Senso” and “The Leopard” in previous installments of this feature to explore how he emphasizes the thematic relationships of his films through music and opera.

But perhaps there is no more iconic use of music in a Visconti film that that of “Death in Venice.” The Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has in many ways become reified with the film – film lovers who hear the piece are prone to immediately associate it directly with Visconti’s film.

And while Mahler’s Adagietto is the musical and structural cornerstone of the film, opening and closing it and repeating throughout as an abstract exploration of longing and love, its impact is actually furthered by other musical excerpts that Visconti layers throughout his film, some of them of the operatic nature.

So that’s where we will place our focus in this piece.

The first such instance comes early in the film when Gustav von Aschenbach, our protagonist, arrives in the hotel. To this point, the film has explored his arrival in Venice via boat, focusing solely on him and his isolation. But that isolation will become full-fledged loneliness the moment he arrives at his hotel in Lido. As he moves through the lobby, we hear glimpses of music from Lehar’s “The Merry Widow,” a piece that will take on a full-blown expression in an ensuing season moments later when Gustav sits in a parlor listening to a live performance of musicians. He’s surrounded by dozens of other hotel guests.

Visconti edits this scene very tactfully, cutting around from one abstract group to another, all intercut with images of Gustav looking around. This lengthy scene eventually climaxes in his observation of a family, including a boy, Tadzio, who he will fixate on for the remainder of the film.

The sequence is lengthy in its expression and could have been slow and repetitive if not for the use of music from “The Merry Widow” to provide much-needed contrast. The waltzy pieces actually give the long observational sequence a sense of fluidity and build.

They function beautifully to enhance the film environment. But they also work on a deeper thematic level in contrast to the Mahler.

This sequence represents the first of two diegetic moments in which characters are treated to live musical performances. As he does in “The Leopard,” the live musicians are far from refined, but this very fact creates a gritty realism that perfectly contrasts the abstract, refined, and ethereal symphonic music by Mahler.

In a latter scene, a musical troupe will perform popular songs, including one that is made up of irritable repeated laughs, furthering this disconnect between the diegetic music of the real world and the non-diegetic realm of Mahler’s glorious music.

It can’t be lost on anyone that Gustav is a composer and that such mocking music would grate against his ears as much as it does against the viewer’s.

It adds to the alienation that Gustav (and the audience, via Gustav’s point-of-view) feels; one senses that the Mahler is Gustav’s own abstract thought and feeling – the ideal, while the rustic nature of the real-world music is foreign to the listener due to its less nuanced execution.

It also can’t go unnoticed that Visconti employs one other section from Mahler’s Third Symphony. About halfway through the film, as he stares at Tadzio on the beach, Gustav suddenly gets up from his beach chair and runs over to a nearby desk where he starts to write. Beneath this, we hear the opening of Mahler’s “Midnight Song” from the fourth symphony. The ensuing sequence has him seek out Tadzio the following day on the beach and follow him for a few moments.

Here is an English translation for this movement:

O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept —,
from a deep dream have I awoken: —
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain —,
joy — deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity —,
— seeks deep, deep eternity!”

The longing expressed in this poem, taken from “Also sprach Zarathustra” is in many ways a verbalization of the film’s overall theme; a manifestation of von Aschenbach’s very nature throughout the film. The awakening described here speaks to his newfound interest in Tadzio in the midst of his own emotional crisis; but the poem’s expression of this “deep, deep eternity” suggests Gustav’s eventual demise at the end of the film.

What’s also fascinating about this abstract is Mahler’s own ambiguous approach through the music. Emphasizing the darkness of night in its opening lines, the movement suggests hope and darkness, much like “Death in Venice’s” story suggests a similar ambiguity throughout. We don’t really know how to feel about Gustav’s pursuit of Tadzio, who has been described by scholars as both the idealization of beauty AND the Angel of Death. The film pits the sunny beauty of Venice with the suggestion of a coming plague. The film is built on few conversations, but music almost always fills in the silences or incomprehensibility of the distant conversations that do take place.

As such, this poem’s appearance at the midway of the film, with its ambiguous nature, embodies the overall style and feel of a film that contains the complexity and ambiguity of life itself.


Opera Meets Film