Opera Meets Film: The Question Use of Opera in Dario Argento’s ‘Opera’

By John Vandevert

Shot by Italian director Dario Argento in 1987, and praised for its creative gore and dramatic use of tension, the giallo (Italian mystery thriller) film “Opera” recounts the bloody escapades of a masked killer as he stalks an operatic soprano during a production of Verdi’s Macbeth at an opera house.

Shot on-scene, and with fourth-wall defying actors and singers playing themselves, the film uses opera as its structural core while using operatic repertoire throughout the film. Starring many respected actors and actresses from across Italy, Spain, and even Scotland, the film had its 2002 DVD release but since then, has been all but forgotten.

“Opera” is a prime example of when good ideas are treated to ineffective realization, and proves that when it comes to entertainment, sometimes using opera is not the best strategy.

The Basics


The film begins within the iconically neoclassical, velvetine-gilded interior of the Teatro Regio di Parma in northern Italy, whose history is interlinked with the prominent figures of Verdi and Toscanini as well as Bellini (whose fifth opera “Zaira” was used for the building’s 1829 premiere). Primadonna Mara Cecova, Lady Macbeth in an avant-garde production at the opera house, gets serendipitously injured in a car accident outside while arguing with the director. Thus, Betty (the understudy) steps in, and after initial hesitancy, her performance goes swimmingly.

However, an unnamed figure had managed to sneak in and watch her performance, and when confronted by a stagehand the individual murders them, and thus the ‘horror’ of the film begins. Flash to Betty’s boyfriend’s apartment. Suddenly, the masked man breaks into the apartment, and after a struggle binds and gags Betty while forcing her to watch him kill her boyfriend, after which he flees.

Betty has a recollection of the same man killing her mother. Rather than doing the sensible thing (go to the police), she instead goes to her director to look for clues to the man’s identity. The next day, Inspector Alan Santini (the masked man!) asks the opera house’s employees about the murder and the death of three pet ravens. Later that day, Betty’s costume is found to be shredded with a golden anniversary band. Suddenly, the killer finds Betty once again, and forces her to watch him kill Guilia (a customer who found the band), and once again flees before being caught. When Betty returns to her apartment, she meets Santini (the killer!) who promises to send protection, Inspector Soavi shows up to guard her. However, Betty’s agent Mira comes to meet with her and says there is a Soavi in the lobby, which prompts the both to hide until the first Soavi leaves her apartment.

Well, things go from bad to worse as when Mira answers the door to a knock by looking through the peephole she’s killed, and after the killer breaks in Betty narrowly escapes by climbing into an air vent with help from a neighbor. That night, Betty meets with Marco at the opera house to discuss the plan to reveal the killer, and during the performance of “Macbeth,” crows are released who instantly begin attacking the killer, pecking one eye out.

Santini evades capture, and later kidnaps Betty who reveals the truth to her. He had been in love with her mother, who had instructed him to kill other women. But as her requests became more brutal, he killed her out of desperation. After having seen Betty, who looked identical with her mother, his murderous tendencies returned. In order to fake his death, he sets fire to the room, but Betty manages to escape.

Betty and Marco then fly to Rome, and the plot thickens when it’s revealed that Santini didn’t die as Betty thought but escaped unharmed. Again, instead of doing the sensible thing she runs into the woods where Santini miraculously finds her and chases her (how? don’t ask), and as Marco is trying to play hero he is stabbed and dies. But Betty manages to bash Santini over the head with a rock and as he’s being carried away to prison, Betty chooses to wander through a field (alone) and frees a trapped lizard in a symbolic statement of newly gained liberation from her past.

The ‘Opera’ of the Film

The movie’s soundtrack is composed of both classical operatic works and contemporary repertoire by some well-known names in both categories. The film opens with a diegetic rehearsal of Verdi’s “Macbeth,” specifically the horrific moments right after King Duncan’s stabbing by Lady Macbeth due to Macbeth’s ‘weakness’ at seeing an image of the dagger in the conclusion of Act one. As Lady Macbeth commits herself to doing the deed Macbeth (sung by bass Michele Pertusi) is heard singing in trembling fear, “Oh, this hand! The ocean could not wash my hands clean!” while a disturbed raven incessantly crows (a premonition of the tale to come) while Lady Macbeth (sung by Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz) responds in angst, “See! My hands are stained too. A sprinkle of water and they will be clean again. The deed too will pass into oblivion.”

An incredibly powerful opening to the film, the film’s first third details the messiness of Parma’s production of the opera, using the Act three “Witches Chorus” scene to further punctuate the premonitory nature of operatic repertoire in this movie. The usage of Verdi’s Macbeth goes further, as we are introduced to the killer’s furtive viewing of Betty ( cover for Lady Macbeth) during her shamelessly brazen Act one letter aria (no, not Tatiana’s), “Vieni! T’affretta.” And after several interruptions, some murders, and very aggravated crows, Lady Macbeth’s climax slowly builds and blooms in a Verdian release of musical pressure, Betty receives a fierce round of applause, the camera panning to a gun in her hand, another symbol of unquenchable bloodlust, deeds done in the name of passion, and the inescapability of fate.

But the presence of operatic repertoire continues with Argento’s usage of some very recognizable pieces.

Firstly, following the gruesome murder of Betty’s boyfriend, she rushes to the apartment of her director (Marco) for safety and to try and comprehend what just occurred mere moments before. After settling in, Marco decides to search the street for clues but when seeing a neighbor with a strange man in the hallway through the peephole and getting suspicious, the iconic build up to the climax of “La bel dì vedremo” from Puccini’s tragic opera “Madama Butterfly” is heard as Betty opens the door and Marco leaves (sung by Mirella Freni). The climax then gloriously sounds to very drab cinematography, and it’s a shame that Argento did not do more with this moment, as all that Betty does is look at something in her hand and walk to the bedroom to sit.

In any case, the next “operatic” moment comes (of course) after the murder of seamstress Guilia, prompted by the finding of a golden wedding band with a specific date. After having seen her throat cut, Betty rushes to her apartment where the murderer (Santini) promises to send an agent to guard her. As she is laying on her bed listening to a tape, the sonorous opening of Bellini’s Act one aria “Casta Diva” (sung by Maria Callas) can be heard, with the contextual union being the desire for life to return to normal, that patience be exercised, and that vengeance be withheld before its due time. The scene is broken into two, and speaks to Betty’s wish for the reinstatement of tranquility, and the restoration of peace and safety. The aria is later used following her manager’s death-by-keyhole and the killer’s hunt for Betty in her apartment.

The last operatic quotation come from three moments, Verdi’s opera La Traviata, two arias being connected in an ironically vindictive way to the “hunt” by the killer (“Sempre libera” and “Amani Alfredo”), and a return to Verdi’s Macbeth a la the performed variation of the rehearsal from the beginning. As a ploy to figure out who the killer is, as Macbeth worries about being caught for King Duncan’s murder and Lady Macbeth demands Macbeth to be brave, the crows are released and mayhem ensues, Santini (murderer) gets one of his eyes pecked out while trying to fire his gun at Betty.

As can be seen here, select operatic works were used as a subtextual conduit for the character’s emotions and an oracular device which, when understood, helps explain the motivations and resulting actions of the plot.

The Aesthetic Ethics of “Opera!”

A point that I feel is vital to touch upon here is the ethical implications of using opera this way, of recontextually coloring an operatic aria or scene with subtext that follows the movie but not the opera.

While not a major concern for those who know the operatic quotation already and have already had a chance to familiarize themselves with it, audiences who are new will ultimately have their comprehension of said operatic literature tainted by the film’s treatment, forever molded to the way they first heard it. Thus, when they attend an opera they will no longer being hearing the work for what it is (and should be) but rather, for what they incongruously interpreted it as in the context of said film. This is, perhaps, the necessary tradeoff for making opera “more accessible” to the general public, yet why does accessibility mean abuse of context?

My point here is that while Argento’s “Opera!” does use operatic repertoire and the genre itself in an effective and dramaturgically impactful way, it is to the detriment of the music that he does so, for Verdi, Puccini, and Bellini do not get to be heard in their own context. Rather, they are subservient to a plot that, although echoing in many respects the respective narrative operatic plots, is inevitably unaligned enough to confuse the less informed.

I pose a question to my readers then: should directors think of the ethical implications of using opera in film when many of their viewers may not have previous operatic knowledge, and be easily fooled into believing an aria to be about X when it really is about Y, and perhaps something completely opposite of how it’s being portrayed?

The second point to the ethical question here is the essentialization of operatic repertoire to kitschy demonstrations of superficial drama, and tasteless parodies of the operatic literature of old.

In many respects, this film is the epitome of operatic kitsch, the usage of Verdi’s “Macbeth” being one of tawdry displays of over-the-top drama and ostentatious displays of cinematic excess rather than anything of real symbolic and allegorical value.

Personally, I find the film rather gauche in its usage of opera, both as its plot and through its musical life, as the infusions of contemporary music feels both antithetical to the operatic repertoire, while the idea of a murderous, love-stricken “Phantom of the Opera” plays up the stereotype of opera’s false relation to realms of musical theatre, an erroneous assertion if there ever was one.

Despite Argento’s best effort to use opera as his film’s central pillar, a production of “Macbeth” gone wrong (a theatrical “curse” from Shakespeare’s first production in 1606), and the diegetic usage of operatic music as a highlighter of dramatic climaxes, I’m left feeling displeased as the music doesn’t get enough attention, nor is adequately explained in such a way as to provide observer’s a real sense of comprehension on its usage.


Opera Meets Film