Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer followed their acclaimed “Ring” cycle (discussed in last week’s column) with Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, which, if anything, was even more successful.   Alas, the film of this version has been long unavailable.

Scene from Syberberg's Parsifal (1982)
Scene from Syberberg’s Parsifal (1982)

Comparing their geometric, sparse Parsifal to that of Neues Kino director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s controversial 1982 multi-layered collage film would be a pointless task.  Syberberg’s famous film is a case of a director with so much to say, that it literally becomes a truly rare kitchen sink moment in which repeated viewings reap priceless rewards.

Syberberg’s Jungian references abound with fascist symbolism, Nietzsche, Christian mythology, Post World War II Euro culture in a narcotic texture unlike anything before or since.  Entire books could be written about this one of a kind film.

In 1993, long before TitusFrida, or her most recent (and amazing) work, Across the Universe, Julie Taymor was known to modern opera buffs as the director of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Taymor filtered Stravinsky’s opera through her own undeniably powerful, highly individualistic voice.

Undoubtedly, Stravinsky (who, like Picasso, went through numerous phases, from neo-classicism to post Webern serialism and yet made everything  he touched sound like his own) would have approved of Taymor’s kindred aesthetic spirit.

When Taymor’s production first became available on the video market, word spread quickly, with many proclaiming it to be one of the very best, if not the best, opera yet filmed.

The sets (by George Tsypin), masks, sculptures, puppets, costumes ( Ei Wade), make-up (Reiko Kruk), Japanese dance and narration (the libretto by Jean Cocteau, originally in Latin, allowed for translation to the native language), Ozawa’s incisive conducting, add up to one of the most extraordinarily stylized and emotionally draining operatic experiences caught on film thanks to Taymor’s uncompromising, riveting vision.  Not too  surprisingly, Oedipus Rex was available only briefly and was finally made available again in 2005, after numerous requests.

Still, for many, Taymor’s Rex must compete with one of the oldest and still best contemporary operas on film: the 1951 film version of Menotti’s The Medium.

Gian Carlo Menotti was a powerful exception to the unspoken rule that musicians should leave stage direction to others (unlike Herbert Von Karajan, who repeatedly re-enforced the wisdom of that rule).  Unfortunately, Menotti only directed a few films.  Naturally, the Medium’s black and white cinematography expresses the haunting them of Menotti’s libretto.  This film is still talked about as the yardstick of filmed operas, some fifty years after it’s debut.

Kaijah Saariaho is considered to be one of the few undeniable giants in 21st century avant-garde music.  That she has an impassioned advocate in conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen certainly hasn’t hurt.   She teamed up with him and the infamous, enfant terrible director Peter Sellars for the filmed version of her opera L’ Amour de Loin in 2005.

Sellars evocative, minimalist direction perfectly serves this diaphanous music which echoes  and flows from the likes of  Debussy and Messiaen ( Salonen, who specializes in the music of all three, is equally perfect in his interpretive powers).  There’s water and enveloping blackness aplenty, atmosphere rather than an abundance of over developed plot.  For all the hopelessly conservative, classical fundamentalists ” Let’s do everything in our power to kill the future of art-music and no longer make it a viable art form” moaning and groaning of what’s wrong in contemporary music, this production shows exactly what’s right.  It’s one of the few times everything comes together just right.

Sellars, of course, came to notoriety with his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas in 1989, 1990.  His Don Giovanni takes place in “the bronks” with two African-American brothers in the lead roles, and part of the opera coming out of a boom box.  Cosi fan Tutti is set in a post punk modern diner, complete with Mozart silhouetted latrines, and Le Nozze de Figaro moves like quicksilver in Trump Towers.  Opera traditionalists practically branded Sellars as an antichrist, but his avant-pop interpretations were a literal removing of the cobwebs and done completely in a Mozartian, devil-may-care spirit.  His productions won him a legion of fans and made opera-going hip, albeit briefly.

After Handel’s Giulio Cesare in 1992 and Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins (done MTV style) in ’93, Sellars appropriately tackled Theodora for Y2K. Handel’s opera on ancient Rome and early Christianity becomes a modern parable in JFK Airport with a Swat team symbolizing the Roman Army,  the President of the United States personifying Nero, and worshipping of the ancient gods during happy hour.

In 2007, Sellars teamed with minimalist composer John Adams for the filmed version of his most universally acclaimed production, Doctor Atomic. Adams’ opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the testing of the atomic bomb is an overwhelmingly exquisite and intense post Varese electronic opera, even for those who normally do not respond to Adams’ music (ahem).  Sellars direction is a perfect marriage between an innovative, visionary director and contemporary composer.

More Peter Sellars opera on DVD:

*This is part two of a three part series. Read part one. Read part three.


  1. Haven;t been following everything here I will admit but, just watched Repo – The Genetic Opera here on DVD. Interesting I will say. Bill Mosley for the most part adds nothing for me other than a name to hook buyers familiar with Rob Zombies fantastic cult classics but, overall, an interesting story idea, I think.

    If you continue along the Opera lines you may consider discussing the collection titled “Aria”. While actually a collection of classical pieces that famous film directors have committed story lines to, it may actually fit as a sort of retro Opera construction. I like the collection held together by John Hurt as the single thread amongst most of the segments. Parts directed by the likes of Altman, Bresford, Goddard, Jarman, Roeg and more.

    Thanks for the continuing flow of odd information.

    Sean McHenry

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