Cinema and Media Studies Opera and Film
Marcia J. Citron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0264


Opera and film have enjoyed a close relationship since the beginning of cinema. In the silent era, operatic stories and stars graced the screen, and opera music was played live. Through the sound era and the advent of television, opera continued to appear in mediated form. In recent years, digital formats, the Internet, and streaming have affected how opera is viewed and consumed. Moreover, film in all its forms has exerted increasing influence on the staging of live opera. Opera and film is a relatively new area of study, emerging with Jeremy Tambling’s pioneering book Opera, Ideology, and Film (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987). Its practitioners come mostly from musicology but also other fields, including comparative literature, German studies, and Italian studies. At first, filmic opera was treated as a derivative of opera, but it has become an area in its own right, although adaptation still figures in some interpretations. The intersection of opera and film spans a wide range of types and behaviors. “Film” includes television as well as cinema, and streaming in addition to more conventional modes of presentation. Perhaps the main internal categorization is whether an opera constitutes the whole of a film, which is labeled an opera-film (although two early studies call it film-opera), or whether it occurs in a regular film, where the possibilities are legion. These can include a scene in the opera house, as in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera (1935); a story about an opera singer, as in Franco Zeffirelli’s Callas Forever (2002); opera music on the soundtrack, as in Mike Nichols’s Closer (2004); or an operatic tone to the film, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974). With a few exceptions, research on opera and film has appeared in the form of essays in single-authored critical studies, in anthologies, and in journals, with each essay on a specific element or film. Given the hybrid nature of the topic, theory draws on many disciplines, especially film studies, film-music studies, opera studies, media studies, and performance studies. Most research avoids a focus on any single theory or ideology, and instead adopts an eclectic approach that is practical and tailored to the situation. Theories of spectatorship, ontology, and narrative have been beneficial from film studies. Film-music studies has provided key concepts with respect to function (diegesis and its various categories), sound, and voice, the last especially important in Michal Grover-Friedlander’s work. Opera studies offers many tools for the interpretation of the music, although they must be tempered by the conditions of a mechanically reproduced work. Media studies is often central, especially in recent scholarship, but at the very least it infuses most research at some fundamental level.

Reference Works

Given the breadth of the field, no publication covers it all. Most of the sources pertain to opera-film and omit opera in mainstream film, partly because that would be daunting given the sheer number of films, and partly because research into opera in mainstream stream is a newer area. Evidon 1992 presents the history of opera-film through c. 1990. Another perspective is provided by Large 1992, written by arguably the most prominent video director of the time, which discusses the mechanics of shooting opera on film and video. Perhaps the earliest attention to important opera-films (here called film-opéras) is Beylie, et al. 1987, where thirty landmarks of the genre are discussed. Its appearance in a French venue demonstrates the international purview of the canonic opera-films, the fact that several of the contributors had a hand in the production of some of the films, and that France still sees itself in the vanguard of cinema and its theory. For comprehensiveness nothing beats Wlaschin 2004 and its coverage of works, which includes regular films that engage opera as well as opera-films. Citron 2014 discusses opera’s varied roles in cinema, in both opera-film and mainstream film. Fawkes 2000, a chatty history of opera in and on film, emphasizes singers as performers in films and the subject of biopics. A different kind of study is represented by Bellemare 2014, which explores video formats for opera. See also Barnes 2003, cited under Television, for the fullest discussion of commissioned operas for that medium.

  • Bellemare, Pierre. “Opera on Optical Video Disc, or the Latest (and Final?) Avatar of the Gesamtkunstwerk.” In Opera in the Media Age: Essays on Art, Technology, and Popular Culture. Edited by Paul Fryer, 173–197. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

    Useful study of video formats from VHS to DVD and their practical impact on reproduced opera. Includes discussion of which repertoire has been neglected and the patterns of release in various DVD regions.

  • Beylie, Claude, Jean-Michel Brèque, Michèle Friche, Philippe Godefroid, and Fernard Leclercq. “Trente classiques du film-opéra.” Combined issue of L’Avant-Scène Opéra 98 and L’Avant-Scène Cinéma 360 (May 1987): 54–87.

    Outstanding accounts of thirty opera-films, each by a single author, with copious illustrations. International in scope, they range chronologically from Georges Méliès’s “silent” La damnation du Docteur Faust of 1904 to Franco Zeffirelli’s Otello of 1986. The mini-essays show deep knowledge of cinema, literature, and theater, and place the films in a broad cultural context.

  • Citron, Marcia J. “Opera and Film.” In The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies. Edited by David Neumeyer, 44–71. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    In two large sections. “Opera-films” discusses famous examples by Zeffirelli, Syberberg, Francesco Rosi, Powell and Pressburger, and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. In “Opera in Film,” subsections include “The Opera Visit,” “Opera on the Soundtrack,” “The Opera-Imitation Score,” “Voice, Muteness, and Aural Remains,” and “More Complex Situations.”

  • Evidon, Richard. “Film.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol. 2. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 194–200. London: Macmillan, 1992.

    Best concise historical overview of cinematic opera-films. The brief bibliography includes useful early sources. A related entry in NGDO is Lionel Salter’s “Television and Video.”

  • Fawkes, Richard. Opera on Film. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2000.

    Informal chronological account of opera on film, with major attention to opera singers in biopics and regular films, e.g., Pavarotti in Yes, Georgio (1982). Features a chapter on Mario Lanza and a glossary of singers. British slant colors the whole.

  • Large, Brian. “Filming, Videotaping.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Vol. 2. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 200–204. London: Macmillan, 1992.

    Excellent account of camera techniques and the technological characteristics of film and video through 1992 as they pertain to capturing opera.

  • Wlaschin, Ken. Encyclopedia of Opera on Screen: A Guide to More Than 100 Years of Opera Films, Videos, and DVDs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

    Invaluable resource of nearly 900 pages that comes closest to total coverage. Listed alphabetically, the entries include annotations and ample cross-references. Extremely user-friendly, entries are of various kinds, including singers, directors, operas, and composers in addition to film titles.

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