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Cinematic Opera with Joseph Calleja, The Maltese Tenor

Singer Joseph Calleja hails from Malta, where he started singing tenor at age sixteen. Today he's one of opera's emerging stars. This weekend, he wraps up a month-long residency at London's Royal Opera House. Off-stage he's a bit of a film fan, so he composed this list of his favorite opera moments in movies.

Ian Gavan / Getty Images Entertainment
Ian Gavan / Getty Images Entertainment

Hello, I am Joseph Calleja and here I am to have a chat about opera and movies. Some composers, let’s take Puccini, for example, he was very cinematic. Think of La Boheme. It could be a movie. I mean, it’s almost the same length, and they call it verismo. Verismo means, literally, ‘it’s like real life.’ And what are movies? Movies are, you know, it’s a glimpse of real life. Or the simulation of real life.

Mascagni was the same way. Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” is extremely cinematic. It’s about the mafia. And I think that some of the great composers, had they been alive today, would be certainly writing for films. So, here we go. Here is my list of my favorite opera moments in movies.

“The Godfather: Part Three”

One of my favorite moments is definitely “Godfather Part Three.” When Pacino and his daughter Mary, they’re in Sicily, and Mary is shot. When Pacino realizes that his daughter is dead, they play Mascagni’s music, the Rusticana, the intermezzo. You know, it’s about murder, revenge, murder, love, betrayal. And in the film, Al Pacino is screaming, and at first they don’t let you hear his voice. His voice comes later to shocking and dramatic effect. And that is so powerful. He captures the pain so, so vividly, and then there’s the help of, of course, of Mascagni’s beautiful music.


OK, we’re still in the mafia for my second choice. “Goodfellas.” In the opening sequence of the movie, the director uses a song actually with the great voice of Guiseppe di Stefano. We have the young Ray Liotta. He’s running, you know, with the guy who has been shot in the hand, and this beautiful Verdi, in this dramatic situation, really grasps your attention.

The tenor who is singing, this Giuseppe di Stefano, he had a glorious career in the fifties. Always sung every single song as if it was the last song he was going to sing. It wasn’t very smart, and in fact, he ended up paying the price, because his career ended very quickly, but there’s a story of a great tenor Mario Lanza when someone asked “Can you imitate di Stefano?” and Mario said, “Come si fa a imitare la voce di Dio?” which means “How do you imitate the voice of God?”

“Pretty Woman”

My third choice would be “Pretty Woman.” You know, “Pretty Woman” is pretty much based on “La Traviata.” You have the courtesan, which is Julia Roberts, and you have the upper class guy, which is Richard Gere. And they even go to the opera, which is, of course, “La Traviata.” There’s a clip from every act from the opera if I remember well. And Julia Roberts starts crying as she’s listening to the opera. Perhaps she says “Oh my God, I mean, maybe I have a chance, you know, at love.”

I watch Pretty Woman now and again and it’s very hard not to tear up, especially if your relationship is under some turmoil, or you just broke up, or you know, it’s just love the way we all want it to be. In “La Traviata”, unfortunately, things don’t quite work out because she dies, and that has a habit of getting in the way. But in “Pretty Woman,” of course, it all ends happily ever after. It’s perhaps too good to be true but, eh, who wouldn’t marry Julia Roberts? I mean, seriously.