To Rome with Love and the “Limits” of Opera

My performance theory class has recently been reading about and discussing opera as a performance genre. After reading the first chapter of David Levin’s Unsettling Opera: Staging Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Zemlinsky, we discussed how the “unsettledness” that Levin argues is innate within opera comes from the genre’s expectation that the audience will overlook certain inconsistencies. For example, in class we discussed the traditional physical body type of the female opera singer and how it doesn’t usually line up with the feminine ideal the narrative/music seems to generate. Opera singers can’t always be tiny-waisted and blonde. The best sound generally comes from women with wider rib cages and larger core muscles – it’s just a fact of biology. The inconsistency between the actual female figure we see on the stage and the version of “beauty” the narrative of many operas produce is just one of many within the genre that lead to Levin’s “unsettledness”. In his words, “reconceived as a text, opera has emerged as an agitated or unsettled site of signification, one that encompasses multiple modes of expression and necessitates new modes of reading” (Levin 3).

Our discussion of these inconsistencies and Levin’s larger argument of opera as a kind of unsettled genre reminded me of a scene in Woody Allen’s recent film To Rome with Love. Derek actually explored this movie in relation to Brecht and a revitalization of the avant-garde (which was a really interesting comparison), but I want to think about this scene as lending support to Levin’s argument and our own understanding of the inconsistencies of opera. In the movie, Fabio Armiliato plays a mortician with an outstanding voice. Woody Allen’s character, an avant-gard-ist nostalgic for a life of complete immersion in the arts, “discovers” this man’s voice and decides that he must perform for the public. The two men ultimately find out that Armiliato’s character can only sing in the shower and so he’s brought on stage in front of an audience for the first time to sing in a small stand-up shower. Later in the movie, he actually performs the lead male role in the opera Pagliacci from his stand-up shower on stage, with the other characters moving and acting around him, interacting with him through the walls of the shower. And the audience adores him. He receives a roaring standing ovation at the end of the opera and triumphantly puts on a bathrobe and steps out of the shower to take his bow.

This seems to be really the epitome of the type of inconsistencies Levin is pointing to, specifically concerning the lack of acting prowess the audience is willing to overlook if the opera singer has a certain caliber voice. In Allen’s extreme representation of acting (or the lack thereof) necessary within the opera genre, he seems to push the limits to the level of parody, as is typical. But I wonder if this instance ever actually becomes parodic in the same way that other Woody Allen moments do. Because he has taken on a genre that essentially resists parody because it is so over-the-top all on its own, is he instead able to emphasize an extreme limit to demonstrate that there is no limit here? For those of us watching the movie, and thus making up another layer of spectatorship for Armiliato’s performance, also fall in love with his voice. And while the shower on stage may seem extreme, Armiliato’s voice does effectively transport us – to the point where I found myself just wishing he could step out of the shower because that would take this already exquisite performance to a level of perfection. In my desire for him to step out of the shower, it seems like I was already granting him a level of legitimacy and performance caliber that something like singing and acting within a stand-up shower on stage should absolutely prohibit.

In closing, this is a really fantastic movie and, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.

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