Coda: Listener of Note — James Ivory
I don’t think I ever really went to the opera seriously until I was living in Paris. I had a friend who was a music critic, named Alan Rich. We went to the opera at one point, and it was Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes, done up like you cannot imagine. I knew a lot about Baroque art, and it was everything you could ever want in terms of Baroque and Rococo art. It had a volcano exploding, a ship at sea that sank. This was kind of before a scholarly attempt to re-create Baroque and Rococo style. But it really was stupendous. Alan thought that we had to go in black tie. I had to rent black tie from someplace — a rather smelly tuxedo. I managed to get some shoes that didn’t fit. We went. And that was the only night of the season, apparently, at the Palais Garnier that you didn’t go in black tie. We were the only ones. I could hardly walk. It was just hopeless. But that was my first great operatic experience. And then being in Europe, I went to the opera a lot. I went several times when I first came to New York to the old Met, and I had a strange experience there. I had a friend who was a close friend of Licia Albanese. They were tearing the Met down at that time. She had the idea of going back and singing one last time from the stage of the Met. I was doing “Talk of the Town” stories for The New Yorker. She did the aria from Madama Butterfly in costume, and the workmen stopped. She got on the stage, sang the aria, the workmen clapped, and then she went away. I wrote about it, but the magazine didn’t like it.
OPERA NEWS: You had an early affection for Bach and Handel.
JI: Did and do.
ON: When is the first time you incorporated some of this music into one of your films?
JI: Well, my very first film [Venice: Theme and Variations, a documentary Ivory made while a graduate student at USC] is a film about Venice and painting. There’s period music all through it — Vivaldi, and some other composers. I think we’ve only really done an opera twice, properly, in our films. We had an opera for Jane Austen in Manhattan, which Richard Robbins wrote. The libretto is taken from a Jane Austen story based on a novel by Richardson. The other time we did it up was Jefferson in Paris. We had that opera, Dardanus, which William Christie got all the musicians and singers for, and which he conducted, and there’s quite a lot of that in the film. And then we have a really good piece of opera — the conclusion of Salome — in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.
ON: Your most famous use of vocal music comes in A Room with a View. The Puccini arias work quite beautifully. I remember your old nemesis Pauline Kael writing in The New Yorker that she found them too elevated for the subject matter, which is strange — after all, Rondine and Gianni Schicchi are light pieces.
JI: She said a lot of weird things. She said that she felt sorry for those poor naked young men in the film. Now, for Pauline Kael to say that, it’s really the most insincere thing she ever wrote. I always regretted that there wasn’t a male aria in A Room with a View. But where would you have put it? It wouldn’t have been appropriate for the English part of the film.
ON: And Helena Bonham-Carter plays Schubert and Beethoven in the film.
JI: Dick Robbins said that of all the actors he’d worked with who had to pretend to play the piano in a movie, Helena Bonham Carter was the one who could have become a musician if she’d wanted to. The next person who came along like that was Gwyneth Paltrow, in Jefferson in Paris. She had to play a very difficult piece at the harpsichord. A harpsichordist told me that she was just perfection.
ON: Have you been approached to direct an opera onstage?
JI: Yes! At La Scala, no less. We were editing Howards End, and they came up from Italy to meet me and ask me if I could do this production. It was something like La Traviata. If I was ever going to do an opera, I wouldn’t dare to do a famous Italian opera. I would do something that I could control, you know? I did direct an opera once, up in Boston, by Peter Maxwell Davies — Cinderella. I was so green I didn’t even know that you had to place the singers in such a way that they faced out. My impulse as a movie director was to make people face the back or face into the wings. Well, you can’t do that. So I had to learn that. But I had no sense of the technique involved. I probably would be rather a tiresome choice if you had great singers.
ON: Given the dramatic shifts in the culture right now, it seems that “higher culture” often needs to have an argument made on its behalf. Do you think that making your kind of films will only get harder in the future?
JI: I think about that. I think we could be heading toward a period where great work could come, because we have the greatest technical advances in cinematography. But we don’t have the kind of visionary storytellers — the kind of great novelists. They’re going to be there, I’m sure. And then we will have movies that will make all of the other movies that have happened look like daguerreotypes in relation to photography — such brilliant and great things, and we hope, movies that will be made for adult audiences. The problem with all this fantastic technology is that it’s being used to make films that aren’t for adult audiences. I have hopes for the future. Really, I do.
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