Opera in the Movies Series: "Philadelphia" and How to Listen to Opera

A friend suggested to me that opera in the movies might be a good blog topic, and I agreed.  I found a number of good articles available online that covered just that.  Many use the premise that they are showing readers that they, the readers, are more familiar with opera than they realize.  One article by Justin Moss published by the Huffington Post in 2012 is particularly to be recommended.  As I scanned through these articles it finally struck me that I was, well…, scanning through these articles.  I suspect that is what most of us do when we see the 'ten what ever' articles: we scan quickly to be reminded of examples we already can guess and see the ones we don’t.  In doing so, we miss out on much of what they have to offer.  So, I have decided to make Opera in the Movies a series for OperaGene, not one blog post, and to take a more in-depth look at each example.

For the premiere episode of my Opera in the Movies Series, I chose a scene from the 1993 movie “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.  This movie also has one of my favorite pop recordings, Bruce Springsteen’s song, Streets of Philadelphia.  In the movie, gay lawyer Andrew Beckett (Hanks) is aided by homophobic lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) in defending Beckett in a wrongful termination law suit, charging his law firm with firing him because he had contracted AIDS.  In the 1980s and most of the 1990s, contracting AIDS was a death sentence and victims suffered a great deal of discrimination due to public fear and misunderstanding.  Now, thanks to research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and America’s pharmaceutical companies, sufferers can lead a fairly normal life on now available maintenance medications.  NIH still sponsors research to develop a vaccine total cure and some efforts appear to offer hope.

In the movie, Miller at first rejects Beckett’s plea for help, but yields when he witnesses the discrimination that Beckett is enduring.  Ok, no more spoiler information in case you have not seen the movie.  In the scene below taken from Youtube, Andrew says to Joe, “Do you like opera, Joe?”.  Miller deflects the question, answering that he is not that familiar opera.  As I watched this very dramatic moment, it struck me that this was the best lesson in how to watch opera that I had yet to run across.  Watch it before reading further:

The line in that sequence that most affects me is Beckett saying “That single cello!”.  How about you?  In this video I think you can see how the drama and tension of the story, the pinpointing of feelings with the words, and the evocation and modulation of emotion by the music combine to provide an overwhelming sensory experience that can transport you to that human moment in time, allowing you to experience what your human compatriots have experienced while also experiencing the transcendent beauty of life.  No one can really tell you how to listen to opera.  Experts can tell you what to listen for, but until you listen in the way that Andrew listens, caught up and without evaluation or judgment, you haven’t really listened to opera.  Once you listen that way, it is highly likely you will return for more.  I'm betting Joe started attending operas.