I am certainly not an authority on opera but I did grow up listening to it. Or, perhaps I should say, listening to sections of operas or arias. Part of my experience hearing opera for the first time came through radio, and old 78s that my uncles had. For a couple of hours in our apartment before my mother and father got home from work my brother and I played these 78s. Many of them were Caruso and there were intermezzi from Mascagni and others.
My grandparents, who came from Sicily between 1910 and 1912, only spoke Sicilian and would sing occasionally as they were working in the house – that was another way I heard opera when I was young. Besides listening to the old Italian soap operas on the radio, we'd listen to music on the radio and a lot of it was opera. Coming out of a working class background – and my family not having an education – television and film were key sources of entertainment. Television was simply The Ed Sullivan Show, and Patrice Munsel, Robert Merrill and others would come on and sing these arias and everybody in the room would just hush and listen to it. Of course it would be something from Puccini's Tosca or Madama Butterfly.
In our teenage years my friends and I were able to get tickets for the Met – the old Met. We'd get the ones where we'd just stand up in the top and look down over the stage. And we could see backstage, everybody was getting ready and it was quite something.
People have asked me about my use of Mascagni's music in my film Raging Bull. Well, when it was quiet in our apartment and there was nobody there I would put that piece of music on. It was a vehicle for me, it took me to visual dreaming, so to speak, visual images – I imagined stories, I imagined camera movements. I didn't know I was imagining camera movements at the time, but I was putting stories together in my head to this music. And it touched a certain emotional chord – there's no doubt about it. And there were other intermezzi, too, from other operas. But this one was really, really very powerful and then my uncles would play something like Cavalleria rusticana for me.
There's one aria where the character is singing about Lola in heaven, and if there's no Lola in heaven he doesn't want to go there. Well, that's Raging Bull! I thought of it immediately. I did not think of it for the opening credits however, but rather as a theme throughout the film. As Howard Shore, my collaborator in The Aviator, knows I've always been sort of fighting between actual scoring of a film and creating my own scores from music that I grew up listening to. So, I thought, I didn't have a score, I said well, the score should be Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, maybe the aria, certainly the Intermezzo, and then I got other intermezzi from L 'amico Fritz and a few others and that became the score. And then almost by accident we put it on the opening title shot and it worked. It worked beautifully and set the mood for the film.
Music and film are almost one and the same. There's the rhythm, the pace of music – and the equivalent of that in film is the camera movement, how long you hold a shot on screen before you cut, if you don't cut, the look on a person's face. For me, actually, the editing process is really like creating a musical piece. Even if there is no music in the film – I think the shots themselves have a rhythm and pace. Most of the shots I design and most of the way I approach any scene comes from music. I usually put myself in a room or a couple of rooms for about eight or nine days with music and design a picture on the page. That changes, of course, when you get to location to a certain extent. But basically the philosophy of the shots comes from listening to music – all kinds of music. In Aviator, it certainly was jazz music and swing music of the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, but also Bach and Beethoven. Actually, originally we wanted to use the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh, but it's been used so much. But it had the right feeling.
Sometimes we play music on the set. At times we couldn't play it of course with a thousand people in the auditorium, but in Goodfellas and certainly in After Hours the last shot, the camera tracking backwards actually – the Steadicam rushing back – it's Mozart: one of his early symphonies, I think, and that was played on the set just to get the feeling, the joy of the music. The camera and the actors are dancers really – it's all choreography.
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