Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables.
– Franz Schalk
In a piece for The New York Times earlier this year, Kyle Buchanan wrote about the phenomenon of fabulous women crying at the opera: Cher in Moonstruck, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Nicole Kidman in Birth, and Anna Paquin in Margaret, to name a few. Buchanan refers to this kind of moment as an Owareto, an acronym which stands for “Oscar-Winning Actress Reacting Emotionally to Opera.” As he puts it, the opera often serves as the backdrop for a “character’s journey of micro-realizations,” that special place in the dark where the noise of the world simply disappears and one can sit alone with their heart. Most operas are written in Italian, German, or French, but it doesn’t matter whether or not one speaks the language; the stage, the clarity of tone, the music itself is deliverance, transcending typical notions of legibility. Opera is seen as one of the highest art forms because one does not need to understand it to feel it.
“People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic,” says Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. “They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” Reader, I must confess, I failed the Gere test. I went to the opera once, Kleenex travel pack in hand, but I did not shed a tear. However, there is one opera that will always make me cry. It is not shown in any grand theater, and one may not even consider it an opera at all. It is but half an opera, an almost-opera: the Marx Brothers’ A Night at The Opera, to be precise.
W.H. Auden once wrote that “No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” This same principle can be applied to comedy, specifically, the Marx Brothers’ absurdist brand. Logic is not required for a laugh. Their humor and its incongruity with anything real prompts a gut feeling, an energy that extends right off the screen and embraces your heart when you need it most. Following Auden’s credo, there is nothing sensible about A Night at The Opera. In it, the Marx Brothers—Groucho, Chico, and Harpo—wreak havoc on an opera company in the aims of uniting two opera singers: the beautiful Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and the unknown Ricardo (Allan Jones). The brothers carry the whole thing off, sneaking their way onto a steamship headed to America and sprinkling in gags aplenty, which humiliate the opera snobs and ensure that Rosa and Ricardo share the stage on opening night.
This farce may not seem like an obvious tear-jerker, but it makes all the sense in the world to me. A Night at the Opera is first and foremost about feeling over understanding, about distorting language, teasing it apart to get to the meat of it all. Take, for example, an early scene in which Groucho, playing a business manager named Otis B. Driftwood, and Chico, playing a stagehand named Fiorello, negotiate a contract. They stand upon the limp body of a celebrated lead tenor, who moments prior, was hit on the head with a mallet. With no regard for the artistic status of the man below his feet, Driftwood begins to read the contract:
“The party of the first part should be known in this contract as the party of the first part.”
The sentence hangs limp in the air.
“That’s pretty neat, eh?” asks Driftwood.
Fiorello frowns and asks Driftwood to repeat it. He does. “The party of the first part…” Then Fiorello repeats it back to him, adding a few more parties. Then Driftwood repeats it back to him, and so on and so forth until “the party of the first part” inflates to unrecognizable babble, distorts as to become nothing.
“Why should we quarrel about a thing like this?” asks Driftwood. “We’ll take it right out.”
One clean rip, and off comes the top of the contract. The pair proceeds in this anarchic manner, tearing away whatever displeases them, tossing back “the party of the first part” to one another until the contract is but a little slip of paper. Stripped bare of whatever made it official in the first place, one wonders if it still counts as a contract at all. But then again, a contract is a contract only if you call it one. A lead tenor can be a footrest if you want him to be. These dizzying words mean nothing; what matters here is the rhythm of it, the buzzy high of chaos.
In my opinion, no one does it better than the Marx Brothers. Each man is a show within himself and each finds some way of playing with intelligibility: there’s fast-talking Groucho with his painted on facial hair, his shoulders-first walk, his tailcoat, and ever-present cigar. Then Chico with his frankness, determined gaze, and faux-Italian lilt. And last but not least, there is Harpo, my personal favorite, the silent mime sporting a crumpled top hat, a horn in lieu of words, and the ability to play the harp like an angel. I dressed as Harpo for Halloween in third grade and am thrilled to inform you that the look was very accurate. With my short curly haircut, trench coat, top hat, and horn, I looked every bit his miniature, as if I’d popped out of a Harpo nesting doll. Only the parents knew who I was supposed to be; all of my friends had dressed as princesses, cowgirls, genies and cats.
Having come to Hollywood from the scrappier world of vaudeville, the Marx Brothers were something like me in my third grade Halloween photos: an oddity. Even pre-Code Hollywood had more finesse than vaudeville, a style defined by its lack of psychological or moral intent. The brothers’ first five films at Paramount (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup) were certainly more vaudeville than Hollywood, and despite their current status as subversive masterpieces, they did not see the happiest returns upon release. The brothers enjoyed free reign at Paramount, and it shows: those five films are essentially plotless, intentionally unstructured to support any and all chaotic vaudeville bits. The result is absurdity hung so loosely on a theme it could scatter with a light breeze.
The last of the Paramount oeuvre, Duck Soup, stands as a perfect example of their lawless style. The film centers around the plight of a country in the midst of a political revolution, and in it, the Marx Brothers play haphazard troublemakers, thwarting the plans of anyone from a Sylvanian ambassador to a humble lemonade seller. Though the film is now considered a non-negotiable classic, it disappointed at the box office and audiences deemed it tactless. America was in the middle of a depression and the political disregard, cynicism, and buffoonery driving Duck Soup failed to read the room. One Groucho quote handily captures the vibe: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”
This poor reception, coupled with some contract disputes and general discord, ended the Marx Brothers’ relationship with Paramount, and briefly dissolved their working relationship with each other. Groucho and Chico returned to the radio, and Harpo ended up with a stint as a goodwill ambassador, performing in the Soviet Union. It could have been curtains, or at least dispersal, but during one fateful bridge game, Chico (a compulsive gambler), met “boy wonder” producer Irving Thalberg who signed them all to MGM on the condition they clean house.
Thalberg saw the Marx Brothers’ problem as having to do with their signature style of indiscriminate anarchy. He believed that the Marx Brothers could get “twice the box office with half the laughs” if the brothers were more sympathetic characters and their films followed a more traditional structure. Under his eye, the scripts would be tested before live audiences even before filming began, allowing the studio to hone timing and replace flop jokes, removing some of the risk factor. In addition, there would be new elements: non-comic musical numbers, shiny MGM romantic leads, and an obvious “low-point” written into each script where it seemed the brothers had hit rock bottom.
Some see A Night at The Opera as the Marx Brothers’ big sellout moment, the point at which they lost the avant-garde charm of their Paramount films and became a bona-fide Hollywood act. However, I think the film is a perfect pivot for the brothers due to Thalberg’s most important innovation: a change in the enemy. If Duck Soup had failed to respond to the moment, ANight at The Opera represented a decisive 180. There is less pure anarchy, but director Sam Wood gets the Marx Brothers to focus their rebellion; instead of messing with anyone who crosses their path, they snub their nose at the most high-brow of arts—the opera—while making “low-brow” filmic art, a meta move which shines a light on the ridiculousness of the distinction in the first place. They maintain their vaudevillian rhythm of language (or in Harpo’s case, lack thereof), and because their outlandish presence is such a rift, the normative elements added to the story take on a paranormal quality. The resulting film subverts opera so much that it makes a full loop around to become a kind of opera itself.
The film opens with a sparkly bang, showing off the slick new MGM budget by plopping us into a pristine high society restaurant where wealthy dowager Mrs. Claypool (played by spectacular Marx-regular Margaret Dumont) sits alone, having been stood up by Groucho-as-Driftwood. Mrs. Claypool looks around anxiously only to find that Driftwood has been at the adjacent table with another woman the entire time. When asked to explain himself, Driftwood turns on the charm: “Do you know why I sat with her? Because she reminded me of you.”
Mrs. Claypool breaks into a smile, placated and seduced. “Really?” she asks, batting her eyelashes girlishly. Problem solved. However, even when Groucho gets away with something, he has to push it. Driftwood continues with chaotic abandon: “Of course, that’s why I’m sitting here with you! Because you remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips…Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you.”
Driftwood delivers this line with such charm and confidence, it takes Mrs. Claypool a second to break from the trance. The hackneyed qualities of romantic language are hollow and easy to manipulate; high society is but a thing to flirt with and then crush beneath one’s heel like a cigarette butt.
In the following moment, a formal introduction between Mrs. Claypool and another opera moneybag, Mr. Gottleib, becomes a slapstick dance under Driftwood’s orchestration. The light bows with which they repeatedly greet each other make Claypool and Gottleib look like odd metronomes, stiff and ridiculous against Driftwood’s clapping and stomping. The space has been corrupted, the formalities revealed as sham. Even the other dinner guests can’t help but stare at Driftwood with curiosity, as though observing an alien.
Luckily, Driftwood couldn’t care less about any of this. He arrives at the opera just as the show is ending and even makes the carriage driver take him around the block once more for good measure, ensuring that he misses the show entirely. “Bravo, Bravo!” he shouts as he walks into the theater. “Well I made it, how soon does the curtain go up?” The opera, for all of its majesty, means nothing. Driftwood, a ball of energy, leans his whole body into the adjacent box seat to have a chat with the opera-goers next door. The rich patrons look at him with pure disgust, as if he’s just taken a dump directly in their living room. This only reinforces the sense of unfriendly rigidity that plagues the people up front; there are countless invisible lines to avoid crossing—so much posturing, and not too much fun. As viewers, you’d rather be backstage, where Fiorello greets Tomasso (Harpo) with a hug and a salami, where the singers Ricardo and Rosa fall in love, where people chat and laugh and pat each other on the back for a job well done. There is an ease and camaraderie to the scrappiness of backstage life; whatever’s out front is a yawn—a performance to avoid and only pretend to care about for the sake of social capital.
As A Night at The Opera paints it, the opera is rife with corruption, a fact embodied by the company’s lead tenor, Lassparri (Walter Woolf King). He takes a whip to Tomasso, who innocently tries on a variety of opera costumes over his dirty stagehand clothes. This initial moment of abuse points to the broader reason the audience comes to hate Lasspari: the man is a vicious gatekeeper. He believes deeply in the sacred nature of the opera, and derives his power from its exclusivity. When the opera company boards a steamship to New York, the audience around the boat asks Lasspari to sing. He refuses, lying and saying he has laryngitis. He won’t do anything he’s not being paid to do and wouldn’t deign to bring his art to the common people. However, the lovely Rosa answers the people’s call with glee. Ricardo joins in, singing to Rosa from the docks to resounding applause.
Numbers like this, the ones that don’t actually take place in a theater, are the most operatic moments in A Night at The Opera. One sees how easily the dock of a ship can become a stage, how great art melds the commonplace into a holy space. This is most evident in my favorite number, “Cosi Cosa,” which is far and away one of the most exuberant songs ever captured on film. Ricardo, Fiorello, and Tomasso stumble onto the steerage deck of the steamship where a large group of Italian passengers and a handful of opera chorus members have settled in for the journey to America. The Italians have no staterooms or room service, but they have something far better, an image which has pervaded my dreams for the better part of my life: a mirage-like buffet of pasta, meat, and produce, steaming and served up in piles so plentiful, one could eat for days. How this bounty has magically appeared on the high seas, we do not know, but it is absolutely beautiful.
Satiated and surrounded by the cacophony of Italians feasting in the night air, Ricardo begins his spirited first bars:
Cosi Cosa It’s a wonderful word la la la la if anyone asks you how you are it’s proper to say Cosi Cosa, Cosi Cosa…
Fiorello and Tomasso zing towards their instruments and the Italians swiftly follow suit. Suddenly we are at the opera, watching a talented tenor sing with a gigantic, impassioned chorus. “Cosi Cosa” essentially means “so-so;” this is a song that celebrates ambivalence and extols the virtues of babble. Ricardo admits the words “don’t really mean a thing,” but they are singable, and therefore, mean everything. It might be nonsense, but “Cosi Cosa” incites laughter, dancing, and impromptu harp and piano playing. It means joyful chaos, it means people who might never be able to afford the opera crowding together on a boat, delighting in one another and in song. At its core, all language is nonsense, and this is the way that it should be used: not for contracts and social niceties, but for laughter, for joy. It is here where my tears first start to flow; this song makes absolutely no sense, and thus all of the sense in the world.
In a triumphant final act, the Marx Brothers make it back to the opera and tear it up. They replace the orchestra’s sheet music with “Take Me Out to The Ball Game” and Driftwood tosses peanuts into a riled crowd. Fancy is an illusion, a mere agreement. We define our hallowed spaces by our decorum within them. What if we like baseball and peanuts? What if we like the cheap laughs? This opera house might just as well be Yankee Stadium. Or perhaps baseball, by virtue of being in an opera house, becomes opera. A contract is a piece of paper and a costume is a piece of cloth and so on.
A Night at the Opera features very little traditional opera singing. The only concrete moment of opera comes when Ricardo and Rosa sing together on stage at the film’s climax. In an ironic twist, they sing Il Trovatore’s “Miserere.” Though the film would have you believe this is a love song, it’s actually a tragic number about a woman anticipating her lover’s impending death, the kind of song that a fabulous woman might cry to in a film I might watch. But the narrative frames it as a triumphant moment, and I, for one, am completely on board. Perhaps MGM was banking on the fact that most movie-goers would not know Il Trovatore (I didn’t until I looked it up), but I would like to believe it was an intentional subversion. The meaning of the words could not matter less; a sad song is only sad if one believes it to be. Why not take the world in your hands and turn it on its head?
This is where I have what Richard Gere in Pretty Woman might call a dramatic reaction. Something, for whatever reason, snaps in me, and I cry very hard. Perhaps I’m just a rube and I’ve fallen under Thalberg’s little spell, wishing deeply to believe that the troublemakers of the world are on my side. Perhaps I like the opera, or perhaps I hate the opera. More likely, the heart, the weirdness, the manic energy of it all, speaks to me in a way that words never could.
The song ends and the audience erupts into thunderous applause. Ricardo’s stardom has been forged in the flames of absurdity and love, and at last, Gottleib wants to sign him as the lead tenor. Driftwood and Fiorello unearth new contracts, and the ripping begins again, only to be echoed by Harpo ripping Gottleib’s tailcoat straight up the back. Gottleib withers, knowing full well that he can sign Ricardo, but only at the price of blowing apart the opera’s highfalutin exclusivity and letting these jokers in. Here, the film and its meta qualities come full circle: a contract is just a piece of paper, as is, evidently, a tailcoat. Our modes of elitism are usually quite fallible, made of paper, ink, and expensive fabric, none of which are immune to a good tear. Attributions of importance are arbitrary; therefore, a song of death can be a song of love, a scrappy group of vaudevillians can be movie stars, and, perhaps, even a slapstick comedy can be an opera.