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Raymond Zhou: Montreal Journal, August 27

Updated: 2013-08-28 13:50
By Raymond Zhou (

Raymond Zhou: Montreal Journal, August 27

Czech film director Jiri Menzel poses with a fan in Montreal after the screening of his latest feature "The Don Juans". Photo by Raymond Zhou for China Daily

One of the great benefits of film as a medium is its wide and long tentacles. It acts as a portal through which you can peek into or even enter other worlds. One of those worlds is opera, often considered the pinnacle of performing arts.

Now, opera is best enjoyed live in a theater. But for those who do not live in a big metropolis, attending an opera is a true luxury. Fortunately, more and more of these performances are taped and distributed on disks. For a better approximation of the theatrical experience, New York's Metropolitan Opera regularly broadcasts live to cinemas around the world, or more accurately, in Western countries.

Whenever I travel to one of these countries, I'll make it a point to catch a show or two, called "Live in HD" and often featuring the biggest cast and most lavish productions.

I'm denied this luck because the Met, as that opera house is known, is between seasons. But the Montreal World Film Festival has inadvertently offered me, an opera buff, a mini-festival of opera-related movies.

"The Don Juans" ("Donsajni"), which premiered tonight at Montreal's Cinema Imperial, is the rare opera-themed feature film that at once pays tribute to the 400-year-old art form and makes fun of it. Directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar for "Closely Watched Trains" in 1968, it depicts an opera director who is staging Mozart's "Don Giovanni," popularly known as Don Juan. In real life, the opera director and one of his senior stars are womanizers of epic proportions, or modern-day Don Juans.

Unlike other films set in an opera house, "The Don Juans" eschews the respectful tone for one of sarcasm. It mocks the art form while at the same time subtly brings out its relevance. Instead of the proverbial fat ladies who sing, this movie portrays every soprano as a femme fatale with the physique of a supermodel. And it supplies more laughs than probably a Rossini comic opera.

It was a special treat for Montreal film and opera lovers because Jiri Menzel happens to be the president of this year's edition of the film festival. In addition, the festival also includes two feature-length documentaries about Wagner, the German composer who wrote the longest opera and presumably invented film music – before the advent of film, that is. "The Colon Ring – Wagner inBuenos Aires" is about a stage production of "The Ring Cycle" in theArgentinacity condensed to seven hours from the original full length of 14-15 hours (without counting intermissions). The whole rehearsal smacked of a huge disaster in the making, but turned out surprisingly good and refreshing. Such is the nature of live theater.

Another documentary is called "The Wagner Files" ("Wagnerwahn"), a recount of the composer's life through interviews, recreations and even animation. Some of the touches are too garish for my taste, but there is no denying it gets across the complexities of the character, for example, Wagner's predilection for silk brocade and the possible effect of the fabric on the texture of his music, especially the string section.

You may not know 2013 is the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth, or you may not even have heard of his name. But when you hear his music, especially accompanying striking visual images, you'll realize that film as a relatively new art form is intricately connected to more ancient ones.


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