Even more so than usual, this is not a review. It also contains spoilers.
Normally I try not to be too negative on here. That is, if I mainly have negative things to say about something rather than positive, I'll just not talk about it at all here. For the most part, I want to share the things I'm excited about or interested in, not those I dislike. But occasionally I'll let the negative comments in because I think that they're topics worth discussing. Today's subject is Arizona Opera's latest production, The Copper Queen.
Because of the closures in the past year, they decided last year to produce The Copper Queen as a film instead of a live show. But that all still takes time, so it only just came out this past weekend (which is a little ironic to me given that live shows are now back, so I'm not sure whether it was necessary to make this one into a film at all, but what do I know about productions?). You can still see it in select Harkins through Thursday; after that it will be available to stream online.
It was definitely a different experience to watch an opera movie versus a live opera. The sound quality of the recording was great, so you still got that immersive quality that you wouldn't necessarily get from watching video of a live show at home. And because it was filmed as a movie (versus filming a show on a stage), the cinematography was completely different, too. I'm not used to seeing the performers' faces close up. While this allows for more acting, it also gave me as the viewer less to look at. This is especially given that it all takes place in one room.
But let's get to my main point of conversation. Initially, I was excited when I heard this title. The Copper Queen takes place in Bisbee, so I was excited to get more of that Southwest focus that we started getting with Riders of the Purple Sage (which is the only opera I've had a chance to see twice). But as it came closer to the film's release and I started paying more attention to the synopsis, my interest began going down. It's about the ghost of a prostitute? Ghosts and prostitutes--two subjects in which I have no interest. These are exactly the types of Southwestern stories I try to avoid. It's as if they sat down in a room and said, how can we continue bringing in a wider and younger audience to the opera--I know, let's bring in ghosts and sex, those topics sell.
I was also concerned by the time the trailer came out and they were including a warning that the film contains scenes some viewers "might find disturbing" and the "mature audiences" only. I understand that many of the operas we now watch were considered quite scandalous in their day (and often still are today actually). But does this mean that the film went further than they would have gone if they'd just done a live show?
The answer: probably a bit. The nature of a film (with close ups you don't have live) is that any physical action is more detailed and less pantomime than it is live in a big symphony hall. So if you're seeing someone being strangled to death, it's more graphic. And if you're seeing Julia at work, it's more graphic. But it's still meant to be somewhat classy opera, so they're still clothed. Rating-wise, this film probably could have even managed a PG-13 with some tweaking (if not for the language peppered in the dialogue, of course).
Now, the reason I was willing to go see a film that might be more risqué than I wanted was because I wanted to see the story they made with it. I figured if the synopsis was of a modern day woman going to stay at Julia's room in a hotel to see her ghost, then the story would probably be about telling Julia's untold story and her perspective and how she found herself in this unfortunate position. Initially, it seemed like that's what we were getting. We meet Julia's, um, work persona. So that's the impression that tourists would have of her, Julia the prostitute. Then we begin to see that, of course, she does not like what she does. And then we see that she's at the mercy of her father, who is the one running the hotel and prostituting her out and also abusing her. So I can go along with that so far. I can go along with telling the untold story of this woman.
My issue, though, is with the way in which they "redeem" her. She begins to fall for one of the men who comes to see her--and the feeling is mutual. He is considering leaving his wife to be with her, and his resolve is stronger when he finds the abuse marks on her back. But later on he returns to tell her that he can't because his wife is pregnant. She's devastated, but ultimately decides to leave on her own--until her father comes back and their confrontation ends with him murdering her. We find that the woman who came to see Julia's ghost is the granddaughter of the man's daughter. She tells Julia's ghost that after his wife died in childbirth, he never remarried and eventually told his daughter of his love for Julia.
How disgusting. We're meant to sigh and say how sweet over the forever love of this man for Julia? Even though she had a terrible life, this man's love for her makes it all better? Yuck. Thematically, to have their love be the "redeeming" element is unstable and falls apart in light of the entire story. It is because men like him cheat on their wives and go pay for prostitutes that Julia's father is able to keep her in this compromising position. He is enabling her abuse by going to pay for her services. And yet because he was considering escaping with her, we can just sidestep the fact that that he is being cruel and disrespectful to his wife and also disrespectful to a woman he has never met (Julia the first time he goes to see her) by paying for her body? Oh, because he paid her a little extra, that makes it okay, right? Like I said, disgusting.
I realize it's a story about a prostitute and not everything is going to be all pearly. But that's why my issue is with the ultimate theme of the story. We don't even have any remorse from him for taking part in the system. There was some potential with the granddaughter coming in, declaring that she and Julia are the same. She is also someone who has felt unseen and in constant service to others (by being the caretaker for her grandmother). But that part of the story isn't developed enough.
The singing was good and I like the Arizona setting. Vanessa Becerra as Julia portrayed both the seeming confident woman and the woman literally falling apart emotionally in panic over her situation. She gave a wonderfully emotive performance. I suppose, then, this film was worth seeing. I was curious. Ultimately, though, its treatment of theme left me disappointed.