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Julianne Moore channels opera star Renée Fleming in Bel Canto: #book2movie #basedonabook

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I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto several years ago; it took my breath away, capturing my imagination as thoroughly as the terrorists capture the hostages when they storm the house in the midst of the South American jungle in Patchett’s novel. I haven’t re-read the novel, and perhaps I’ve romanticized it but I recall the book with lofty words like soaring and incandescent. A magical mix where music and love transform the reality of the captors and their captives. 

Julianne Moore, Christopher Lambert, Sebastian Koch, Olek Krupa, Ken Watanabe, and Tenoch Huerta in Bel Canto (2018)

Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe star in Bel Canto

In the film version, Julianne Moore plays Roxanne, the opera star at the center of the drama. Real life opera singer Renée Fleming provides the voice. Below is an interview from Town & Country between the two stars. Before you go there have a listen to this clip showing Moore lipsynching to Fleming’s voice. Is it just me or as luminous as Fleming sounds, is it odd to hear that glorious sound coming from the balcony of the home in the middle of the jungle? It sounds as if it’s been recorded in a studio—which of course it has been. I wonder if they had brought Ms. Fleming to the filming location and recorded it there, would it have been a more authentic and thereby affecting scene? Or am I just quibbling? What do you think? With apologies for the small size, you can check out the full-scale version via the link below the clip. Don't forget to come back to read the interview.


I guess I'm going to have to get myself out of the house and into the theater to see the actual movie to know for sure. The movie is playing in theaters now. Unfortunately not in my neighborhood! 

Here’s the interview, copied in full from Town & Country.

Julianne Moore is at the center of Bel Canto, a stylish and affecting drama, out this month, based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling 2001 novel of the same name. Moore plays Roxane, a world class opera singer taken hostage while performing at a politician’s party in South America, but it’s a role she did not create alone. Roxane’s singing voice—the thing that has made her famous and that, in a way, could save her life—is provided by the opera star Renée Fleming, whose own soprano is the voice Patchett had in mind when she wrote the character.

“It was a specific decision to ask Renée to do the voice of the character. What I was hoping for was some sort of alchemy,” says the film’s director, Paul Weitz. “With actors you’re always hoping to get out of their way to help them find their character. I knew that if I got out of the way of Julianne and Renée, that’s what would happen.”

During a long conversation at Fleming’s Manhattan home, she and Moore discussed the film, the differences between acting and singing opera, and the importance, in both, of making sure your voice is heard.

Renée Fleming: Bel Canto is coming out, and I’m glad. I know Ann Patchett has waited for this for so long.
Julianne Moore: Have you spoken to her?

RF: We’re in touch on a regular basis. I’m sure she’s happy that it’s happening with you. My story of how I found out about Bel Canto is that people thought the book was written about me. You must have thought I wasn’t a very nice person when you read it.
JM: That’s not true!

RF: Were you familiar with the book, or any of Ann’s work?
JM: It was one of those books that I remember coming out. There was a big to-do about it, but I hadn’t read it because it always seemed like it was on the verge of being made into a movie. But then it kind of went away. I also thought it was supposed to be about you; I had picked that up somehow.

Before I had a family I would find myself in a location all by myself and think, This isn’t the kind of life I want to have. She lives without any kind of community.

RF: Well, some of the musical choices were very specific to my ­recordings.
JM: And the idea of an American opera star, too. Paul Weitz approached me about doing the movie, and I was like, “Absolutely,” and that’s how it came about. For me the most exciting part was getting to meet you and getting to be involved in your process.

RF: Did you find it daunting to play an opera singer?
JM: Yes!

RF: People have done it in the past, and sometimes it’s successful, but it’s very hard.
JM: I studied with a coach, Gerald Martin Moore, who was so lovely and generous, and really taught me the same way he would teach a singer.

RF: Have you remembered the music you learned?
JM: Some of it. What’s interesting is that the piece that ended up moving me the most and staying with me the longest is the one that I thought would be the most difficult, which is the last piece I sang in the movie.

RF: Because it was in Czech, which was the most challenging language?
JM: I don’t speak any of these languages, so I learned by sound—almost by syllable. I did sing it myself, but underneath your voice.

RF: I remember, when I read the book, thinking that I didn’t want to be that diva, but she really is more than just a typical narcissist. Did you have any difficulty with the challenging parts of the character?
JM: One of the things you said to me that touched me when we first met was about working with young singers who reach out to you and ask, “Am I always going to be this lonely?” A character who had been in Paris by herself, that was something I could relate to, because before I had a family I would find myself in a location all by myself and think, This isn’t the kind of life I want to have. She lives without any kind of community.

RF: Absolutely. And the people who surround her make their living off of her doing her job well.
JM: So when she gets involved with this community in a hostage situation, it becomes something that she values, and it’s the first time she’s had that.

RF: How did you research this role?
I was asked how I thought they could get more young people to come to the opera, and I said, "Make it shorter."

JM: I learned about you, I spoke to you, I listened to your music, I sat in classes with good opera teachers and young students. I worked with Gerald, I talked to directors, I went to the Metropolitan Opera and spoke to everybody who was there. One of the things that I find in research is that if you ask a question, someone will answer it. People are generally open and helpful. They want you to get it right.

RF: They also all like saying, “I helped Julianne Moore.” One of the things I really loved was when you and your husband Bart came to a rehearsal. Your responses fascinated me. You talked about how on television all the voices are flattened and equalized, but in a live situation you can really hear the differences between the singers.
JM: I think that’s the tragedy of opera in the modern day, that most people’s access to it comes through TV, and it all sounds, unfortunately, the same. But being so close to these musical masters, you hear the different qualities of their voices unamplified.

RF: Do you feel differently about the art form now?
JM: I do. But I wish it were more accessible.

RF: You came to Der Rosenkavalier last year…
JM: Yes, that was so beautiful.

RF: Mike Nichols came once and said, “You know, I really love this. Can’t you cut it?”
JM: That’s what I said too! Isn’t that terrible?

RF: That’s not terrible!
JM: I was asked how I thought they could get more young people to come to the opera, and I said, “Make it shorter.” And they said, “You can’t do that, because people don’t want you to destroy the opera.” But it’s too long.

RF: It’s historic art, and therefore there’s a reticence to changing it.
JM: It’s unfortunate. I so loved the opportunity to be introduced to people who can make these sounds with their bodies. You have such a keen musicality to you; it was fascinating to hear you record.

RF: You were five feet away from me when I recorded the music, really watching what I do. That had to be helpful.
JM: Very. It’s surprising how different your singing is from your speaking. Your voice sits so differently when you speak.

RF: My speaking voice is terrible.
JM: Well, you have an upstate accent. Your singing voice has a clarity that’s very different from your speaking voice. And to see that, to see you sing and then speak and go back and forth, how you behave in the studio, your incredible degree of professionalism… It was everything.

RF: Prior to Bel Canto, did you know about the Peruvian hostage crisis?
For an actor, it is always said that people don’t come to see you—people come to see themselves.

JM: I knew about it only very vaguely, so I was fascinated to learn more. What I loved about Bel Canto also is that it’s not just an ensemble piece, it’s an international story.

RF: It’s people put together in a space for a long while who come together because of that. Ken Watanabe’s character travels across the world just to be in the same room as Roxane. What do you think would draw him to do that?
JM: Fanaticism.

RF: A great star said to me not long ago that her audience feels desperate for beauty and melody and the emotional catharsis that art can bring. Does that make sense to you?
JM: It does. For an actor, it is always said that people don’t come to see you—people come to see themselves, and you become their avatar. As a singer or as an actor, I feel as if we are just vessels for things that are human, and people project their own humanity onto that.

RF: Does that exist for you in film as well?
JM: I’m not really thinking about the audience, but I am trying to think about what’s most human, what’s most universal in a story, and where can I find the reality.

RF: What drew you to Roxane and this story?
JM: It was an adult love story, and you never get to see that. So often with love stories it’s young people, and this was an interesting, sad, complicated love story with middle-aged people who didn’t think something like this was ever going to happen to them.

RF: You’ve played some amazing characters from the 1950s and ’60s. Do you think of yourself as having an era?
JM: No, but, oddly, a lot of my roles get clumped together. There was a series of 1950s housewives that were all thrown at me at the same time. Or you do a bunch of funny things all at once. My daughter recently asked me about a project, “Do you die again, Mom? I feel like you always die.” I don’t, but there were a couple of movies where that happened.

RF: You told me a story about how you’re not afraid to be a tough mom. I have been lenient over the years, feeling guilty about having this career. I look back now and wonder, Should I have made them clean their rooms?
JM: I find it challenging. What are you going to get hung up about, the ­cleaning-their-rooms thing? [My daughter] Liv recently came back from being away a couple of weeks, and she needed to do her laundry. She said, “I need to do my laundry,” and I said, “Okay, I’ll help you. I’ll put it in.” Then, before I knew it, I’d done it all. Then Bart asked, “Why did you do her laundry?” and I said I couldn’t help myself and I wanted to help her. But I probably shouldn’t have.

RF: A director said that one of the things he loved about working with you is that you come prepared. Is that always true?
JM: For me the most important thing is to do my research. If I’m playing an opera singer, I better learn what it is to be an opera singer or be able to approximate it. I’m going to know my lines. I’m going to know the music. I’m going to know all of that stuff. But then that preparation allows you to drop it on camera.

RF: I’ve always felt that my characters came at funny times in my life. I had a sense of being guided. It’s interesting that I’m playing a certain character when I’m personally going through something that relates.
JM: I used to say that I felt as though I was always playing my future, not my past. I did sometimes wonder why I was choosing a role, but then something would be happening to me later, and I’d go, “Ohhhh…”

RF: Do you choose projects with your audience in mind?
JM: Recently, when I read a script, I asked, “Who are you making this movie for?” Because one project is not for everybody. Somebody was complaining to me about a movie that was for teenagers, and I said, “Please stop. That movie is not for you. Of course you feel dissatisfied watching a young-adult movie, because you’re 45, and that movie is for someone who is 16.” It’s not the same thing.