Opera: it sounds like being the next big thing in movies
A dinner party at Richard E Grant's stately home during First Night. Photograph: Observer
Musical theatre in 2018 is socially relevant and thought-provoking
British producer Stephen Evans hopes First Night, his film inspired by Mozart's CosÌ Fan Tutte, will start a trend
The producer who inspired a fashion for Shakespeare in recent British cinema now plans to bring the operatic work of Mozart to mainstream film audiences.
Twenty years ago Stephen Evans produced Henry V, starring Kenneth Branagh, despite scepticism from investors and distributors who predicted it would be a commercial failure. In fact the film won two Oscar nominations for Branagh as best director and best actor and is still making money. Now Evans is banking on a romantic comedy inspired by Mozart's Così Fan Tutte – and with a Mozart soundtrack – becoming a similarly unexpected hit.
The film, just finished and provisionally titled First Night, is a feelgood British drama. In it Richard E Grant, star of Gosford Park, plays a wealthy businessman who assembles a troupe of singers to stage Così Fan Tutte in his stately home. At a test screening last week the audience loved it.
Evans said: "People who didn't know opera were more excited than the people who did. The music is so wonderful, so lyrical. People uninterested in opera found themselves loving the music."
Film industry giants are now assessing whether an "opera film" could be a box office hit in the UK. "It's a bit of fun," said Evans, "but they're nervous because of the opera. It's specifically not a movie of an opera. It's a movie set against a backdrop of putting on an opera."
He is encouraged by the parallel with Henry V, which at first proved a tough sell: "It was a bit of a nightmare. Now it's regarded as a classic piece." Henry V inspired several popular Shakespeare movies, including Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Evans also made two other acclaimed Shakespeare films – Much Ado About Nothing, with Branagh, and Twelfth Night, with Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley.
Mozart's Magic Flute inspired his passion for opera when he was in his late twenties. The idea of choosing Così came from the late writer John Mortimer, who started work on the script just before his death. The screenplay was taken on by director Jeremy Sams, who has worked extensively in opera.
Evans added that his new film was inspired by Truffaut's La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night), in which life replicates art. "While it is a contemporary piece, the genius of Mozart will shine through. Its modern relevance will, I believe, attract a wider, younger audience, most of whom will be hearing the genius of Mozart for the first time," he said.
The decision to make First Night was also prompted by opera's rising popularity. He was struck by the huge number of young people at a recent open-air screening at Somerset House of TheRake's Progress from Glyndebourne. "I was amazed by the youth there. It's Stravinsky. Not the most melodic of people," he said. Live screenings of opera from the New York Met, and other houses, have also sold out in Britain.
First Night's cast includes two promising newcomers, Julian Ovenden, who trained as an opera singer, and Mia Maestro, an Argentinian actress and classical singer. Sarah Brightman is also in the cast.
Hearing of Evans's film, Bill Bankes-Jones, chairman of the Opera and Music Theatre Forum, the industry organisation, said: "I'm sure it'll be irresistible."
The UK is experiencing "a huge surge" in opera activity, Bankes-Jones said. "Twenty years ago there were about 34 opera companies. Now there are over 200. The number has quintupled."
Evans hopes to premiere the film in February. "It's a bit of fun, like a soufflé. The proof will be in the eating," he said.