Oscar winner Julianne Moore has moved audiences to tears and laughter in her varied performances, but to play a world-renowned opera star, she needed more than acting chops: specifically, the timbre of a spinto soprano, proficiency in Czech and French, and a sustained B-flat.
That wasn't going to happen. Instead, Bel Canto director Paul Weitz turned to Renée Fleming. The singer, recently Tony-nominated for her performance in Broadway's Carousel, was no stranger to the repertoire involved. In fact, she served as inspiration for the character of Roxane Coss in Ann Patchett's original 2001 novel, about a prolonged hostage crisis during which an opera singer, a Japanese businessman, and several others are held captive by guerrilla rebels in an unspecified South American country.
Fleming provided the vocals for the film's musical moments, but it was up to Moore to sell them on camera. Below, Weitz and Fleming's frequent vocal coach and pianist Gerald Martin Moore discuss what went into preparing the film star for her pseudo-operatic debut.
In his research, Paul turned to the same inspiration as Patchett did while writing the novel. “I read Renée’s autobiography,” he says, “and she talked with me about what her experience was like.” During their conversations—before she had signed on to sing in the film—the director picked up on three tenements that helped inform Roxane: temperament (“that ineffable quality that allows a singer to hold the stage”), a lack of pretension, and a sense of humor.
“One can look at opera stars as otherworldly and unapproachable, and that’s not a great way to approach a character.”
The actor tasked to take on the role had research projects of her own, attending multiple rehearsals and performances at the Metropolitan Opera, including seeing Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier. Fleming eventually pointed the director and star to Gerald Moore.
Gerald divided his lessons between the technique behind producing the open, articulate sound achieved without any amplification and the specific text work that aided in lip syncing to recordings of Fleming.
To cover the technique, Gerald created a fast-paced version of the fundamentals he covers with all students. This included lying on the floor, feet pushed against a wall, while blowing a balloon to focus on the muscles required for breathing support. “It’s about the feeling of the lower abdominals descending when you breathe,” he explains. “Your diaphragm goes down, your intercostals open, and your rib cage opens.”
Weitz, who’s also captured simulated opera performances for Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, knew that display of technical achievement was necessary to maintain authenticity. Those internal adjustments may not be immediately recognizable in a visual medium, but they require the whole body and affect posture and placement. “People think that opera singers have an extra hinge in their mouth that they can open,” he says before laughing at the thought. “Sometimes it might look less real than what our idea of an opera singer is, but that’s what we were going for—to actually have it be real.”
As for the more text-based elements, Julianne learned the arias phonetically (in the film, Roxane sings arias in Italian and Czech) while working with Gerald to understand the distinction between pronunciation in speech and pronunciation in song. “When you’re singing a really big sustained high note, your mouth is not in the position it would be to just say the word,” he explains.
At the same time, Gerald notes that Fleming maintains a particularly natural expression while singing. “She looks just like she’s talking,” he says. “If you see the jaw of someone like Joan Sutherland or Pavarotti, it’s a bigger, squarer, forward jaw. Renée’s natural jaw position tends to be less prominent, so those are things to bear in mind, the idea that it's not the same for everyone.”
Once Fleming’s recorded tracks were finalized, they were sent to Julianne (“so she could be listening through while she’s brushing her teeth,” says Paul). With the specific takes chosen, she was trained to listen for the intricacies in the sung word—where the consonants fall, precisely how long to hold a note, when to breathe, how diphthongs are shaped.
Pieces like Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” and Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” have become signatures of Fleming’s on the opera and concert stage, but to provide the voice for another, fictional opera star, the soprano was tasked with adding additional contextual layers. When Roxane sings Tosca to those outside the mansion, she has been held captive, is not entirely certain of her fate, recently witnessed the death of a companion, and has not sung in days—all factors that would affect her instrument.
Weitz loosely guided Fleming through these story beats leading up to Roxane’s tentative performance, but given her friendship with Patchett and after curating an opera adaptation with Chicago Lyric Opera, she had a considerable grasp on the character and circumstances.
And giving notes to a star opera singer—as someone outside the singing realm, no less—could be daunting. “There is a degree of trepidation when you go up to a great singer, and you say, ‘Could you do that again? I think the character’s a little more afraid right now.’ I have no idea whether that’s how people direct opera, but she was really kind with me.”
Julianne sat in on the recording sessions (in which Gerald accompanied Fleming), and with actor, singer, coach, and director in the room, the quartet collaborated to find the balance between emotional authenticity and a sound that undeniably belongs to one of the world’s most revered singers.
Throughout production, Gerald remained on hand—not only as a consultant to the star in front of the camera, but also to the director behind it. As Julianne sang (and she really did sing) to the recorded track of Fleming, Gerald and Paul watched on a monitor comparing notes: Was the director satisfied with the shot visually and dramatically, and was the vocal coach satisfied with the portrayal of the singing?
“Sometimes there would be shots where I thought, ‘Well that one looks amazing,’ but it wasn’t quite right for what Paul wanted,” says Gerald.
And sometimes, Paul recalls, it wasn’t quite right for what Gerald wanted. “I’d say, ‘Do you think I’m safe?’ And Gerald’s saying [Paul breaks into an attempted Scottish accent] ‘Well, I think so, but do it a couple more times.’”
Meanwhile, Julianne faced her own compromises as she navigated a fine line familiar to many actual opera singers: conveying emotion without losing sight of technique, and in turn, maintaining technique without losing sight of expression (and on top of that, recreating the experience of a stage performance on screen). As Gerald says, “The challenge is how to appear as if you’re abandoning yourself to the emotion, while remaining ensured that the double-S falls at the right time.”
Despite eventually being dubbed, Julianne did not shy away from singing out as the cameras rolled (all that training would be in vain otherwise), but on one condition: the track was played as loud as possible so that no one could possibly hear her. “There was one point where the sound system went out for a moment, and I heard her singing,” Paul admits. “And it was good! But she was mortified.”
Julianne might not sing Rusalka or Tosca on the Met stage anytime soon. But after coaching her, Gerald wouldn’t count out a musical role for the Oscar winner: “I did suggest that she should consider A Little Night Music or something, because she would be amazing with her ability to connect the text and singing to her emotional truth. She was very down to earth: no pretensions, no diva—only about the work.”