The operatic highs and lows of ‘Mildred Pierce’


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The coloratura soprano is the most dangerous of all operatic performers, explains a music teacher in the HBO miniseries ‘Mildred Pierce.’ He compares her with ‘a snake ... that is the coloratura.’

Poor Mildred (Kate Winslet) fails to heed the warning and is lured into the unhinged jaws of her daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), a budding opera star who seduces prey with her beguiling siren songs.

‘Mildred Pierce’ features several operatic scenes in the final two episodes, which debuted Sunday. As a young girl, Veda was an aspiring pianist, but after her voice is discovered, her career as a singer miraculously takes off, instigating a new round of mother-daughter drama.


To help create the operatic sequences, director Todd Haynes and music supervisor Randall Poster brought on board David Weyner, an opera authority and former executive at classical labels including Polygram and BMG. They also hired Korean coloratura soprano Sumi Jo to serve as the primary singing voice for the character of Veda.

In the original novel, author James M. Cain is specific about which arias Veda performs. Cain knew classical music: His mother was an opera singer, and the author was once married to the renowned soprano Florence Macbeth.

But the makers of ‘Mildred Pierce’ decided to depart substantially from Cain’s repertoire and to devise a new coloratura program for Veda. Weyner, who was instrumental in choosing the pieces, explained that they wanted arias that a young soprano at the time might realistically attempt. Cain’s choices, he said, were ‘quirky and almost ridiculous. ... They would feel weird coming from a young, budding singer.’

The filmmakers chose arias that provided dramatic parallels to the contentious relationship between Mildred and Veda. ‘Not that one needs to delve deeply to appreciate the scenes, but if you do, you can extract thematically some commentary on the whole story,’ Weyner said.

Weyner said he used French soprano Lily Pons as a model for Veda. When Mildred first hears her daughter perform on the radio, it’s ‘The Bell Song’ from the opera ‘Lakmé,’ by Léo Delibes. (In the novel, it’s the Polonaise from Ambroise Thomas’ ‘Mignon.’) ‘The Bell Song’ was a big hit for Pons, and the opera’s story -- featuring a rebellious daughter whose voice is used to lure people -- provides a thematic parallel to Veda the Viper’s seductive qualities. Later, Mildred attends an NBC radio concert in Hollywood where she sees Veda perform the famous ‘Casta Diva’ aria from Bellini’s ‘Norma.’ The opera foreshadows the messy emotional triangle that develops among Mildred, Veda and Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce).

For Veda’s career-making concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the filmmakers chose to include the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ The scene in Mozart’s opera features a battle of wills between an obsessive mother and her daughter. ‘It seemed an irresistible choice,’ Weyner said.


The concert scene also includes ‘Caro Nome’ from Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘Qui La Voce’ from Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’ and the pop chestnut ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.’ (In the novel, which sets the scene at the Hollywood Bowl, Veda’s program features arias from ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ plus Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria.’)

Veda’s singing voice is performed by Jo for most of the operatic scenes in ‘Mildred Pierce.’ Born in Seoul and now living in Italy, Jo is one of the top coloratura sopranos working today. For ‘Mildred Pierce,’ producers used some of her previous recordings but also made new recordings of Jo singing the Wedding March from Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ -- used for Veda’s grand entrance during Mildred’s wedding reception -- and ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.’

Wood trained with Deborah Surdi, a vocal coach and an executive at the Opera Orchestra of New York, who taught the actress breathing technique and posture.

Veda is the star of the concert, but the viewer experiences everything through Mildred, who lives vicariously and narcissistically through her daughter’s success. Cain described the concert as ‘the coming true of all [Mildred] had dreamed for Veda, all she had believed in, worked for. ... This was the climax of Mildred’s life.’


Television review: ‘Mildred Pierce’

Sumi Jo: A voice rising in the east and west

A display of versatility by Sumi Jo at the Bowl

Set Pieces: The 1930s California interiors of HBO’s ‘Mildred Pierce’

The Reading Life: Revisiting ‘Mildred Pierce’

Mildred Pierce, Part 3: Fight or fight

-- David Ng

Photos, from top: Evan Rachel Wood in ‘Mildred Pierce.’ Wood, performing ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma.’ Kate Winslet in the HBO miniseries. Credit: Andrew Schwartz / HBO