James Gray recalled attending a performance at Los Angeles Opera that would eventually inspire him to make his latest movie, "The Immigrant," which opens Friday and stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner.
It was 2008 and the production was "Il Trittico" -- a set of three short operas by Giacomo Puccini -- at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Gray remembered being particularly struck by the second one, "Suor Angelica," directed by William Friedkin.
"I just felt that it was transcendent. I remember I was just crying," Gray said in a recent interview in Beverly Hills. "I said to my wife on the way home that this to me is what dramatic art is meant to be."
The director used the essence Puccini's operetta as a springboard to make "The Immigrant," which he described as "a verismo opera written for an actress."
In both stories, a saintly heroine is cruelly deceived by those whom she trusts. But rather than take revenge, she learns the value of forgiveness and in so doing attains a level of spiritual grace.
In the Puccini piece, the protagonist is a young woman sent to live in a convent after having a child out of wedlock. In "The Immigrant," Cotillard plays a Polish emigree in New York who is forced into sex work by a Svengali-like vaudeville impresario (Phoenix).
Gray said he wanted to give the movie an "operatic" feel, though not in the usual sense of the term.
"The word 'operatic' is often misused to mean over the top, where someone is over-emoting," he said. "And that does a terrible disservice because 'operatic' to me means a commitment and a belief to the emotion of the moment that is sincere."
Critics have frequently noted that Gray's films lack the postmodern ironic tone prevalent among movies by directors of his generation. (He's slightly younger than Quentin Tarantino.) His movies, which usually focus on working-class people in New York's outer boroughs, are serious dramas that treat their characters' dilemmas with an emotional directness and tragic grandeur.
Gray said he counts opera among his artistic passions. "It's the last island of sincere emotion that exists in our culture," he said.
"I feel like it's a real shame that my generation doesn't make an appearance at the opera," he continued. "I try to get my filmmaker friends to go and they're like, what's that? Opera?"
"The Immigrant" contains references to a few other Puccini masterpieces. One scene portrays Enrico Caruso (played by tenor Joseph Calleja) performing a selection from "La Rondine" to an audience of immigrants on Ellis Island.
The scene is based on a real performance that Caruso gave. "We tried to get that concert as accurate as possible," said Gray. "I cheated on the date -- I think he sang eight or nine months earlier" than what is portrayed in the movie.
The film also includes references to Puccini's "The Girl of the Golden West" -- snippets can be heard on the soundtrack, and the Cotillard character longs to leave brutal New York for the warmth of California.
Selections from Charles Guonod's "Romeo and Juliet" and Richard Wagner's "Die Walkure" are also featured on the soundtrack, as well as excerpts from the late John Taverner's "Funeral Canticle." (Gray worked with composer Christopher Spelman on the operatic arrangements.)
Gray is so passionate about opera that he can discuss the virtues of certain Puccini recordings over others. He keeps some of his favorite operatic selections on his smartphone, ready for instant playback, including the "Romeo and Juliet" passage from the movie.
His last film "Two Lovers," starring Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow, was also infused with opera and featured references to Puccini's "Manon Lescaut," among others.
Gray has never directed an actual opera, though he said he was offered a chance in Qatar, of all places. He said he had to decline the offer due to scheduling reasons.