“The Genius and the Opera Singer”

Mother and Daughter

Amos Lassen

“The Genius and the Opera Singer” is a documentary that is set in a claustrophobic penthouse apartment in New York’s West Village. Ruth and her daughter Jessica have shared this apartment for more than fifty years and we see the emotional territory of a parental relationship stuck somewhere between the past and the present. Once an aspiring opera singer, Ruth is now 92-years-old and housebound. She relies on her 55-year-old daughter, Jessica and her sometimes live-in partner, Robert. Jessica is intelligent, high-strung, and confrontational and she feels that her life has perhaps not unfolded quite as she’d planned. This is because her mother spent her formative years neglecting her in favor of pursing glamour. Ruth has been found to be officially ‘incompetent’ by the city of New York and therefore not allowed to live independently.

Vanessa Stockley’s film depicts one of the most uncomfortable, grueling, and revealing mother-daughter relationships ever seen on film. In the very first scene, we see Jessica bringing her dog, Miss Angelina Jolie, into a branch of the New York Police Department to yell at an officer and reignite a grudge match that has been going since the pooch pooped on the station floor. We immediately see that Jessica has an addiction for confrontation. After this, we go into the rent-controlled apartment where we see Jessica’s temperamental social skills in full force. Jessica scored a legal victory by getting Ruth freed from her care facility where she had been sent by the city. Jessica explains how authorities had declared Ruth “incompetent” and forced her into a nursing home—a decision of which neither mother nor daughter approved. Ruth is a former opera singer of modest success (or no success, in Jessica’s mind), and she hangs unto the memories and beauty of her youth. Jessica is bitter that she, a genius and child prodigy (or underachiever, in Ruth’s estimation), never had the opportunity to fulfill her potential because of her mother being totally into herself.

We watch as over the course of a few days, mother and daughter provoke one another to assign blame for their dissatisfied lives. They bring out the worst in each other and they both know the right buttons to push to get the other going. Jessica who fought to preserve her mother’s sanity; now seems intent to destroy it now that they’re back under the same roof.

This is not an enjoyable movie to watch but we are amazed at the amount of courage director Stockley has to even have attempted to make this film. As I watched with a sense of disgust, I was also stunned by what I saw. The arguing goes on and on and it is mean-spirited. However, the footage is powerful and not all of the things that mother and do together and terrible. We see the devotion that connects the subjects as Jessica tends to her mother because she acknowledges her responsibility to the woman who raised her. There is obvious manipulation in Jessica’s nursing, but there is also care and family ties that keep them together.

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