It's very common for opera newcomers to be surprised at their own familiarity with opera. How can you know the music if you've never been to the opera before? Simple -- it's everywhere! Opera is such a powerful driver of human emotion that it is often used in movies, TV shows, and even cartoons to enhance the poignant undertones of a scene.
Here's a countdown of some of the best uses of opera music and references in movies.
<em>"Canzonetta sull'aria" (The Letter Duet), Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart</em><br> Banker Andy Dufresne spends nearly two decades in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover, a crime he claims to have not committed. He manages to get ahead in the prison by working for the warden and, one day, decides to lock himself in his office and broadcast Canzonetta sull'aria over the PA system. In this short duet, Countess Almaviva dictates a letter to Susanna and unveils a plan to uncover her husband's secret, much like how Andy uncovers the warden's illegal activities.
<em>"O buon Marcello, aiuto", La bohème by Giacomo Puccini (From Act III)</em><br> In "Moonstruck," Nicolas Cage plays as an opera-loving baker who falls in love with his brother's fiancée, Cher. The center of the drama unfolds when he takes her to see La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera.
<em>"Sempre libera" and "Amami, Alfredo," La traviata by Giuseppe Verdi</em><br> "Pretty Woman" was actually based on this famous Verdi opera about a courtesan who finds true love and is forced to relinquish it. The movie pays homage to its origin when Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to see La traviata.
<em>"Un Bel di Vedremo", Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini</em><br> "Fatal Attraction" follows a married man's affair gone horribly wrong as his lover turns into a violent stalker when rejected. Madama Butterfly, which is heavily referenced in the film, parallels the movie's plot. Glenn Close's character attempts suicide to the tune of "Un Bel di Vedremo," in which the abandoned and tragically deluded Butterfly explains to her companion exactly how it will be when her American husband returns.
<em>"Questa O Quella", Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi</em><br> Wall Street depicts the heights of greed and excess in the 80s through the story of a young stockbroker involved in insider trading. That materialism and corruption is reflected in "Questa o Quella" from Rigoletto, which translates to "This one or that one". In the opera, the Duke of Mantua sings about taking his pick of the women, and it doesn't really matter which one he chooses.
<em>"Il Dolce Suono (The Mad Scene)", Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti</em><br> This popular sci-fi action movie places the fate of the world on cab driver Bruce Willis. To save the planet, he must first collect the four element stones from the Diva Plavalaguna at her concert. There, the Diva sings "Il Dolce Suono," the famous mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor: Lucia, forced by her brother into a loveless marriage, descends into madness and kills her new husband on their wedding night. This selection foreshadows the chaos that is about to ensue in this portion of the movie.
<em>"Viens, Mallika" (The Flower Duet), from Lakmé by Léo Delibes</em><br> "The Hunger" is a horror movie about stylish, wealthy vampires living in New York City in the 1980s. When her male counterpart becomes ill, the female vampire, Miriam, begins courting Sarah. In one of their first encounters, Miriam plays "The Flower Duet." This duet is sung by Lakmé, the daughter of a Brahmin priest, and her companion, Mallika. Miriam uses the music as a seduction tool, inquiring of Sarah whether she believes the two operatic characters were in fact lovers.
<em>"Barcarolle", Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) by Jacques Offenbach</em><br> This tragically beautiful film follows a Jewish Italian family taken to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. As we learn more about the family, we see the moment when the main character falls in love with his future wife and follows her to the opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann. In this scene, we hear the famous Barcarolle duet, which perfectly describes the intoxicating erotic potential of a late evening gondola ride in Venice. It mirrors what is taking place between the movie's main characters.
<em>"Ride of the Walküres," from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner</em><br> A very well-known piece, the "Ride of the Walküres" is the music of the god-like female warriors from Norse mythology who flew over battlefields to collect the dead heroes and carry them to Valhalla. Hence, the music is both heroic and aggressively kinetic, making it perfect for the scene when U.S. troops attack a Vietnamese beach in "Apocalypse Now."
<em>"La Mamma Morta",from Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano</em><br> "Philadelphia" is the story of a gay lawyer fired from a conservative firm due to an AIDS diagnoses. As sung by Maria Callas, La Mamma Morta has an important emotional significance in the movie. Tom Hanks explains the context and lyrics as the Callas recording plays, highlighting parallels between the opera's plot about the hopeless turmoil of the French Revolution and his own story.
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