When Opera Goes Pop

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Last week, Laurie Anderson and Todd Reynolds took Lincoln Center Out of Doors by storm, along with Sxip Shirey and Adam Matta. And while I never tire of hearing Anderson's new works, an old favorite has always been "O Superman," a cheeky yet substantial nod to Massenet. Non-operatic music draws significantly on its operatic counterparts, from entire bands formed on this basis to rap stars sampling Mozart's coloratura beats to musical theater composers crafting productions around a composer's canon.

Revisiting the Top 10 (or, in film's case, Top 15) trend, today we're looking at the top 10 operatic references in non-operatic music. There are a few ground rules: While I love covers like Jeff Buckley's performance of "Dido's Lament" and Paul Robeson's "O Isis and Osiris," as straight covers they are being backburnered for another list at another time. Likewise, Kismet is a dream, but its theatre roots—even with songs like "Stranger in Paradise" breaking out into the popular charts—also have it on ice until we can get to opera references in theater.

So what does that leave? Read on for more, from folk and indie to glam rock and '90s rap to '30s jazz and mid-century standards. And tell us: What are your favorite uses of opera in popular music? Leave your picks in the comments below.

10. “Road to Joy” (Bright Eyes; 2005)
Technically, it’s not opera. But Conor Oberst’s indie outfit Bright Eyes’s Beethoven-based track captures the composer’s choral symphony without sounding hackneyed or overtly referential. Verses like “So I'm drinking, breathing, writing, singing/Everyday I'm on the clock/My mind races with all my longings/But cant keep up with what I got” are Romantic in the modern sense and the building rage harkens to some of Beethoven’s more tempestuous symphonic works.

9. “The Bigger the Figure” (Louis Prima; 1953)/ “Rigoletto Blues” (The Delta Rhythm Boys; 1941)
It’s hard to pick one of these works over the other for their ribald wit and charming use of their source materials. The Delta Rhythm Boys first took on the quartet from Rigoletto with a swinging rhythm, revamped lyrics that touch on the fact that (to a group of Americans) the words “don’t mean a thing” and one-half of the ensemble gamely dressing in drag. Eight years later, Louis Prima (whose partner, Keely Smith, also had a history with pop songs rooted in operatic tradition), made a mambo Italiano out of “Largo al factotum” that serves as a zaftig love song.

8. “Song of India” (Tommy Dorsey; 1938)
Jazz legend Tommy Dorsey took a popular aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s exotic yet underplayed opera in seven scenes about a vagabond Russian gusli player and his fantastical adventures to find fame and fortune. The opera’s “Song of the Indian Guest” sounds equally seductive with Dorsey’s big band, and got a further, Borodin-esque lease on life thanks to the 1949 film Song of India.

7. "Dear Mallika" (LL Cool J; 1997)
In 1997, Def Jam records released a concept album called The Rapsody Overture, which featured artists like Reverend Run from Run DMC, Warren G and Jay giving arias a rap beat. Many of the final products are so-so, but LL Cool J’s “Dear Mallika” remains a tender and smart reinterpretation of Delibes’s “Flower Duet” from Lakmé. Not only does the melody weave seamlessly with LL Cool J’s lyrics, but the same lyrics (a sample: “I'm sorry I didn't recognize your father’s struggle/But its hard to be understanding with the amount of tasks I juggle”) hint at the rap star’s knowledge of the plot behind the duet.

6. “Don’t You Know?” (Della Reese; 1959)
Before all of that Touched by an Angel nonsense, Motor City native Della Reese scored a hit based on Puccini’s “Quando m’en vo” that was just as beguiling and seductive as La bohème’s original waltz. The lyrics harken to the original Italian as well, though with lines like “I’m under your spell” it sounds more like a ballad for Marcello than Musetta.

5. “O Superman (For Massenet)” (Laurie Anderson; 1981)
This was the work that catapulted Laurie Anderson from an art world darling to an internationally known performance artist. The work, a breakdown of Massenet’s "Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père" from Le Cid, channels Massenet’s text through a vocorder, layering in several other elements that obscure the source material but amplify its heart—a communicative plea and prayer from the mortal to immortal world.

4. “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)” (Allan Sherman; 1963)
I’ll never forget wearing down my Dr. Demento cassette tape with Sherman’s ode to Camp Grenada—or the ensuing shock when I first heard La Gioconda and recognized the tune from Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” The dainty melody is inextricable from Sherman’s squishy, bellyaching lyrics. And, like the William Tell Overture, the ballet music from an oft-neglected opera earned an autonomous life of its own.

3. “American Tune” (Paul Simon; 1973)
Like “Road to Joy,” Paul Simon’s “American Tune” is a choral reference rather than opera, but it’s impossible to ignore the sheer beauty of this work and its ability to stand almost entirely separately from its source in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The melody is rooted in one of the choral passages and shows how poignantly timeless both Bach’s (and Simon’s) music is.

2. “Bohemian Rhapsody” & “It’s a Hard Life” (Queen; 1975/1984)
I’ve mentioned on this blog before the connection Freddie Mercury has to opera, especially soprano Montserrat Caballé. And Queen’s glam rock aura lends itself nicely to a cross breed, most notable in their quoting “Vesti la giubba” in 1984’s “It’s a Hard Life.” And while they do the same with a quick nod to Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 1975’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” that work in and of itself is a grand opera fit to make Verdi green with envy.

1. Everything By the East Village Opera Company (2004-2008)
You get a certain edge on the competition when your entire band’s aesthetic is about reinterpreting operatic standards and rarities alike with an orchestration that’s equal parts rock group and string quartet, growling singers and trained sopranos. Following a promising first album that included covers of “M’Appari” and “Questa O Quella,” EVOC has released two full-length studio recordings whose highlights include a haunting “When I Am Laid in Earth,” cheeky gender-bending takes on “Au Fond du Temple Saint” and “Der Hölle Rach” (the latter renamed “King of the Night”), a power ballad made out of “Ebben? Ne Andrò Lontana” and a sublime “Butterfly Duet.” We’d like to also think that Wagner would approve of the Ride of the Valkyries being redone for electric guitars.