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Top Five Uses of Opera as a Plot Device in Cinema

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On March 15, the "Godfather" franchise turned 40 years old. Critics deemed Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy about the Corleone family operatic from its premiere. The trilogy will forever be connected to Pietro Mascagni’s Cavelleria rusticana, which is prominently featured in Godfather III.

The opera, just like the movies, is steeped in themes of betrayal, passion and murder (and one of the characters happens to be a teamster, too). But Hollywood has long included live opera performances as plot devices, we’ve collected our favorite examples:

1. A Night at the Opera

The Marx Brothers classic film "A Night at the Opera," as you’d expect, borrows extensively from the standard repertoire. The wacky siblings made an inspired choice in selecting Pagliacci, a work about a sad clown, to kick off their high jinx. (Much of the scene was cut in the final version of the film). Groucho still sings a bit of the famous aria "Vesti la giubba" on screen, albeit with his own lyrics: “Ridi, pagliacci, I love you very much-ee.”

2. Moonstruck

Nicholas Cage’s opera-crazed Ronny Cammareri in "Moonstruck" has been one of opera’s greatest ambassadors since the movie’s 1987 release. It helps that the poor baker wins over Cher’s Loretta Casterini by treating her to a performance of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera. Men still bring dates to see the same Zeffirelli production in the hope that they’ll elicit a similar response.

3. Pretty Woman

Roy Orbison’s song “Pretty Woman,” may have lent its title to the 1990 hit starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, but Vivian Ward, a prostitute with a heart of gold, better identifies with Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata. The heroine sees a production of the opera when Gere’s character whisks her off to San Francisco for a date. Ironically, music from the tragic opera accompanies Edward as he reunites with Vivian en route to a happily ever after existence.

4. Closer

Another Roberts’ film, 2004’s "Closer," takes cues from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. The film, in which two of couples swap couples, hews to Da Ponte’s libretto. In the opera a pair of buddies woo the other's lover to test their partners’ faithfulness.

5. The Talented Mr. Ripley

Anthony Minghella (the director of the Covent Garden and Metropolitan Opera’s co-production of Madama Butterfly) placed Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the center of his 1999 movie, "The Talented Mr. Ripley." The scene, in which Onegin shoots his friend Lensky in a duel, provides some heavy-handed foreshadowing for—spoiler alert—the doomed direction of Tom’s fragile friendship with Dickie Greenleaf.

Weigh in: What are your favorite uses of opera or classical music in the movies?