Top Five Uses of Opera as a Plot Device in Cinema

Friday, March 23, 2012

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?

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Comments [14]

James from Tokyo

How can it be foreshadowing if Dickie is already dead in The Talented Mr. Ripley?

Mar. 08 2016 11:08 PM
Michael from Cupertino, CA

All of the New Yorkers in the WQXR audience have missed one of the great ones: In "San Francisco", Jeanette MacDonald's elevation from saloon singer to Marguerite in "Faust" shows Clark Gable the path of virtue that he must follow to save the city after the San Francisco earthquake.

Apr. 15 2012 03:22 PM
E. Duff from Kissimmeee, FL

I'm surprised noone suggested the scene from the movie Hannibal at the opera in Florence. A contemporary composer, Patrick Cassiday, composed the music for the words of a Dante sonnet and managed to make it sound like 19th Century Opera music at it's romantic

Mar. 27 2012 03:23 PM
Molly from Washington DC

The characters might not go out to the opera house, but the scene in Philadelphia where the Tom Hanks character is listening to Callas sing La Mamma Morta and explains the aria to the Denzel Washington character is probably my favorite opra moment in all of cinema.

...that and the alien that sings the Lucia mad scene in 5th Element.

Mar. 27 2012 11:23 AM
Steve Kur from New York

Here are a couple of examples; "Eben n'andro lontana" used in the film "Diva." Also in the film "Excalibur," some excerpts from Wagner's Ring Cycle are used, but the music editing here seems to be kind of choppy and not planned out well, as if someone is turning the volume up and down very haphazzardly.

Mar. 27 2012 08:50 AM
Dina from Rockaway NJ

Madame Butterfly in Fatal Attraction...

Mar. 26 2012 02:14 PM
Rick Horan from Rockaway Beach, NY

I have two suggestions to add...

In the movie, The Shawshank Redemption, the opera song that Andy Dufresne plays over the loud speakers is the duet "Sual'aria, Che soave zeffiretto," from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, sung by Anna Moffo as Susanna and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Countess. "Canzonetta sull'aria."

My second favorite use of opera in movies is in Life is Beautiful. "Belle nuit (Barcarolle)" from "Les contes d'Hoffmann" (1881). Music by Offenbach, Libretto by Jules Barbier. Performed by Montserrat Caballé (as M. Caballé), soprano, Shirley Verrett (as S. Verret), mezzo-soprano.

Mar. 26 2012 08:36 AM
Zvi Stone from Jerusalem

The Mikado in "Foul Play".

Mar. 26 2012 07:29 AM
misha harnick

And there is of course a priceless opening and ending of an opera: "I love you...." and then we hear "I hate you, I hate you" in the early scene in the even more pricelss "Trouble in Paradise".

Mar. 25 2012 07:42 PM
jrosen from Manhattan

The last James Bond epic, Quantum of Solace: The bad guys are having a conference in an Austrian Opera House (!), communicating by text messages during the Act I Finale of "Tosca". That opera scene is one of my favorites anyway, a Te Deum sung by the chorus to celebrate a victory (which turns out to be a false report), joined by Scarpia who is anticipating another sort of victory (also false, since instead of Tosca submitting to his lust she kills him). It is an implausible scene (the movie, that is), but that is par for the course in a Bond flick. Bond horns in electronically, and at the end suggests that they find another place for their conspiracy meetings.

Mar. 25 2012 03:33 PM
Dimitar Kambourov from new York

Saura's Carmen is perhaps the best translation of an opera into a different art, in this case into several other arts: besides cinema it is a powerful work with flamenco music (both instrumental and voice) and dance, but also theater and opera transcription for guitar trio (with Paco de Lucia leading).
In Krzysztof Kieślowski's Blue the role of music written by Zbigniew Preisner (which is not exactly opera but an oratorio called Song for the Unification of Europe for soprano, choir and orchestra and based on fictitious musique funebres by fictitious Van den Budenmayer) is the best motivated music in film ever: Saint Paul's 1 Corinthians 13 epistole in Greek sang is more powerful than any opera in film to my knowledge.
As for the most powerful scene in the opera house, I would say that the one at the end of Forman's Les Liaisons dangereuses with Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) being booed is devastating and she (Close) is just immense.

Mar. 25 2012 01:00 PM

Diva (1981)

Mar. 25 2012 12:10 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

Although there are countless others, three come to mind:
100 Men And A Girl (1937) w/Stokowski & Deanna Durbin
Bad News Bears (1976) featuring Bizet's Carmen throughout
Shawshank Redemption (1994) w/Mozart's Letter Duet from Figaro

Mar. 25 2012 08:33 AM
L. Williams

Bertolucci's Spiders Strategem about a plot against Mussolini used Un Ballo.

Mar. 25 2012 07:54 AM

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