It’s always an unexpected treat when opera or classical music makes its way onto late night television shows, and not just as a punch line or an Adam Sandler gag. One of those moments happened a few month back when Retta—of Parks and Rec fame—appeared on Conan O’Brien, and told of an encounter with some elder drivers on the road. If you haven’t seen the bit yet, we highly recommend watching it. Hearing Vivaldi sung on national television is a novelty these days, but just a few decades ago stars of the opera and concert halls were regulars on Johnny Carson and the Dick Cavett show. Here is a list of the some of the most memorable appearances.
1. Beverly Sills
Dave Davies once said on NPR’s Fresh Air: “You didn’t have to know opera to know Beverly Sills.” Though the soprano earned fame as a star at New York City Opera, she became a household name from appearances on television with Dick Cavett, Carol Burnett, and the Muppets, However, the singer was perhaps best known for her stints on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where she was a regular guest. In fact, Bubbles is perhaps the first and last opera star to guest host for Johnny.
2. The Colbert Report (Generally)
Whether it’s from a genuine interest in classical music or out of an urge to antagonize its biggest boosters, the Stephen Colbert seemingly features more opera singers and classical music performers on The Colbert Report, than his counterparts. Last year, he invited Placido Domingo on the show for a hearty round of “La Donna e Mobile,” as well as a good deal of ribbing on opera’s high ticket prices and foreign languages. It was all in good fun. He’s also invited writers Alex Ross and Matthew Guerrieri, and performers Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile to the show
3. Gustavo Dudamel
Breaking the stereotype of the serious and aloof conductor, Gustavo Dudamel charmed audiences when he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno aside Queen Latifah in 2011. The Dude, who was on the program to promote the LA Phil’s live movie theater simulcasts, told stories of how he started his conducting career by leading his stuffed animals and puppets in imaginary performances while growing up, and how his famous hairdo came to be.
4. Metropolitan Opera on Letterman
Among some of its quirkier stunts, Late Show with David Letterman staged the most ambitious late-night opera performance in recent memory, when the program hosted the Metropolitan Opera on the eve of its 2007 season opener. Peter Mattei, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez, and Samuel Ramey, as well as the chorus sang the Act I finale from Bartlett Sher production of The Barber of Seville, which was set to premiere later that week. “You’re not going to see these folk at half time at the Meadowlands,” Letterman said.
5. Pavarotti on SNL
With running jokes like opera man and it’s rather surprising that Pavarotti played his appearance on Saturday Night Live completely straight. The tenor came on the program to sing Christmas carols with Vanessa Williams, members of the Philadelphia boys choir, and a full orchestra. Coincidentally, the ambassador of the New York Philharmonic, and classical music buff, Alex Baldwin, introduced the performance.