Friday, October 8, 2010

LUCIA in Popular Culture

A week from Saturday, Seattle Opera opens its production of Donizetti’s tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor. One of the best-known bel canto operas, Lucia is a staple of the repertoire, with its star-crossed-lovers storyline, a stunning sextet, and one of opera’s most famous “mad scenes.” But even those unfamiliar with Lucia will notice that its music strikes familiar notes, thanks to the many TV shows and movies that have referenced it. From the slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges to the ripped-from-the-headlines drama of Law and Order, Lucia di Lammermoor can be found all around you!

(Diva "Plavalaguna" sings from the Lucia mad scene in the 1997 film The Fifth Element)


Perhaps the most commonly-heard piece of music in Lucia is “Chi mi frena in tal momento,” the beautiful sextet that accompanies the scene in which Edgardo discovers his beloved Lucia is marrying another. Despite lyrics of grief, guilt, and worry, the sextet sounds surprisingly pleasant, which is what made it a common inclusion in Warner Brothers cartoons, like the Bugs Bunny classic Long-Haired Hare, where Bugs and an opera singer battle it out, and the Jazz Singer homage I Love to Singa.

Disney also included the sextet in one of their shorts: 1946’s adorable The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. The cartoon’s song-happy whale impresses his audiences by belting out three of the Sextet’s six parts—all at once.

(Keep watching for a great Tristan und Isolde moment! Or, to watch The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met from the very beginning, click HERE.)


Use of the Lucia sextet wasn’t limited to just animated comedy. The Three Stooges used it a couple times, first in the 1945 short Micro-Phonies and again in 1948’s Squareheads of the Round Table. In the former, the Stooges attempt to swindle their way to a $500 paycheck by dressing Curly up as soprano Señorita Cucaracha and having him—her?—lip-sync the Sextet at a private party. In the clip below, the Stooges sabotage another singer's performance before attempting their own (at the 2:12 mark).


In Squareheads, the Stooges are a trio of medieval troubadours, serenading the lovely Elaine from beneath her window. And instead of the Sextet’s original lyrics? “Oh Elaine, Elaine come out, babe, take a look who's standing here, right here!”


But while many shows and movies have included Lucia’s sextet, the most powerful references to the opera are those that remember its murderous context. In the original 1932 version of Scarface, the titular mobster (played by Paul Muni) whistles “Chi mi frena” before killing each of his enemies. Scarface’s unsettling combination of violent bloodshed and carefree whistling is shown for the first time in the film’s opening scene (beginning at 2:50), below:


And we can’t forget Lucia’s riveting mad scene, in which Lucia sings “Il dolce suono” after murdering her new husband. TV show Law and Order: Criminal Intent provided a particularly fitting setting for the aria in a 2006 opera-themed episode. (And, considering it’s nearly five years old, we hope you excuse us for giving away the plot twist!) After a diva, who is performing the role of Lucia, murders her violinist daughter between acts, she returns to the stage—in Lucia’s iconic blood-stained dress—for the mad scene:


These are just a few of many examples, so make sure to keep an ear perked, because you never know where Donizetti will pop up. It could be in a music video by a Russian pop star, a Bruce Willis film, or in the crazy world of Tim Burton. Or, better yet, at McCaw Hall, where Seattle Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor will run through October 30.

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