You probably know more opera music than you think you do. If you like to watch TV or go to the movies, you’ve undoubtedly heard music from operas used in ways the original composers could never have even imagined. We’ve raided the Seattle Opera archives to put together a playlist featuring some of opera’s greatest hits—tunes you may already know because you’ve heard them in the cinema.
#1: From Apocalypse Now: Ride of the Valkyries (Die Walküre)
Francis Ford Coppola used the “Ride of the Valkyries,” famous music from the second opera of the Ring cycle, not for Wagner’s Norse goddesses of death but for American helicopters dealing out death from above in Vietnam in Apocalypse Now. It made for a brilliant, chilling moment—opera music used not just for emotional effect but as part of a film’s story.
#2: From Sex and the City: Flower Duet (Lakmé)
The Lakmé Flower Duet has been used in Sex in the City, Laura Croft Tomb Raider, even the Quentin Tarantino film True Romance. Its sensual blending of female voices powerfully underscored a sexual tryst between two lady vampires, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, in the horror movie The Hunger.
#3: From The King’s Speech: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Mozart’s whirligig overture to the beloved grandaddy of all opera comedies has been used by everybody from Schwarzenegger to Seinfeld to Mad Men. In the Colin Firth film The King’s Speech, speech pathologist Geoffrey Rush played this music to distract his patient, King George VI of England, from the ghastly sound of his own voice.
#4: From A Night at the Opera: Anvil Chorus (Il trovatore)
One of the Marx Brothers’ greatest comedies used the pretensions of opera-goers—and the complications of one of opera’s most Romantic plots, Il trovatore—to hilarious effect. The noisy effect of the anvil-banging just makes this familiar music that much sillier.
#5: From A Room with a View: “O mio babbino caro” (Gianni Schicchi)
Movies love that big, lush sound of Romantic Italian opera music. Who could forget the spellbinding beauty of the aria “O mio babbino caro,” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, as heard when a repressed girl from Edwardian England learns about passion while on holiday in Tuscany in the beloved Merchant-Ivory romantic comedy A Room with a View?
#6: From The Fifth Element: Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor
Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about action movies and sci-fi. Fans of the Bruce Willis film The Fifth Element may remember the alien Plavalaguna, who is hiding the Fifth Element—and who performs her own riff on the famous mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
#7: From The Witches of Eastwick: “Nessun dorma” (Turandot)
Jack Nicholson, as the devil Daryl van Horne, creeped us out in The Witches of Eastwick to the sound of an unforgettable Puccini melody: “Nessun dorma” from Turandot, which became one of the most famous arias in all of opera when Luciano Pavarotti made it his theme song. Start at :50 for the most recognizable part of this piece.
#8: From Driving Miss Daisy: Song to the Moon (Rusalka)
Just as Pavarotti became associated with “Nessun dorma,” Renee Fleming has been a champion of the beautiful Song to the Moon from Dvorak’s Rusalka. Not many people in America knew how gorgeous that opera is until Ms. Fleming started singing it—beginning with her Seattle debut in 1990. This wistfully beautiful aria featured in the popular movie Driving Miss Daisy.
#9: From The Shawshank Redemption: Letter Duet (The Marriage of Figaro)
In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, convict Tim Robbins seizes control of his prison’s PA system and plays this wonderful music by Mozart for all his fellow prisoners, including Morgan Freeman, who has this to say about it: “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. ... I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words. ... those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. ... For the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
#10: From Pretty Woman: “Sempre libera” (La traviata)
To conclude our celebration of opera music in the movies, here’s one that gets at the heart of the glamor and passion that opera represents: Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts. This movie is a Cinderella-story, about a downtrodden gal who gets one shot at attending the prince’s ball—in this case, Richard Gere hires her to be his date for an opera. Of course he takes her to La traviata, the ultimate opera about a woman who gets paid to entertain men. And what she hears there changes her world.
Ready to experience live opera for yourself? Explore our 2016/17 season to choose from over-the-top comedy, passion-fueled tragedy, colorful fantasy, and more.