Opera's 'Greatest Hits'

11 December 2018
Queen Of The Night raises her arms, stars twinkle in the distance.

It is often pointed out to those who say they ‘don’t know opera’ how much they have actually heard. Other areas of the entertainment industry have always been partial to a bit of opera and have recognised the emotional power and dramatic sensibilities of an opera aria to emphasise a certain mood or add tension. There are countless adverts, films and even sports events that use the music or arias from classic operas. These, as it turns out, more often than not coincide with the opera world’s ‘greatest hits’ too. Opera and pop culture in surprising harmony.

It is an argument that is easily backed up – here’s a list of well-known arias more often recognised from their popular culture references than the operas they come from:

Mozart The Magic Flute The Queen of the Night's Aria 

Mozart’s The Queen of the Night aria is so often used that you could undoubtedly name a handful of pop culture references if asked. Perhaps one of the most surprising though is TV’s Gossip Girl, the aria was discussed in an episode when the teens went to the Met to see The Magic Flute. It was also used in the Julia Roberts’s film, Eat Pray Love. And then you get Meryl Streep’s version in Florence Foster Jenkins – we will leave you to discover that delight yourselves.

Watch The Queen of the Night's aria from 0.24: 

Puccini Gianni Schicchi ‘O mio babbino caro’. 

Perhaps best known for featuring in the classic period drama A Room with a View, but a whole other audience will have heard it in Mr Bean’s Holiday.

Purcell Dido and Aeneas Dido's Lament (‘When I am laid in earth’). 

Dido’s Lament is played annually at the Cenotaph remembrance parade in Whitehall on Armistice Day, and therefore may well be one of the most known arias in Britain.

Bellini Norma ‘Casta Diva’

Recently this featured in TV’s Mildred Pierce, starring Kate Winslet, in a scene that mirrored the lyrics with a messy emotional triangle developing in both. (In the book the series was based on a different opera entirely was included, Andrea Chenier and the aria ‘La mamma morta’.) Proving popular for American TV, ‘Casta Diva’ was also in season one of Mr Robot.

Verdi La forza del destino Overture 

The aria ‘Si un jour’ is based on La forza’s Overture, that you hopefully heard in our acclaimed Spring 2018 production; but you could also have come across it in the film Jean de Florette; or it may be you just know it from the Stella Artois ad.

Bizet Carmen Habanera (‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’) 

A young audience, or those with young children, will recognise it from Pixar’s Up, but it also features on screen in Girl 6, Magnolia and, bizarrely, Bad Santa.

Puccini Madam Butterfly ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ 

This heart-breaking aria is utilised to full effect in films such as Fatal Attraction and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.

Léo Delibes Lakmé Flower duet

This aria is arguably better known from its starring role in British Airways adverts, appearances in the TV show Sex and the City and films Lara Croft Tomb Raider, True Romance and The Hunger, than the opera it comes from.

Although most arias (the famous ones) are assumed to be for the female voice (usually the soprano lead), there are in fact a number of glorious male arias, often for the tenor but occasionally baritone. These include:

Puccini La bohème ‘Che gelida manina’ (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’) 

In one of the most ‘out-of-this-world’ examples, Commander Data, a character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, sings the aria in the first ever episode to be directed by Patrick Stewart (who also stared in the TV series as Captain Picard).

Puccini Turandot ‘Nessun dorma’

Perhaps the most famous aria, recognised the world over for Luciano Pavarotti’s version for football’s World Cup in 1990, and again with The Three Tenors. It also features in films from Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation to The Witches of Eastwick.

Rossini The Barber of Seville ‘Largo al Factotum’ 

This one immediately brings to mind Bugs Bunny and ‘The Rabbit of Seville’, surely one of the best pop culture / opera crossovers ever? Unless you are a Woody Woodpecker fan, as he sang the aria in his own cartoon five years before. But they aren’t the only comic samples: The Simpsons, Family Guy, Tom and Jerry, Mrs Doubtfire, even Seinfeld all get in on the Barber act.

And, of course, from Verdi’s La traviatathere is the Brindisi (‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’) – although it is sung by Violetta as well as Alfredo. This is one aria that is certainly recognisable, even if you can’t quite place where you’ve heard it before. It may well be from a certain lager brand ad: Heineken utilised the Drinking Song, very aptly, in an ad full of drinkers in a pub with the ‘hero’ attempting to negotiate the crowd without spilling a drop. It apparently has even been used in an ad for nappies… But one of the best – most evocative – uses was in the 1945 film, The Lost Weekend, by Billy Wilder, which was a frank portrayal of alcoholism.

In our 2018/2019 Season we incorporate two of the greatest: the Drinking Song, or Brindisi, and The Queen of the Night’s aria (notoriously one of the hardest to sing). And in the last few seasons we have performed five others – how many have you seen?