Five operas you might know from pop culture
Incredible high notes, striking costumes and rarely any speaking. This is probably what comes to mind when you think of opera.
But do you think of football, film and television? Believe it or not, opera has featured in them all.
Nessun Dorma (Giacomo Puccini)
This particular is popular at sporting events, thanks to its motivating lyrics. In Italian, the last line is “Vincerò!”, which translates to “I will win!”
At the recent opening ceremony of Euro 2020 in Rome, Nessun Dorma was sung by the Italian Andrea Bocelli. Back in 2016, Bocelli sung the same aria at Leicester City’s final home match of the season, where they were presented with the Premier League trophy for the first time in the club’s history.
Nessun Dorma was made world famous in 1990, when The Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo) sang it at the football World Cup in Italy to a packed stadium. At the same tournament, Pavarotti’s 1972 recording was used as the theme song for the BBC’s coverage. As a result of all this exposure, it reached number two in the UK’s singles charts in June 1990. It was used again by the BBC, following England’s 4-0 win over Ukraine in the Euro 2020 quarter final.
The significance of Nessun Dorma to football crossed over into film, with the aria featuring in the 2002 film Bend It Like Beckham. When the lead character, Jesminder "Jess" Bhamra, steps up to take a crucial free kick, it can be heard playing in the background. Other film appearances include Recess: School’s Out (2001) and Sing (2016).
During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, a video went viral of the tenor Maurizio Marchini singing it from his balcony in Florence, as Italy was in lockdown.
Nessun Dorma was written for Puccini’s opera, Turandot, which tells the story of Ice Princess Turandot. She takes a vow that she will not marry, unless a suitor can correctly answer three riddles, a challenge taken up by Prince Calaf.
Ride of the Valkyries (Richard Wagner)
Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring Cycle) is a series of four operas, which tell one epic story over 15 hours. It is in the second of these operas, entitled Die Walküre, that you can hear the Ride of the Valkyries segment, as it opens Act 3.
This music was famously used in the war film Apocalypse Now (1979), during a scene in which a US Army helicopter squadron bombs a Vietnamese village. It also makes an appearance during a gravity-defying car chase scene in the 1980 musical comedy film, The Blues Brothers.
A 1957 Looney Tunes cartoon, entitled ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’, was selected by the Library of Congress to be the very first cartoon to be inducted into the US National Film registry for preservation. In it, the character Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny, singing the phrase “Kill the wabbit!” to the tune of the Ride of the Valkyries.
The TV show Brooklyn 99 is known for its annual Halloween episodes, in which the characters plot increasingly elaborate heists. In the fourth season, Captain Holt announces the start of the heist by making a dramatic entrance with a brass band playing the Ride of the Valkyries.
Habanera (Georges Bizet)
From Act 1 of the opera Carmen, this aria’s real name is “L'amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird). It is sung by the titular character as she makes her first entrance, explaining how her heart cannot be tied down or easily captured.
Both the Muppets and Sesame Street have given their own interpretation of the Habenera aria. Taking up the challenge for the Muppets were the puppets Beaker, The Swedish Chef and Animal. Meanwhile, Sesame Street chose to have it sung by an animated orange, with an elastic band for a mouth and flower petals for eyelashes.
Habanera was also used in one of the opening scenes of Pixar’s 2009 animated film, Up. As we watch a widowed Carl forlornly go about his morning routine around the house, it is to the tune of this aria.
Sempre Libera (Giuseppe Verdi)
Meaning ‘Always Free’, this aria comes from the end of Act 1 in the opera La Traviata.
This is the opera that Julia Robert’s character, Vivian Ward, is taken to see by Richard Gere’s character, Edward Lewis, in the 1990 film Pretty Woman. A female opera singer is shown singing Sempre Libera, as well as two other pieces from the opera.
The Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko makes a cameo appearance in The Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement (2004) with this aria. As Princess Mia, Queen Clarisse and the other dignitaries sit in the palace gardens, they are treated to a performance of Sempre Libera before Queen Clarisse introduces Anna as “opera’s new rising star”.
In the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a drag queen called Felicia Jollygoodfellow mimes to a recording of Sempre Libera while standing on top of a tour bus, as it drives through the Australian desert.
Overture, The Barber of Seville (Gioachino Rossini)
Based on a play called Le Barbier de Séville, which is the first of a trilogy, this comic opera follows the exploits of a man called Figaro.
In the Looney Tunes episode Rabbit of Seville, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are chasing each other again, to the tune of the opera’s . One visual gag involves Bugs Bunny dropping Elmer into a large cake with Marriage of Figaro written on it. This is the title of a separate opera, written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, inspired by the second play in the trilogy.
The Beatles used this overture for the end credits of their 1965 film, Help!, whose soundtrack became their fifth studio album.