Top 10 Best Opera Moments in Movies/Television

I promised that I’d make this list about two months ago, so it’s about time I get around to it. Back then I said it was going to be a Top 10 of the best opera or classical music moments in television/movies, but as it’s turned out, it’s all opera.

I got the idea from a Danish opera discussion board, where a poster once started a thread on the subject of opera in movies and television; the idea being to celebrate the fact that when television and movies make references to opera or makes use of opera music, it helps to shed light on the dramatic potential that I see in opera, and thus it may help to rid opera somewhat of its popular reputation; that opera as an old-fashioned, boring art form. A great idea, and several posters contributed with their favourite moments.

Below are ten movie/television references to opera, that I like a lot:

10. La Grande Vadrouille: La Damnation du Faust Rehearsal

The Boyfriend introduced me to this movie last year, and the scene where the orchestra rehearses the ouverture of Berlioz La Damnation du Faust earns a place on this list for Louis de Funès’ performance as conductor Stanislas LeFort alone.

9. Atonement (2006): Robbie Turner listens to “O Soave Fanciulla”
Ah, young love. In this scene Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis each in their own room get ready for a dinner party, more or less aware of their changed feelings for each other. I loved the scene in Ian McEwan’s brilliant novel, especially for its depiction of Cecilia’s frustration while she’s getting dressed, but movie director Joe Wright did the scene great justice in his movie. Robbie takes out a recording of La Bohème and starts playing it. Mimi and Rodolpho’s ardent love duet lends voices and a temporary release to Robbie or Cecilia’s still unspoken love. A great opera moment in a truly great movie!

I couldn’t find a clip with that particular scene, but here’s a video a youtube poster made set to the duet:

8. The House of Mirth: Lily Bart and the Così fan tutte ouverture
Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth is a favourite of mine. I love Terence Davies’ adaptation of the novel from 2000, and Davies uses opera music at a crucial point in the story of Lily’s downfall. In the scene Lily is at the opera with Gus Trenor, a married male aquaintance from whom she has accepted money, naïvely believing that he’s made the money for her through investments. In reality Gus has been giving Lily money from his own pocket, because he felt that this would buy him his right to Lily’s, erm, kindness, and at this point in the story, he’s starting to get impatient with Lily who isn’t delivering the commodity he feels that he has a legitimate claim to.

There’s no indication in Wharton’s novel that Lily ever attends Mozart’s Così fan tutte, but that’s the ouverture we hear in Davies’ adaptation as Lily incredulously lingers in Gus’ opera box while her surroundings regard her with a mixture of amusement, anger and offense. The music is as beautiful as Lily’s radiant’s smile, and the theme of Mozart’s opera foreshadows the fatal reputation that this night at the opera ultimately earns Lily.

The scene starts at 4:15 in the video below:

7. Skønheden og Udyret (“Beauty and the Beast”): Dido and Aneas by Purcell
Danish director Nils Malmros whom I’ve previously praised made this movie, and it’s probably my favourite among his works. The movie introduces us to a middle-aged man, Jørgen, and his 16-year-old daughter Mette who are alone during the holidays as Jørgen’s wife (Mette’s mother) is hospitalized because of complications related to a pregnancy. Mette has a new boyfriend, an older, sophtisticated guy named Jønne, and the relationship between Mette and her father tenses as Jørgen disapproves of the womanizing Jønne and grows more and more overprotective towards Mette.
The story is seen from Jørgen’s point of view and the pain he feels as he slowly comes to terms with Mette’s budding sexuality is beautifully underlined by Malmros’ use of Purcell’s Dido and Aneas in the soundtrack. The story of Aneas who leaves his loving Dido behind doesn’t relate to Jørgen’s and Mette’s story, but the melancholy mood of the music fits the movie well.

You can see the opening sequence from the movie below: Here, the ouverture from Purcell’s work plays as we are shown pictures of Mette growing up from infancy to young adulthood:

6. Krystle Carrington namedrops Leitmotifs in Dynasty episode “The Cabin”
I’ve mentioned my deep love for Dynasty before, and the following scene from the series beautifully puts the opera in soap opera.

Ok, so there’s no actual inclusion of opera music in the scene, but the way Krystle (the ex-stenographer and Blake’s current wife) tries to out-do Alexis (the cultivated former Mrs. Carrington) by using clumsily using the word “leitmotif” really warms my heart. And it’s followed by a very dramatic fire, worthy of the most competent of Loges!

5. Apocalypse Now: Ride of the Valkyries
Of course I have to include this one in my list. Not exactly a flattering context for Wagner’s music, but a classic movie moment, which needs no further introduction, I’m sure:

4. 3rd Rock from the Sun. John Cleese sings Das Rheingold at a karaoke bar.
I *heart* 3rd Rock from the Sun. This sit-com about four extraterrestrials who asume human form and come to earth in order to study human life is very underrated in my opinion, and the following moment of comedy gold only proves my point. It’s from episode “Dick and the Other Guy” in which Dick (the High Commander of the four aliens) feels intellectually threatened by an unnaturally brilliant guest professor awesomely named Liam Neesam who visits the university where Dick teaches physics. The extremely intelligent Liam Neesam (played by none other than the always wonderful John Cleese) eventually turns out to be yet another alien who’s come to earth from a different planet.

Before leaving earth again at the end of the episode, Neesam stops by a karaoke bar and treats himself to a night of karaoke. His song of choice? Das Rheingold. Heee!! His audience is less than thrilled and try to walk out on him, but Neesam wil have none of this: “Sit down! Nobody leaves until Wotan has stolen the ring from Alberich!” he screams. Awesome! You may  see the clip in the below video – it starts at 1:18, where we’re treated to his interpretation of Donner’s part:

3. È la Nave Va: Engine Room Sing-Out
There are several great opera moments in this Fellini movie about a ship that’s set off to sea with the ashes of a celebrated, deceased opera diva. The best one is arguably this one, where two tenors try to outdo each other by singing highlights from the tenor repertoire in the engine room:

2. L’Age d’Or: The Swooning Conductor and Isolde’s “Liebestod”
In this bizarre yet atmospheric scene from surrealist genius Bunuel, we see a conductor who entertains a garden party by playing an orchestration-only version of Isolde’s “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde, but he is overwhelmed and swoons. At the same time, a young man and woman try to sneak off and get themselves some action, but strange obstactles keep coming in the way of their advances towards each other. Impossible love indeed!

1. The Dead: Julia “Arrayed for the Bridal”
Like Wright’s adaptation of Atonement this is a near-perfect adaptation of a literary piece. John Huston’s The Dead based on James Joyce’s short story is one of my favourite movies. In one of my favourite scenes, Julia Morkan sings “Arrayed for the Bridal” from I Puritani. The sound of old maiden Julia singing this bridal aria with her shaky voice is a haunting one and like everything else in the movie, it works as great foreshadowing for Gretta’s soliloquy about Michael Furey and his untimely death later on in the movie.

Unfortunately, the clip was unavailable anywhere online, but if you’ve yet to see The Dead I definitely recommend it! If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, a very interesting online article by Lindsey Warren discusses the use of the aria in Joyce’s short story (as well as Joyce’s use of musical allusions in general).

15 responses to “Top 10 Best Opera Moments in Movies/Television

  1. atthelighthouse

    [originally posted by Troy as a comment to another entry, but I moved his comment here, where I believe it was supposed to have been posted]

    Very nice list, but I would’ve squeezed in Philadelphia somewhere on that list due to the fact that you:
    A) Hear La Mamma Morta sung by Maria Callas
    B) Because the lyrics are explained by Tom Hanks as they are being song

  2. atthelighthouse

    Hi Troy! :) Fancy meeting you here! I hope you are well.

    And thank you for your comment! The truth is I still haven’t seen “Philadelphia”. But I checked the scene out on youtube ( just now, and you’re right; it’s a great scene and a rare and great hommage to an opera aria. I definitely would have included it, if I’d been more familiar with the movie.

  3. Hope second time is the charme. This being a pop cultural blog at times, you are missing out on one of the weirder operatic takeons:

    E2s19 of the Simpsons:

    Hardly the most awe inspiring moment. Uh and another operatic Simpsons thingy:

    Concerning the above post from “Troy” – Your blog has now come full circle. Opera – Tom Hanks – Pliladelphia – Springsteen! Where can you possible go now? Is this the end of at the lighthouse? Is this the final tragic fall from innocence?

  4. Ah, I of course posted on the wrong subject – being the blog ignoramus that I am. Thanks for moving it to the right subject.
    I am good and it seems you are too – thanks for asking.
    All the best,

  5. John Nightingale

    The opera scene in Philadelphia has an intensity and emotion sparked by the singing of Maria Callas, the words of Hanks, the lighting and camera angles and the straight faced but full of emotion Denzil Washington, incredible scene.

  6. This is a fabulous list. Might I suggest Woody Woodpecker’s manic version of the Largo al factotum from “Barber of Seville.” Seriously.

  7. atthelighthouse

    Excellent suggestion, P.S.! I’d never seen that one before. Manic is right! And I love how Woody ends the aria with his trademark woodpecking sound instead of the usual cadenza.


  8. Great list, but I would also include “Moonstruck.” Nick Cage as an opera loving baker in love with Cher, his brother’s fiance. References to La Boheme throughout, including a performance at the Met. Cher won Best Actress Oscar for this. My favorite scene is when he kisses her hand during the third act.

    • atthelighthouse

      That is a great suggestion. It’s been years and years since I saw that movie, but now that you mention it, I remember finding that scene at the opera really sweet, too.


  9. Pingback: “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” – Der Blaue Engel « At the Lighthouse

  10. The dead as the number one choice is an excellent choice indeed. I saw this film a while ago, but that particular scene is something I remember most fondly, perhaps even more than anything else in the movie, which is a gem in itself.

    I must say, I am appalled that there are no clips anywhere that will help me relive the moment. Furthermore, it’s hard to find info on the song too. The internet can be quite useless for a lot of things and most useful for a lot of junk…

    • atthelighthouse

      You’re right, Matt, it is sad that the internet is flooding with obnoxious song parodies and people lip-sync’ing to pop songs while Ms. Morkan’s performance is nowhere to be found.
      Glad to hear that you share my love for this scene!


  11. Sull’ aria duet from Marriage of Figaro is used in a hopeful way in “Shawshank Redemption”. As the character that Morgan Freeman describes the effect that the music has on the inmates, one senses the freeing spirit of the power of this music even though the text was unknown.

  12. Hi, do you know this piece of music? used for the BMW advert from 1985. Thanks

  13. Deb: Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasilieras. Not sure which number. It’s not an opera, of course!

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