I'm Ready for My Aria, Mr. de Mille: Opera Music in Movie Soundtracks

by Chris Cameron

Published at 2016-07-21

Along with classical orchestral music, opera has always had a presence on movie soundtracks (having spent three decades as a professional opera singer before becoming an editor, I notice these things). There are dozens of examples, but I’d like to mention just a few here.

We can’t begin a discussion of opera in film without mentioning the immortal classic, The Rabbit of Seville, which adds lyrics to the overture of Rossini’s opera. The 1950 Bugs Bunny cartoon was often the first (and only) exposure that people ever had to opera.


The opening credit music to The Lone Ranger — used in the Johnny Depp film over 75 years after it was first heard in the radio drama – is also by Rossini, from the overture to his opera William Tell.


Does Anybody Hear the Words?


What do directors hope to accomplish by adding opera music to their soundtracks? Opera has words as well as music. Do they need those words to underscore a scene?


Sometimes, as with Norman Jewison’s 1986 film Moonstruck, an operatic plot is woven together with the opera music in the soundtrack. Other times, it is used just because the sound of a singer enhances the mood. Let’s face it: to most North Americans, opera is classy. It is usually sung in a foreign language, adding to its exotic flavour. This also means that the words need not relate to the action on the screen — and this is frequently the case.


One sequence in Quantum of Solace (2008) is set against the first act finale from Puccini’s Tosca. The words and music onstage have nothing to do with the action in the movie, but the opera’s tension and drama do provide an impressive backdrop.


Matching Music with Drama


Woody Allen opted for mood enhancement in his use of various operatic excerpts in Match Point (2005). Allen says that the film’s story suggests opera, with its melodramatic plot and characters and its references to fate and fortune. Some of the music he appropriates from Verdi, Donizetti, and Bizet tangentially fits the plot, but in many cases he is simply using it for the atmosphere it creates. The words of the tenor aria “Una Furtiva Lagrima” have little in common with the activities of the characters, although the sense of isolation and despair comes through in the music. The vengeance duet “Si Pel Ciel” from Verdi’s Otello relates to the film’s murder scene not one bit, and I have always found it confusing and distracting.


One effective, if obvious, parallel between music and plot is seen in Pretty Woman (1990). Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to La Traviata, an opera about a Parisian courtesan who falls in love with one of her suitors — Roberts’s character has better luck than the opera’s heroine, who eventually expires messily from tuberculosis. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) features an aria from Rigoletto, in which the arrogant, rapacious Duke sings of his power over and disdain for women. The tone is somewhat similar in the movie.


I Wish I Could Say That Andy Dufresne Got His Revenge That Day


Music that is heard by the film’s characters and forms part of the plot is called diegetic. There are several good examples of this.


The Shawshank Redemption (1994) made clever use of a duet from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. In the opera, Susanna and the Countess are planning to foil the romantic tryst of the Countess’s unfaithful husband. When Andy Dufresne plays a recording of it over the loudspeakers of the prison, it is as an act of defiance against the corrupt warden, so it fits somehow. Morgan Freeman’s (non-diegetic) voice over the music totally misinterprets what it means, but in his case, ignorance is bliss.


There is a wonderful part of The Fifth Element (1997) in which an alien soprano begins the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, which eventually morphs into a surreal techno-disco “diva dance.” The soprano is integral to the storyline in this case, even if the plot to Lucia is not.


Any discussion of opera in film has to include Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and its stunning use of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries with the music blaring from loudspeakers on the helicopters while they approach and destroy the targeted village.


Words + Music = Mood


In summary, a director will choose a piece of opera for a scene because it magnifies what the scene is trying to make us feel. What the lyrics themselves are trying to say is usually lost or irrelevant.


All the same, opera music is part of the experience of TV and cinema, often in ways that most people never realize. In the 1980s, British Airways adapted the “Flower” duet from Lakme (an opera few people have ever heard of) to make a series of very successful commercials. I recall a concert in which the duet was introduced as “the song from the British Airways commercial.”


I expect that most opera composers would have welcomed the exposure that a movie soundtrack can give their music. Legend has it that when Rigoletto was first being produced, Verdi swore his cast to secrecy so that the tunes would not leak out before the opera’s premiere. But after the show opened he would have taken all the publicity he could get — even on Netflix.