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Opera Goes to The Movies

Opera at the Movies, some of the greatest music ever written, used in some of the greatest films ever.

How important is music in film? Can you imagine the Shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho without Bernard Hermann’s piercing score, or Gone with the wind without Max Steiner’s epic theme? But Hollywood has always understood that for moving, dramatic and uplifting music the opera is the place to find it. Opera’s power to transport and to convey emotions is undeniable.

It can also be fun…so sit back and let us take you on an amazing journey.

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William Tell overture, Rossini

First up this rousing overture, probably the most recognizable anywhere it was used in Clockwork Orange, Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London, Armageddon, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Brassed off, Breaking Away, Eight Days A Week, Fat Albert, Hearts in Atlantis, La Florida, Toy Story 2, Twister, My Life on Ice as well as on Television with the Lone Ranger.

Largo al factotum, The Barber of Seville, Rossini

Next up a piece of music that has been used in films ranging from The Godfather through Mrs Doubtfire to Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

It’s probably the most joyous job description ever set to music; Rossini’s Largo al factotem from The Barber of Seville.

Sous le dôme épais , Lakmé, Delibes

Just before the killer strikes for the first time in ‘Someone to watch over me’ Ridley Scott’s slasher film of 1987 we are lulled into a false sense of calm by Delibe’s great flower Duet from Lakme.

The extraordinarily evocative duet has also been used in Year of Living Dangerously…and of course is the signature tune for the Worlds favourite airline.

It also featured as No 2 in the ABC Classic FM’s poll of the Favourite Opera moment.

Lascia ch’io pianga, Rinaldo, Handel

Often operatic music travels  to the silver screen: not as mood music or in a filmed opera, but in a “bio-pic” of an artist’s life story. The story of the celebrated 18th century castrato Farinelli is told in the film of the same name , which, naturally enough, features music sung, by the leading opera singers of the day, including the exquisite ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ from Handel’s Rinaldo. ‘Leave me to cry’.

Meditation, Thais, Massenet

Occasionally a piece of music is lifted from an opera and becomes the only reason to listen to that opera. It’s used to great effect in one of the greatest disaster films of all time: Titanic. It’s melancholic, beautiful and it was No 51 on the ABC Classic FM’s poll of the favourite opera moment.

Ah, fors’e lui…Sempre libera, La Traviata, Verdi

The Act 1 closer of Verdi’s la Traviata sees the heroine; the courtesan Violetta ponders the possibility of exchanging her life of pleasure for a life with her new admirer. And filmmakers have used this opera to allow Julia Roberts to discover Richard Gere’s love in Pretty Woman, or the great Grace Moore playing a small town girl who dreams of becoming an opera star in the 1934 classic One Night of Love or most bizarrely Guy Pierce in silver lame on top of a pink bus conquering the Australian outback in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Nessun Dorma, Turandot, Puccini

Towards the end of his life Giacomo Puccini said God had touched him with His little finger and said ‘Write only for the theatre’ and, of course,  he did. And he wrote some of the greatest tearjerkers of the musical world ‘La Boheme’, ‘Madama Butterfly’, ‘Tosca’, ‘Girl of the Golden West’,  and ‘Turandot’

This tenor aria needs no introduction save for saying it’s now synonymous with the juxtaposed images of a certain tenor with handkerchief, games of World Cup soccer or Jack Nicholson playing the Devil and answering the prayers of Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michele Fiefer in the black comedy Witches of Eastwick , from Puccini’s opera ‘Turandot’

La Forza del Destino Overture, Verdi

Verdi’s powerful overture to La  Forza del Destino. The brooding, complex power of this overture match perfectly the the brooding images one of the greatest French films of all time, Manon des Sources.Who can forget Verdi’s surging passion when it’s matched to the magnetic, untamed beauty and determined revenge in the eyes of Emmanuelle Béart. The film and the music perfectly succeeds in tapping the well-springs of one’s emotions.

Sull‘aria, Marriage of Figaro, Mozart

But from modern French classic we move to the modern Hollywood classic, The Shawshank Redemption. After locking the  prison guard in the toilet, Tim Robbins broadcasts this glorious piece of Mozart to the entire prison. As we see hundreds of ínmates rooted to the spot, mesmersed by the music we hear Morgan Freeman saying:

‘I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid.

I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and father than anybody in a green place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments every last man in Shawshank felt free’.

Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre, Carmen, Bizet

From the sublime…as they say…

To three singing mice, announcing the next chapter in a film, the hero of which is a pig who thinks he is a dog. Why not use one of the greatest baritone arias in all opera…as used in the joyous ‘Babe’

To chronicle the excitement of a Bullfight….from the Bullfighter’s perspective of course, the Famous Toreador song….It’s the Roller Door advertisement with the original French words.

O soave fanciulla, La boheme, Puccini

The great Russian composer Shostakovitch said of Puccini;

‘He wrote marvellous operas but dreadful music’

…but he’s been responsible for more real ‘heart on the sleeve’ emotion than any other composer…but most importantly he could write a good tune! And here are two…. From La Boheme…and used so successfully to illustrate the developing love between Cher and Nicholas Cage in ‘Moonstruck’.

In a freezing garret in Paris, the young poet, Rodolfo has accidentally touched the hand of the seamstress, Mimi. It gives both of them the perfect opportunity to pour out their youthful ardour and their life stories to boot. As the moonlight streams in they fall in love…It’s one of the most beautiful ends of an Act in all opera.

"Mon Coeur S'Ouvre a Ta Voix", Samson et Dalila, Saint-Saëns

In the film ‘Goin’ to Town’ from 1935, Mae West startles her opera coach by singing “Mon Coeur S’Ouvre a Ta Voix”, ‘Softly Awakes my heart’  from Saint Sean’s opera Samson and Delilah. It’s one of the most bizarre renditions of any aria you are likely to hear. But when the original rendition floats out you in ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ you just know the flawlessly Italian accented Meryl Streep will helplessly and hopelessly in love with the rugged Clint Eastwood.

Soave sia il vento, Cosi fan tutte, Mozart

One of the first films to make a piece of opera the binding musical theme is the ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. It is the story of a triangular relationship between a young  designer, an embittered woman, Glenda Jackson and a homosexual doctor, Peter Finch. When the emotional pressure becomes too for great for the young designer he leaves both his lovers. This exquisite piece of Mozart, is used extensively in the piece, more often than not accompanying close-ups of the morose Peter Finch. The trio was also voted the second most favourite piece of opera in the ABC Classic FM Classic 100 poll.

Song to the Moon, Rusalka, Dvorak

Directed Australia’s Bruce Beresford this next excerpt is featured in the classic film ‘Driving Miss Daisy’. Set in 1948 in in America’s Deep South, Jessica Tandy is forced to be driven around by a black chaffeur, Morgan Freeman. At first she tries to ignore him, then accepts him as a necessary evil. As they go to visit her husband’s grave we come to realise they are perfect companions; friends and confidants even though their relationship will always be mistress and servant.

Au Fond du temple saint, Les pêcheurs de perles, Bizet

Our penultimate choice is a duet which was, for nearly 20 years, the favourite opera tune as voted by BBC 2. It was also voted Number 1 in the ABC Classic FM Classic 100 poll. It’s the most requested, most loved male duet in the repertoire and it was most famously used in the film ‘Gallipoli’. As Bill Hunter sings along with the 78 record on the eve of the Battle which he knows will send the young soldiers to their deaths we hear the strains of Bizet’s biggest hit from his opera ‘The Pearlfishers’.

Libiamo ne'lieti calici, La traviata, Verdi

An encore…It’s used in the films ‘The Godfather’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘And God created woman’,and even the classic ‘Return of the Living Dead 5, Rave to the Grave’.

Here is one of the most famous Drinking Songs ever written….