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8 of the greatest operatic moments in film

From alien-blasting sci-fi to historical drama, opera has long soundtracked some of the silver screen's most memorable moments.

By Beata Bowes (Former Assistant Content Producer)

12 September 2016 at 11.47am | 52 Comments

Put on your finest evening wear, get out your opera glasses, settle into your private box and get ready to fall in love: the world of film loves a decadent night at the opera. And why wouldn’t it, with so many stirring arias and powerful stories of love and heartbreak?

We've picked out a few of our favourites, playing up to a few of opera's most fantastical stereotypes:

Amadeus (Miloš Forman, 1984)

Of course, we had to start with Amadeus. After all, Miloš Forman's adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play of the same name contains an abundance of opera. Set in late-18th century Vienna, the film is a (fictionalized) account of the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart told from the perspective of resentful fellow composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Salieri comes to despise Mozart when the young man’s talents eclipse his.

The movie's lavish opera scenes include a performance of The Marriage of Figaro, a tale behind the inspiration for the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria, and a staging of Don Giovanni complete with winged helmets, but our pick is Forman's depiction of the opening night of Mozart’s 1782 opera The Abduction from Seraglio, complete with the composer (Tom Hulce) flamboyantly conducting in a ludicrous pink wig — de rigueur in the 1780s, but not so commonplace two centuries on.

The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1994)

Black tie, white gloves, gold watches and the social scandals of the upper class, the opening opera scene of Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous The Age of Innocence has it all. The movie is set in 1870s New York when families of high society would go to the opera weekly to be seen in their private boxes and every opera season seemingly began with Faust.

Gounod's opera features themes of temptation, seduction and regret and these are reflected in The Age of Innocence, the story of a love triangle between Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis), May Welland (Winona Ryder) and Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Scorsese’s camera lingers over the accoutrements of the rich setting up a milieu where wealth is flaunted and social hierarchies are reflected in seating arrangements. Here, opera glasses are as much for observing each other and the drama unfolding within the boxes as they are for watching the action on stage. Unlike New York in the 1870s, come to the opera today and you will find jeans are more common than formal attire and a seat in the box is open to all.

Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni, 1997)

In this exquisite scene from Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning World War II film Life is Beautiful, Jacques Offenbach’s beautiful barcarolle ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour’ from The Tales of Hoffmann is being performed on stage complete with a Venetian gondola and lavish costumes. While the audience in wartime greys and browns stare somewhat laconically at the stage, there’s one man in the audience looking the other way, far more captivated. Guido Orefice (Benigni) can’t take his eyes off a woman in one of the boxes and quietly invokes her to ‘look at me, princess’.

Next time you’re at the opera, take a good look around the auditorium. You never know, you too may find your future husband or wife. But be warned, talking to yourself as Guido does during a performance will not win you any friends.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

When his talent-devoid wife Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) can’t get a gig at the Metropolitan Opera, megalomaniac Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) builds an opera house for her. Widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane sees Welles shows off his technical mastery to reveal the the hustle and bustle backstage before curtain up in two variations of his opera scene.

The first iteration includes the famous moment where the camera seems to ascend into the rafters, an effect being created by panning over a miniature then using wipes to blend into the stage curtains and wooden beam, giving the feeling of rising higher than would be possible in a real theatre.

The second version begins from Susan’s point of view, the shot reversed as she is left alone, dwarfed on stage – a singer well out of her depth. This scene reveals many aspects of opera stagecraft included a striking low-angled shot of the footlights and cutaways into the prompter's box (commonplace in Welles' time, but less common nowadays). Projecting his ambitions onto his hapless wife, Welles refuses to admit defeat, loudly continuing clapping after the rest of the audience has stopped.

Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997)

The Royal Opera House, but not quite as you know it as Luc Besson’s sends Covent Garden into orbit on a spaceship in his iconic sci-fi film The Fifth Element.

Black tie is the preferred attire, as demonstrated by our hero Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), although there are some more cosmic outfits in the audience including interesting headgear that would surely annoy those sitting behind.

Blue Diva Plavalaguna (voiced by Albanian soprano Inva Mula) performs ‘Il dolce suono’ from Lucia di Lammermoor as Dallas looks on spellbound, and humanoid Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) lurks in the wings. The calm is shattered however, when the spaceship/theatre is invaded by a troupe of alien baddies.

Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990)

No list of opera film scenes would be complete without the much-loved opera outing from Pretty Woman. Rich, suave Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) buys Vivian (Julia Roberts), a ‘hooker with a heart of gold’, a red evening gown and a necklace before whisking her off to see La traviata — a story which parallels her own.

Be warned, however. If like Edward and Vivian you decide to arrive late to a performance, you won’t be let in until a suitable break in the performance. And perhaps leave the long white gloves at home.

Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)

The moon is a symbol of love in this romantic comedy about Sicilian-Americans living in Brooklyn. Moonstruck tells the story of Loretta (Cher) who is engaged to be married to Johnny (Danny Aiello). She, however, has inadvertently slept with his brother, Ronny (Nicholas Cage). Loretta and Ronny strike a deal: Ronny agrees to never see her again if she comes to the opera with him.

Following the usual silver screen trope, opera newcomer Loretta heads straight to the shop to buy a glamourous new gown for the occasion. Ronny is an opera lover so he has, of course, donned a tuxedo for his big night out at the Lincoln Center. Loretta is so moved by the romantic La bohème that she weeps and Ronny tenderly kisses her hand — proof if ever it were needed that opera can bring people together like nothing else.

Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008)

James Bond is no stranger to black tie, and it'd be a surprise if he turned up to the opera in anything else.

The spectacular setting of the floating stage at Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria attracts opera tourists from all over the world, and on 007's visit during Quantum of Solace, he's joined by a band of criminal masterminds plotting to take over Bolivia through a diabolical plot which would see them deprive the country of natural water.

Bond and the band of baddies are at Bregenz to see a striking production of Tosca, the set for which includes a giant eye watching over the audience, as Bond dashes about backstage doing his own surveillance. Diegetic sound is used to great effect as the famous Te Deum plays on while Bond pursues his enemies backstage. The action climaxes with a kitchen shootout, paralleling the violence unfolding on stage.

A highlight of this scene is a snooty zinger from an audience member as Quantum members hastily leave in the middle in the performance: ‘well Tosca is not for everyone’. Many opera fans would disagree, as this is one of the most-performed and loved of all operas.

These are just a few great opera scenes from the screen world. Do you have any other favourites?

For more opera on the big screen, why not take a look at our upcoming live cinema screenings?

This article has 52 comments

  1. Rabbie responded on 12 September 2016 at 2:02pm Reply

    What about the Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera? I saw this long before my first Il Trovatore

    And of course Luchino Visconti's Senso from 1954 which opens in La Fenice and in a sense never leaves it

  2. Joanne Benjamin responded on 12 September 2016 at 4:13pm Reply

    What about the Mozart moment in Shawshank Redemption?

    • I agree with Joanne Benjamin. Think of how the music affected everyone that day.
      "Canzonetta sull'aria" (The Letter Duet), Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
      ~Banker Andy Dufresne spends nearly two decades in Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover, a crime he claims to have not committed. He manages to get ahead in the prison by working for the warden and, one day, decides to lock himself in his office and broadcast Canzonetta sull'aria over the PA system. In this short duet, Countess Almaviva dictates a letter to Susanna and unveils a plan to uncover her husband's secret, much like how Andy uncovers the warden's illegal activities.

  3. Tessa responded on 14 September 2016 at 8:41am Reply

    Or Turandot at the end of The Life of David Gale.

  4. Godfather III finale !

  5. Branko Bjelobaba responded on 14 September 2016 at 9:02am Reply

    And Vide Cor Meum from Hannibal - simply magic!!

  6. James responded on 14 September 2016 at 9:02am Reply

    Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in Philadelphia describing Andrea Chenier:

    Andrew Beckett: Do you like opera?
    Joe Miller: I'm not that familiar with opera.
    Andrew Beckett: This is my favorite aria. This is Maria Callas. This is "Andrea Chenier", Umberto Giordano. This is Madeleine. She's saying how during the French Revolution, a mob set fire to her house, and her mother died... saving her. "Look, the place that cradled me is burning." Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe? In come the strings, and it changes everything. The music fills with a hope, and that'll change again. Listen... listen..."I bring sorrow to those who love me." Oh, that single cello! "It was during this sorrow that love came to me." A voice filled with harmony. It says, "Live still, I am life. Heaven is in your eyes. Is everything around you just the blood and mud? I am divine. I am oblivion. I am the god... that comes down from the heavens, and makes of the Earth a heaven. I am love!... I am love.

    And of course Red (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank redemption reminiscing about Andy blasting out some Cosi Fan Tutte over the prison tannoy:

    Red: 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 farther than anybody in a gray 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.

  7. 148jules responded on 14 September 2016 at 9:06am Reply

    I guess The Shawshank Redemption is not included as it doesn't have an "opera" stage scene.

  8. Tony Boyd-Williams responded on 14 September 2016 at 9:09am Reply

    Might I also refer to the excerpt from Pagliacci in Brian De Palma's The Untouchables?

  9. Peter Brooks responded on 14 September 2016 at 9:22am Reply

    There is a wonderful film called and of Farinelli. The scene where he sings Lascia Ch'io Pianga is very difficult to watch but musically superb.

  10. David Coronel responded on 14 September 2016 at 9:36am Reply

    Sorry, all pale into insignificance next to the masterpiece that is Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in 'What's Opera, Doc?'

    • Cheryl McK responded on 4 June 2017 at 7:34am

      Sheer genius. That is what brought me to opera. "What did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?"

  11. Adam Sammut responded on 14 September 2016 at 9:44am Reply

    Not forgetting the suspense-filled scene at the Palais Garnier in John Schlesinger's 1976 classic Marathon Man, when Roy Scheider discovers his box companion has been assassinated by a sinister Chinese hitman with a glass eye, to the tune of Massenet's "Hérodiade". Or the climactic sequence in the Godfather Part III (another assassination) at a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana at the Teatro Massimo di Palermo.

  12. Vineland responded on 14 September 2016 at 10:19am Reply

    The 1981 French film Diva, directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, is built around the aria "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from Catalani's La Wally. Each performance is spine-tingling.

  13. David Dean responded on 14 September 2016 at 10:46am Reply

    Fernandez singing an aria from La Wally at the beginning of "Diva" would be on my list.

  14. One more~ I adore Simon Pegg...not so much Tom Cruise. The opera scene is “Turandot" by Giacomo Puccini,” at the Vienna State Opera.

  15. The movie Philadelphia's use of La Momma Morta is a lesson in how to listen to opera. I wrote a blog post about it:http://operagene.com/new-blog/2016/4/9/opera-in-the-movies-philadelphia-and-how-to-listen-to-an-opera.

  16. Isabel responded on 15 September 2016 at 4:28am Reply

    I'll include, even as an honorary mention, "The Talented Mr. Ripley's" rendition of the famous Duel Scene of "Eugene Onegin". Great scene, brilliantly placed and beautifully staged for the film.

  17. Bryan Moore responded on 15 September 2016 at 9:33am Reply

    The emotional analysis of the aria La Mamma Morta from Andrea Chenier by the main character played by Tom Hanks brought me to opera. I just had to buy the libretto and DVD and as the bug bit I now have over 100 and attend live performances as often as possible.
    That's the power of film.

  18. charles lewis responded on 16 September 2016 at 10:34am Reply

    Great idea from ROH and so nicely done. However, not mentioned yet is perhaps the greatest singing on celluloid -- Wagner excerpts on stage, complete with effects, by William Whale (courtesy N Eddy and Disney)).

  19. Valerie Knight responded on 16 September 2016 at 8:23pm Reply

    I'm not an opera buff but the Shawshank opera moment was great.

  20. Fatima Cerqueira responded on 2 October 2016 at 4:47pm Reply

    And what about Wagner and Apocalypse now?

    • Fatima Cerqueira responded on 2 October 2016 at 4:49pm

      Of course they are not at the opera, but it is a great moment, anyway.....

  21. Elisabet Sandra SOLDI responded on 18 December 2016 at 8:07pm Reply

    pasión!!!

  22. Robert Woodley responded on 19 December 2016 at 7:38am Reply

    ... and "Interrupted melody", the film biopic of our great Marjorie Lawrence ... and "San Francisco" ... and ..."Rose Marie" ...

  23. Sarah Martinez responded on 19 December 2016 at 8:48am Reply

    Room with a View, - Puccini "o mio babbino caro"

  24. Michael Zalar responded on 19 December 2016 at 12:03pm Reply

    A brief nod to 1931's Svengali - one of the first.

  25. Rey Trombetta responded on 19 December 2016 at 12:17pm Reply

    I would add the two scenes with Barcarolle from Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann in the film Life is Beautiful (1997).

    First when Guido (Roberto Benigni) is in the opera house trying to get noticed by his future wife Dora (Nicoletta Braschi).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZn4Y0xPSPY

    Later, when he is in the Nazi concentration camp, he manages to play the same aria for his wife.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Iolpg6KxCc

  26. Jo and the professor in Little Women 1994

  27. marco wright responded on 19 December 2016 at 5:17pm Reply

    Great feature ROH. Thanks to David Coronel for reminding me of the Bugs bunny cartoon. Would like to add that I recently watched 'Mr Turner' with Timothy Spall and the Turner character did a duet at the piano with a lady and even though his singing was rough, the passion of the aria came through. Not sure but I think it was Dido's Lament.

  28. Matthew Johnson responded on 19 December 2016 at 5:39pm Reply

    The Man Who New Too Much?

  29. Eduardo M responded on 19 December 2016 at 7:00pm Reply

    Yes! Shawshanck Redemption's scene with Andy locked in the warden's office and 'Le nozze di Figaro' playing in the whole prison's PA.
    Another one of my favorite's is the Lucia's sextet (several times) in The Departed

  30. Carmen responded on 19 December 2016 at 8:44pm Reply

    David Cronenberg "M Butterfly"

  31. Andrew Walters responded on 21 December 2016 at 1:18pm Reply

    Moonstruck is easily my favourite here. A wonderful, heady romantic story, often hilarious too. It is just joyous when they attend the performance of La Boheme at The Met. Seeing this film fuelled my ambition to go there myself, and I'm just sad I didn't see La Boheme there myself! I had to make do with Renee Fleming in La Traviata instead!!

  32. Melanie White responded on 23 December 2016 at 10:20pm Reply

    The mad scene from Lucia in "Where Angels Fear to Tread" is breathtaking. With Judy Davis in the audience pouting, "Where's the Walter Scott, I ask you?"

  33. Owen Davies responded on 26 December 2016 at 9:52am Reply

    I seem to remember a scene from Magic Flute in Bergman film 'Hour of the Wolf' .. but I saw it years ago. Does anyone else remember it?

  34. David Fordham responded on 30 January 2017 at 1:54pm Reply

    Can't believe Godfather III wasn't first on the list (or maybe second after Amadeus). Love the staging which actually prompted me to attaend a performance of Cavaleria Rusticana at the ROH last year.

  35. Fernando Villegas responded on 30 January 2017 at 3:48pm Reply

    Sarastro looking trough the curtain in Bergmans Magic Flute is glorious.
    Wonderful article.
    Thanks a lot.

  36. Shumeet Banerji responded on 5 February 2017 at 5:28pm Reply

    Without any question, Bugs Bunny in The Rabbit of Seville!

  37. John Feneron responded on 3 June 2017 at 3:53pm Reply

    Number one for me is the Trovatore scene in A Night at the Opera. As for operatic moments, I think of E lucevan le stelle in Serpico, sung by Di Stefano; Serpico's neighbor asks whether it is Bjorling.

  38. Fred Cranwell responded on 3 June 2017 at 4:00pm Reply

    Yes, Georgio! No added comment necessary.

  39. Alphonse Brown responded on 3 June 2017 at 9:51pm Reply

    Il trovatore in the gorgeous Visconti's Senso! ❤

  40. John Youngblood responded on 4 June 2017 at 2:17am Reply

    Renee Fleming and Susan Graham singing "Belle nuit" at the end of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret.

  41. Lauri responded on 4 June 2017 at 4:04am Reply

    What about the movie Quartet? One of my favorites.

  42. Lilia responded on 4 June 2017 at 6:08am Reply

    One more: Farinelli il castrato. Very beautiful period drama.

  43. Ioana Gheorghiev responded on 4 June 2017 at 8:56am Reply

    In addition to many of the above, my exhilarating memory of opera having brilliantly soundtracked a movie counts The King's Speech, when Lionel records Bertie reciting from Shakespeare's Richard III while listening to the overture of Le nozze di Figaro;
    and Le tout Nouveau Testament, a recent French film, in various scenes.

  44. Kathy Hanneman responded on 7 June 2017 at 2:10am Reply

    Rise Stevens singing Carmen in "Going My Way"

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