You Know More Opera Than You Think

Not familiar with opera? You may know more opera tunes than you might think. Here are a few you may recognize:

Shawshank Redemption
“Duettino – Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) by W. A. Mozart

Shawshank RedemptionShawshank Redemption remains perhaps one cinema’s best and most famous movies of all time. The 1994 American drama film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins tells the story of a banker (played by Tim Robbins) who, despite claiming his innocence, spends 19 years at Shawshank Prison for murdering his wife and her lover. The banker, named Andy Dufresne, befriends a fellow inmate, Ellis “Red” Redding (played by Morgan Freeman), and begins assisting the warden in a money laundering operation to gain protection from the prison guards against inmate violence towards him.

One of the most powerful scenes of the movie occurs when Andy, after locking a prison guard out of the warden’s office, plays Mozart’s “Sull’aria” from Le Nozze di Figaro over the prison public announcement system.

Occurring in Act Three, the aria is a duet between Contessa and Susanna. Contessa dictates a letter designed to expose the infidelity of her husband. The song reflects Dufresne’s wife’s affair, but at the same time provides hope and peace for the rest of the prisoners. Considered one of the greatest cinematic uses of opera, many people fail to recognize the power of opera not only in movies, but in society in general.


“La Mamma Morta” from Andrea Chénier by Umberto Giordano 

PhiladelphiaThe 1993 release of Philadelphia represented one of the first mainstream Hollywood movies to address HIV/AIDS. Tom Hanks, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, portrayed a successful Philadelphia lawyer who, unbeknownst to his law firm, has AIDS. Beckett is not open about his homosexuality or sickness around the office, but one day one of the firm’s partners discovers a lesion on Beckett’s forehead. He is soon fired, which Beckett believes is because of his illness.  Beckett decides to sue his law firm for discrimination. A poignant scene from the film shows Beckett and his soon to be attorney, Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington), listening to one of Beckett’s favorite opera arias.

“La Mamma Morta” from Andrea Chénier, an aria sung by the character Maddalena di Coigny, tells the story of how her mother was killed protecting her during the French Revolution. Maddalena describes how she almost gave up on life after the events. After hearing the “voice of love,” however, she chooses to go on with her life. In the film, Beckett states this is his favorite opera. Miller, while watching Beckett react to the aria, comes finds a man who loves life and deserves more than discrimination. Through the aria, Miller learns what Beckett is truly feeling. The scene becomes a turning point for Miller’s involvement in Beckett’s lawsuit.


Apocalypse Now
“Ride of the Valküres” from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner

Apocalypse NowApocalypse Now, released in 1979, is an epic war film depicting the Vietnam War. One would not think that opera would appear in movie set during this time, but Wagner’s famous “Ride of the Valküres” appears very fittingly. The figure of the Valkyrie derives from Norse mythology. They are female figures who pick certain soldiers who have died on the battle field and take them to Valhalla, the afterlife hall of slain warriors. In Apocalypse Now, a group of soldiers attack a Vietnamese village on a beach and during the process blare Wagner’s famous operatic tune from their helicopters’ speakers to intimidate the enemy. The now famous battle scene perfectly utilizes the tune to show the soldiers’ heroic nature.

The song is triumphal and symbolizes riding into hell itself. (Watch this version from New York Metropolitan Opera’s production.) The song allows for the director to juxtapose the heroic nature of the American soldiers with the poor moral justifications of the character of Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore for being there in the first place: he wanted a nice surfing position.


Your Turn…

What are some other movies that have featured opera pieces? Tell us some of your favorite opera moments in film in the comments below.