Opera in Pop Culture (film edition)

This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.


Some of the world’s most beloved films and their parallels with opera

Opera is deeply ingrained in our popular culture. The art form has long been a rich source of themes seen in film, TV, advertisements, and more recently, video games. Opera has helped to amplify the most dramatic scenes in movies, inspired all-out parodies and fanciful plot devices, and added comic relief to a plethora of TV advertisements. We’ve collected some of our favorite opera moments in film below.


James Bond “Quantum of Solace”

This scene in Quantum of Solace finds Bond eavesdropping in on an important meeting at a performance of the opera Tosca. Rich in allegory, the production itself showcases a massive eye on stage watching over everything, as Bond secretly keeps a watchful eye on the conversation taking place. At the climax of the film’s scene, as Scarpia belts out his famous “Te Deum” aria, we see the villains—both on and off the stage—plotting their schemes. What’s more, two evil organizations are at work hiding behind more sanctimonious institutions. In the audience, Dominic Greene and his cronies are making backdoor deals during their meeting at the opera, while on the stage, Scarpia and his tyrannical police are orchestrating an execution during a church service.

Important themes of vengeance and passion are also apparent between both stories. In the opera, Tosca kills Scarpia out of vengeance for his wickedness toward her and her lover. In the film, Bond seeks revenge for having lost his love interest, Vesper, at the hands of Dominic Greene’s organization.



Pretty Woman

In the movie Pretty Woman, the protagonist and ‘hooker with a heart of gold,’ Vivian, finds herself moved to tears during a performance of the opera La Traviata. That’s hardly surprising considering that Vivian has more than a little in common with the opera’s tragic, main character, Violetta—not least, her occupation. In both the opera and the film, the characters are forced to consider their place in polite society thanks to their newfound love for their paramours.

Vivian, in true Hollywood fashion, is swept away by her new lover and the promise of a future full of luxury and bliss. And if La Traviata wasn’t a product of its time, when fiery romances didn’t end with happily ever afters, Violetta might have had a similar fate.


Shawshank Redemption

One particularly memorable scene from the film Shawshank Redemption captures the essence of the film’s message of inner freedom irrespective of external circumstance. In this moving scene, former banker and wrongly-accused inmate Andy Dufresne locks himself in his Shawshank State Prison office and broadcasts “Canzonetta Sull’aria” from the opera The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s PA system for all inmates to hear. The music lifts the spirits of the inmates, as described by the narrator in the film:

“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.”

Those words eloquently contradict the notion that opera needs to be understood in order to be appreciated, something that keeps many from opening themselves up to the art form.

So, what were ‘those two Italian ladies’ singing about? Coincidentally (or perhaps intentionally), the aria revolves around exposing duplicity and infidelity, similar to the film’s title character, Dufresne, who is framed for a murder resulting from his own wife’s extramarital affair.


Mildred Pierce

Though technically a miniseries, HBO’s Mildred Pierce has the Wagnerian-like pace one would expect from an Oscar-winning drama. In this scene, we see opera make an explicit entrance: Mildred’s daughter, Veda, makes her radio debut in singing the “Bell Song” from the opera Lakmé, having, in a feat requiring considerable suspension of disbelief, reinvented herself as a coloratura soprano.

For both mother-daughter characters in the miniseries and the opera, the song is a turning point for their relationships. Mildred’s complicated relationship with her daughter is brought into perspective as she stumbles with the flood of emotions she experiences during the performance. Given the aria’s daunting eight-minutes full of non-stop vocal fireworks, it’s a diva vehicle, not sparing Mildred’s own daughter.


OUR FOUNDERS HAD A BOLD PROPOSITION: to build a professional opera company that would put Grand Rapids on the map for a very discerning audience. 50 years later, we are humbled to be the modern bearers of classical standards and modern ingenuity. Learn more.



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