Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
In the spy thriller "Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation," Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt interferes with an assassination attempt that goes down at a live performance of "Turandot," Giacomo Puccini's final opera. While four people either try to kill or not kill an important politician, performers sing "Nessun Dorma," a beautiful aria that is also one of the most ubiquitously quoted pieces of music composed by Puccini. Afterward, I jokingly tweeted: "If you're going to an opera in a spy thriller, it's almost always Turandot." I wrote that because "The Sum of All Fears," another American spy-thriller, uses "Nessun Dorma" in a climactic scene.
Why that opera, though? Why that aria, and not another one that also connotes imminent seduction? Why has "Turandot" or any other opera with one or two instantly-recognizable arias become a signifier for bombastic or hyper-stylized emotions? What are the most popular pieces of opera music, and how are they used in films, a currently popular art form?
Here are the top five most-used arias, according to my own very subjective viewing experience, with some commentary about the different films it's been used in, and what the filmmakers might have seen in it.
1.) "Nessun Dorma," from "Turandot"
For many people, an "operatic" narrative is one that involves one of three types of women: a weak-kneed victim of consumption, a firebrand flirt, or an ice-queen villainess. In "Nessun Dorma," brash Prince Calaf claims he will do what no other man has done by melting the heart of chilly Turandot, a cruel leader who refuses to marry anyone but the man who can answer her three Sphinx-like riddles. Sung by a tenor and made popular by Luciano Pavarotti, "Nessun Dorma" is used wherever film characters need a quick way of expressing ardent romantic feelings since the aria builds in intensity until it concludes with the orchestra taking the singer's place, booming and swelling and swelling and booming. At the same time, the aria's triumphal tone is also often used in films to signify a dramatic end to something. It just sounds big, and climactic: whoever is on screen will win, will succeed, will destroy, will love, etc. In this scene from "The Sum of All Fears," a diplomat's car blows up as "Nessun Dorma" winds down.
2.) "Ride of the Valkyries," from "Die Walküre"
While many people associate this famous aria with "Apocalypse Now" and the smell of napalm in the morning, this exultant, soaring anthem can be found in everything from Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" to John Waters's "Mondo Trasho."
In many films, the fact that "Ride of the Valkyries" is about a group of women warriors (the Valkyrie) who are boasting about their imminent martial victory is incidental to the music's use. This piece is tellingly treated as an instrumental piece, partly because the women singers are constantly raising the pitch of their voices, and this song is a war-cry. Despite the female voices, "Ride of the Valkyries" is a song that is gender-coded as masculine, partly because many laypeople associate Wagner with the Nazis; there's certainly a touch of this thinking in the way "Valkyries" is used in "Apocalypse Now," as backing for a sequence in which American helicopters destroy a Vietnamese village. Whenever a fascistic villain is on the attack, there's a chance you'll hear it, even if the film is a comedy like "The Blues Brothers," the climax of which finds Henry Gibson's neo-Nazi pursuing Jake and Elwood Blues.
3.) "Vesti la Giubba," from "Pagliacci"
"Pagliacci" is one of two primary examples of opera verismo, a style of short, psychologically-realistic opera that emphasizes then-contemporary settings and situations (the other popular example is "Cavalleria Rusticana," another hour-long opera that is almost always performed with "Pagliacci"). Composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo, "Vesti la Giubba" is arguably one of the darkest, and most melancholic pieces of popular opera music. In the aria, the title clown has just discovered his wife is cheating on him, but must put on his make-up, and pretend to be care-free enough to make a circus full of people laugh.
Liberace helped to make this aria popular by performing it on "The Liberace Show," his 1954 showcase series. But "Vesti la Giubba" is not a period-specific artifact that simplistically connotes bitterness and betrayal. On one end of the emotional spectrum, "Vesti la Giubba" can be found in "The Untouchables," where Robert De Niro's Al Capone ironically pretends to be tremendously affected by the aria while one of his captains informs him of the murder of Sean Connery's Jim Malone. "Vesti la Giubba" is also used in "To Rome with Love," Woody Allen's laid-back, surreal romantic-comedy, in the scene where a shy man with a beautiful tenor voice performs different arias on-stage while singing in a mobile shower stall. In this case, there's no pathos to the aria, just a lighthearted suggestion that the show must go on.
4) "La Donna é Mobile," from "Rigoletto"
Again, the dark undertones of this deceptively peppy tenor aria (yes, another tenor aria; apparently, we love a good, manly outburst of musical emotion) makes it easy to ignore how this piece of music is used out of context. In the song, the Duke of Mantua boasts that his wife is unfaithful; in reality, he is in fact having an affair. The aria is used as a motif throughout "Rigoletto," climaxing with a far less flippant, and care-free scene: when the Duke is heard singing "La Donna é Mobile" later, his rival Rigoletto realizes that while he paid an assassin to kill the Duke, the Duke survived and Rigoletto's own daughter was mistakenly killed. The blithe spirit of this aria is used in many movies, including the awful kid's film "Bratz" and anti-romance "Ruby Sparks." In this clip from "The Family Man," Nicolas Cage fittingly (and enthusiastically) performs "La Donna é Mobile" right after cheating on his wife.
5.) "Habanera," from "Carmen"
Bizet's opera is, by most modern standards, rather dated. Its representation of a sexual, independent woman is unkind, and borderline misogynistic in places. Still, this mezzo-soprano aria, one that's used in Bizet's opera as a declaration of the title character's fickle nature, is frequently used in films to suggest amorous head games. The loping, steady pace of the piece encapsulates its teasing nature ("Do I love you? Maybe yes, but maybe no...") makes its concluding exclamation ("Take guard yourself!") that much more satisfying.
This piece is however not gendered as a strictly feminine song, but rather one that suggests a predator lazily circling his or her prey. As such, filmmakers can slot into a scene or montage that involves hijinks or a routine of some kind. You can hear "Habanera" in a variety of films, like "Hostel: Part II," "Girl 6," "Magnolia," and "Bad Santa." In this clip from "Up," "Habanera" is used to suggest the constant, less-than-stimulating nature of Carl's life after the death of his wife Ellie.