Well before billion-dollar blockbusters and streaming, opera was a preeminent form of popular entertainment, drawing audiences from all backgrounds to experience immersive storytelling of the highest order. Now, in addition to opera, film and TV offer people around the world the opportunity to spend a few hours absorbed in another world.
So what does one of the grandest artforms look like on the big screen? Check out some of our favorite portrayals of opera on film.
A Night at the Opera (1935)
A rip-roaring Marx Brothers film, A Night At the Opera takes some not-so-subtle jabs at the world of opera and its societal standing. As with many screwball comedies and Marx vehicles, the plot is merely a vessel for keen observation and outrageous gags, and this film — widely considered among the brothers’ very best — delivers both in spades.
Citizen Kane (1935)
This legendary title explores greed, ambition, and its corrosive fallout. The guileful millionaire Kane (writer-director-star Orson Welles) meets, starts an affair with, and eventually marries a naïve singer Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), sabotaging his political aspirations in the process. So Susan becomes the unwitting outlet for his designs. Kane pressures her into pursuing opera fame, going so far as to build an opera house for her to headline. The problem, though, is that her heart isn't really in it, her talent is not quite great enough for such a demanding role, and her performance bombs.
Loretta Castorini (Cher), finds herself in a love triangle that would be at home in an opera house: engaged to an insipid man whom she does not love, Johnny (Danny Aiello), while growing feelings for his erratic but passionate, opera-obsessed brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage). Wracked with guilt, Loretta agrees to go to the opera with Ronny if he’ll promise to leave her alone. Deeply moved by a performance of La bohème at the Met, Loretta begins to admit she is growing closer and closer to Ronny…
Pretty Woman (1990)
Many see Pretty Woman as a modern retelling of Verdi’s legendary La traviata. Critics have noted the similarities between the opera’s Violetta and Julia Roberts’ Vivian. Both women are sex workers who come into the orbit of a wealthy man and are confronted with the differences that their backgrounds present. In the film, Vivian, encounters her operatic counterpart as she accompanies Edward (Richard Gere) to a performance at the San Francisco Opera and is spellbound.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
In the world of James Bond, when the members of shadowy organization Quantum meet, they do so not behind closed doors, but by conferring over earpiece, blending in with operagoers of a particularly striking production of Tosca. It’s a stunning backdrop, but we can’t help agree with Bond, who wryly advises that they “really should find another place to meet” before facing off with his enemies.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)
One of the high watermarks of this fifth Mission: Impossible actioner is a set piece takes place both backstage and onstage during a performance of Turandot at the Vienna State Opera. Leading up to and during the “Nessun dorma” aria, Tom Cruise’s indefatigable Ethan Hunt and his team race against a team of rivals to save an ambassador from assassination. The compelling scene makes use of Puccini’s lush score and the production’s intricate stage elements to heighten the action and stakes.