In honor of my late mother, who always wanted to teach a class in what she called “cocktail party culture” (this was before the heyday of “cultural literacy”) and because the subject came up recently on Twitter, I present the first in a series on the plots of well-known operas. So, when the next Marvel movie drops in that obscure opera reference (shout-out to @daisy_razor), you will be prepared.
Summarizing an opera plot is no mean feat, but I’ve tried my best to give you the major plot points and/or themes while keeping each description at or under my self-imposed 101-word limit. While at times this may seem to render the plot nonsensical, believe me, knowing more about it would probably not change that fact.
We start with the top ten most-performed operas in the world (as ranked by Operabase). Opera fans call these the warhorses, that is, popular staples that are used to lure the casual operagoers or newbies into the opera house. Besides Wagner (more on him later), these are the operas most likely to be referenced in pop culture. Despite my snarky attitude below, I love all of these works. They have great music and, if you are so inclined, any one would be a good introduction to the world of opera.
Today I’ll focus on the top five: La traviata, Carmen, La bohème, The Magic Flute, and Tosca. In my next post, I’ll take on Madama Butterfly, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, and Don Giovanni.
SPOILER ALERT: Someone almost always dies!
Giuseppe Verdi, La traviata (1853)
Based on: a play by Alexandre Dumas (no, not that one, the other one)
Notable Cultural Reference: Pretty Woman
Setting: Paris, ca. 1850
Courtesan and all-around party girl Violetta is doomed (TB, natch), but she’s a hottie so Alfredo loves her anyway. She decides to take a chance on love and retire to the country. All is well until Alfredo’s father comes poking around and, behind his son’s back, convinces this “fallen woman” to leave Alfredo for the sake of his family’s reputation. And she does! She goes to Paris to celebrate with gypsies and matadors, because why not, and throws her new lover in Alfredo’s face. Stupid. Alfredo fights a duel but Violetta is the one who dies in the end.
Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” (aka the drinking song)
Georges Bizet, Carmen (1875)
Based on: a novella by Prosper Mérimée
Notable Cultural Reference: The Bad News Bears
Setting: Seville, ca. 1820
Carmen works hard for the money in a cigarette factory. When she cuts a bitch during a fight, head dragoon Zuniga orders minion Don José to arrest her. Carmen uses her wily ways to free herself and José pays the piper with a month’s detention. In the meantime, sexy matador Escamillo comes to town. Oh, and there are smugglers, because why not? After all, José has to flee with someone after fighting Zuniga. Stupid. These life choices eventually bore Carmen, who runs off with Escamillo. Naturally, José then stalks and stabs Carmen during a bullfight. But he’s very sad about it.
Sung in: French
Memorable Music: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (aka the Habanera) and “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” (aka Toréador)
Giacomo Puccini, La bohème (1896)
Based on: a collection of short stories by Henri Murger
Notable Cultural Reference: Moonstruck
Setting: Paris, ca. 1830
It’s cold. Guys, it’s so cold, best buds Marcello and Rodolfo burn their “art” to keep warm. But, never fear, musician Schaunard is here, and they all decide to squander his temporary good fortune out on the town with “philosopher” Colline. Sure the rent’s due, but whatevs. Before leaving, Rodolfo encounters Mimì and somehow woos her with tales of life as a poet. Proto–Carrie Bradshaw Musetta joins their party, sending current sugar daddy Alcindoro off to the shoemaker. Later, they stick him with the bill. Flash forward to Mimì with TB. Being poor sucks, y’all, medicine costs money. Mimì dies.
Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: the duet “O soave fanciulla”
In La bohème, Musetta gets rid of Alcindoro by claiming her shoe needs to be fixed. Sucker. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) (1791)
Based on: the drug-induced fever dream of a Freemason (I’m guessing)
Notable Cultural Reference: Gossip Girl: “You’ve Got Yale!”
Setting: Egypt? Dune? (Again, I’m guessing)
Tamino is chased by a giant snake, faints, and is saved by three ladies-in-waiting. Typical. Lonely bird-catcher Papageno arrives and takes credit for their work. Typical. Nevertheless, these two “heroes” are enlisted to save Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter, from Sarastro, reinforcer of the patriarchy. Magical musical instruments are distributed willy-nilly. Women are promised as prizes left and right. The Queen of the Night sings about hell’s vengeance boiling in her heart, because, of course. Tamino faces many trials but skates by on male privilege. The sun triumphs over the night because men know best and women are evil.
Sung in: German
Memorable Music: “Der Hölle Rache” (aka the one with the high F)
Giacomo Puccini, Tosca (1900)
Based on: a play by Victorien Sardou
Notable Cultural Reference: Quantum of Solace
Setting: Rome, June 1800
Cesare, an escaped political prisoner, seeks refuge in a church where his sister has hidden supplies. Sympathizer Mario, who is painting there, agrees to hide him. Mario loves Tosca but his portrait of Mary Magdalene looks suspiciously like Cesare’s sister. Tosca is mad jealous and Chief of Police Scarpia milks this fact to capture both men and have Tosca for himself. After hearing Mario tortured, Tosca tells all and agrees to submit to Scarpia. However, once he arranges the “mock” execution to save Mario, Tosca stabs him. But, snap! The execution is real, yo! Devastated, Tosca leaps to her death.
Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte”
Holy flying leap, Batman! I didn’t see that coming. Photo by Cory Weaver.
And on that happy note, tune in next time for summaries of Madama Butterfly, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, and Don Giovanni.
*If you are thinking of commenting that this should be “fewer” instead, please read this first.