Opera in the movies is usually for lovers, moments of victory (like ‘Nessun Dorma’ in ‘Bend it Like Beckham’) and the occasional bright spot in an otherwise bleak life.
But a taste for opera has also become a tried-and-true way to showcase that the villain we’re watching is more than usually twisted. Here are a few of cinema’s most heartless bastards, gangsters and other heavies whose music choices are just one manifestation of the depths of their depravity.
The Killer Inside Me (2010)
Opera aira: ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima‘ from ‘L’elisir d’amore’ by Donizetti
Casey Affleck plays a small town deputy sheriff whose homicidal tendencies are well-masked from everyone who knows him. But, if they’d noticed his surprising fondness for classical music, they might have gotten a clue: only psychos listen to opera! This trailer is scored to the melancholy tenor aria that seemingly upstanding citizen Lou Ford (Affleck) listens to alone in his stately house. The rest of the soundtrack is full of country songs that fit the ’50s West Texas setting, but Lou’s penchant for opera is almost as shocking as his pathological killing spree.
Quantum of Solace (2008)
Opera aria: ‘Va, Tosca’ from ‘Tosca’ by Puccini
James Bond (Daniel Craig) tracks a member of the sinister Quantum organization to an Austrian performance of ‘Tosca,’ during which he overhears their plotting about pipelines and dictators. The aria playing during this scene is sung by the opera’s villainous Scarpia, who, like all Bond villains, gets his in the end in a very nasty way.
Opera aria: ‘Vide Cor Meum’ by Hans Zimmer and Patrick Cassidy
The notorious cannibal (Anthony Hopkins) always had a taste for the finer things in life: art, music and, of course, a nice chianti. Here, he attends a modern opera in Florence, during which (after this clip ends) he famously tells future victim Giancarlo Giannini, “I’m giving very serious thought to eating your wife.” This aria was composed just for the film and later used in ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ during a funeral scene.
Cape Fear (1991)
Opera aria: ‘Per te d’immenso giubilo’ from ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ by Donizetti
Tattooed thug Max Cady (Robert De Niro) — now there’s an unlikely opera fan. Then again, his mission of vengeance against his former defense counselor (Nick Nolte) nears Biblical proportions, which also makes it completely operatic. In a brief scene (sorry, youtube deleted it), his car radio blares this aria as he follows his prey to the airport. The opera is about a woman forced to marry someone against her will, who then goes mad and stabs her groom to death, a blood-soaked scene Cady would surely love.
The Untouchables (1987)
Opera aria: ‘Vesti la giubba’ from ‘Pagliacci’ by Leoncavallo
The tragic “laugh, clown, laugh” aria is one of the most famous in all of opera, and perfectly fits this scene in which Al Capone (Robert De Niro) sheds tears for a moving performance of ‘Pagliacci,’ not for the news that “untouchable” cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) has been successfully rubbed out. The scenes of murder and the gangster who ordered it play out to the same sad song.
And just to prove that opera doesn’t ALWAYS equal sinister murder plots…
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Opera aria: ‘Letter Duet’ (‘Canzonetta sull’aria’) from ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ by Mozart
Left alone in the warden’s office, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) finds his music collection and decides to treat the other prisoners to a dose of opera. It might not be these inmates’ first pick for music, but the effect of its unexpected beauty is a wonderful thing to behold.
As Andy tells his friend Red (Morgan Freeman), “That’s the beauty of music. Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget that there are places in this world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside… that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.”