We celebrate the operatic arias that have forced their way into popular consciousness and stayed because of their memorable melodies, evocative stories and the sheer heights they scale
Mozart: “Queen of the Night” from The Magic Flute
For many a layperson, the word “opera” instantly evokes the repeated high Cs (followed by that infamous high F, of course) of the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute, K.620. One of the enduring opera’s biggest “hits”, this stormy aria for soprano is titled “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”, which translates as “The vengeance of hell boils in my heart.” Things don’t get more dramatic than that.
Indeed, the Queen of the Night is seething after her daughter suggests that she might join the brotherhood of the Queen’s arch enemy, Sarastro—the ultimate betrayal.
Delibes: “Flower Duet” from Lakmé
The mainstay of British Airways adverts since the 1980s, the Flower Duet from French composer Delibes’ 1882 opera, Lakmé, is one of the most famous arias around. The beautiful piece is written for soprano and mezzo-soprano and appears near the beginning of the opera, which is set in British India.
Taking place before the action has really started, the duet serves to establish the exotic flavour of the opera’s score. Lakmé and one of her servants are gathering flowers by the river, and the drama unfolds from there after Lakmé removes pieces of her jewellery and later finds a beguiling stranger making sketches of them. She can’t decide whether to be afraid or to give in to her attraction to the stranger and a tragic love story (think mixed messages leading to a poisoning, à la Romeo & Juliet) ensues over three acts.
Bizet: “Habanera” from Carmen
We all have a tendency to look forward to our favourite arias throughout the course of a long opera and this is as true of the racy “Habanera” in Bizet’s Carmen as it is of any popular aria. Luckily, we don’t have to wait long: the aria arrives in the fifth scene of the first act, establishing the title character as an alluring gypsy woman who has little patience for the men who adore her. The aria has it all: a catchy melody, irresistible scoring and plenty of juicy action on stage.
"A yearning Baroque melody that challenges any listener not to shed a tear"
Purcell: “Dido’s Lament” from Dido & Aeneas
We go back to 17th-century England for our next pick: the heartbreaking “When I am laid in earth,” also known as “Dido’s Lament”, from Henry Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas. “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast”, our protagonist sings in a yearning Baroque melody that challenges any listener not to shed a tear.
The opera tells the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, falling in love with Trojan hero Aeneas, and feeling inconsolable despair when he ultimately abandons her. The lament is Dido’s farewell aria and at the pit of her despair she sings “remember me, but ah forget my fate”. Now, where did we leave those tissues?
Puccini: “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot
Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” is most often heard outside the context of the opera it’s from (which is Turandot, by the way) whether it’s in films, on popular Pavarotti compilation CDs or during reminiscences of the BBC’s television coverage of the 1990 World Cup, after which the aria lodged itself in popular consciousness as the football anthem.
What the tenor aria is really about is Prince Calaf claiming the heart of ice cold princess, Turandot after he succeeds in breaking the three riddles she has set for potential suitors. The aria takes place after Turandot despairs at Calaf’s triumph over the riddles and he takes pity on her, saying she doesn’t have to marry him, and can deprive him of his life, if she can guess his name.
Di Capua & Mazzucchi: “O Sole Mio”
A standalone aria composed by Eduardo di Capua and Alfredo Mazzucchi, “O Sole Mio” is another Pavarotti favourite, winning him the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance in 1980. “O sole mio” translates as “my sunshine” and the aria has been performed by many well known artists, including Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza. It was adapted by Tony Martin for his 1949 hit “There’s No Tomorrow” and later by Elvis Presley for the melody of his 1960 hit, “It’s Now Or Never”.
"Remember me, but ah forget my fate"
Verdi: “La Donna è Mobile” from Rigoletto
“La Donna è Mobile” is another popular Italian aria that’s heard often, both within and outside its original context in Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto. Translated as “woman is fickle”, the incredibly catchy aria kicks off the third act of Verdi’s opera and, the story goes, was a closely guarded secret before the opera’s premiere because Verdi knew he had created a surefire hit and didn’t want any composers to hear it, steal it and pass it off as their own.
The opera sees Rigoletto trying to protect his daughter from the advances of incorrigible womaniser, the Duke of Mantua, and failing. When Rigoletto seeks revenge, his daughter chooses the Duke over her father and does everything she can to save him from Rigoletto’s wrathful vengeance.
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