Opera Lookalikes

Today, I’m here to tell you that if you think you don’t like opera, you are wrong.

Opera can be both grand and intimate. It’s hilarious and tragic and whimsical and human. It’s no different than bingeing a couple episodes of the newest show on Netflix or going to the movies—except that you get the excitement of seeing great theatrical and musical talent live, right before your eyes.

To prove it to you, I’m going to walk you through Pittsburgh Opera’s 2018-19 season and hopefully draw some comparisons that will make you think, “You know what? This annoying lady might be right.” Perhaps you might even consider buying a ticket and going to see the world’s finest art form for yourself!

So here goes nothing.

Click here to jump to a specific opera: Madama Butterfly, Hansel & Gretel, afterWARds – Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined, Glory Denied, La bohème and Don Pasquale.


Madama Butterfly
By Giacomo Puccini
October 6, 9, 12 & 14
Benedum Center

Sounds Like:
The 1987 film Fatal Attraction has some blatant reference to Madama Butterfly, two of which are musical. First, the soundtrack composer Maurice Jarre pulled multiple snippets from Butterfly, including an obvious appearance of the opera’s most famous aria, Un Bel Di Vedremo. Then, during the scene where Alex has Dan over for spaghetti (before things get too crazy), they discuss Butterfly while the opera’s finale Con Onor Muore, plays in background. Read more about Butterfly’s influences on Fatal Attraction here.

Looks Like:
Pittsburgh Opera will be presenting Madama Butterfly as Puccini intended—in Nagasaki, Japan, in the early 1900s. While Memoirs of a Geisha (1997 book by Arthur Golden & 2005 film) is set about 30 years later in Kyoto, you can expect stylistic similarities in the costumes, set and the mood conveyed, as both are dramatic love stories with similar cultural influences.

Feels Like:
I know this one is a bit of a stretch, but by the end of Butterfly, the feelings that you have for Ciocio-san will resemble how you felt for Padmé in Star Wars: Episode III- Revenge of the Sith. Without giving too much away, let me just say that both women tragically endure total disenchantment with the person they believed to be their one true love—and you will be just as disgusted with Pinkerton as you were with Anakin/Darth Vader.

You might also want to know:
The popular musical Miss Saigon was based on Madama Butterfly. If you are familiar with it, you will notice that the plots are very similar, even though Miss Saigon was updated and set in Saigon during the Vietnam War.


Hansel & Gretel
By Engelbert Humperdinck (fun fact: the English singer of “This moment in time” and “After the lovin” used this composer as the inspiration for his stage name)
November 3, 6, 9 & 11
Benedum Center

Sounds Like:
People who are already familiar with opera may notice some similarities between Humperdinck’s and Wagner’s compositions, as he did work with Wagner for a time. If you aren’t familiar with opera, you will likely recognize bits of Hansel & Gretel, anyway. The most recognizable duet from the opera, The Evening Prayer, is popular around Christmas time, in fact, Aretha Franklin even covered it in her 2008 Christmas album.

Looks Like:
Staying true to the original Brothers Grimm fairytale, Hansel & Gretel will be set in a magical haunted forest. Picture Into the Woods (2014 film), where Meryl Streep fabulously portrayed the witch. Or Snow White and the Huntsman (2012 film) with Kristen Stewart’s not-so-fabulous portrayal of the title role. Or maybe even The Princess Bride (1987 film), though I suspect this production will not include ROUSes. The set will be grand, the costumes will be magnificent, and you will feel like you are part of the fairy tale.

Feels Like:
In keeping with modern pop culture references, I’m going to say Stranger Things (Netflix series). Kids get lost in a supernatural wood, are held captive and must make their escape. In this scenario I’m essentially comparing a cannibalistic witch to a faceless demigorgon from another dimension, but Eleven would definitely call both of them “mouthbreathers.”

You might also want to know:
Pittsburgh opera is presenting this production in English, rather than the original German. Regardless, they will still broadcast supertitles above the stage for each performance at the Benedum Center this season. Also, Hansel is a pants role in this production, meaning that a woman (specifically mezzo soprano Corrie Stallings) will be playing him. This is because the music was written in a way that suits a mezzo soprano moreso than a boy soprano. It is very typical for Hansel to be played this way.


afterWARds – Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined
By David Paul
January 26 & 29, February 1 & 3
CAPA Theater

Sounds Like:
Mozart’s music has been used in movies from rom coms to action thrillers. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro overture plays in the opening credits of Trading Places, his Piano Sonata in C plays when Phil first visits his piano teacher in Groundhog Day, and you can even hear Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in the movie Alien. Mozart’s style is uniquely his, so if you’ve enjoyed his music elsewhere, you will enjoy Idomeneo.

Looks Like:
I can’t say. For this production, Pittsburgh Opera will partner with the CMU School of Drama, so one of their students will conceive the set and costume design. Perhaps we will be whisked away to Idomeneo’s true post-Iliad Crete, or maybe it will be set on another planet with our alien heroes wearing tin foil. Who knows?

Feels Like:
Troy (2004 film), 300 (2006 film), Clash of the Titans (2010 film)—Idomeneo will feel like any film that relates to Greek mythology, The Iliad or the Trojan War. It expands on the story of a minor character from Homer’s Iliad, Idomeneo, and tells the tale of how he is lost at sea while returning from Troy, and the chaos that ensues when his son, Idamante, falls in love with Trojan Princess Ilia.

You might also want to know:
Idomeneo is a VERY large opera in both length and scale, which is why it is not done often. So essentially, what Pittsburgh Opera is doing here is a scaled-down version that fits in one act, focuses on four main characters and will fit in the smaller venue at CAPA. They are still using Mozart’s original music—David Paul has just rearranged and cut it down to make it work in this context. Because this is Mozart (my favorite), the subject matter is quite interesting, and it’s presented in just one act, this production will be absolutely perfect for someone who wants to give opera a chance.


Glory Denied
By Tom Cipullo
February 23 & 26, March 1 & 3
Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters

Sounds Like:
Glory Denied premiered in 2007, and while modern opera has a reputation for sounding a bit weird (because it usually is), critics claim that this one breaks the mold. “[Cipullo] has a keen sense of when to let that modernist approach melt into glowing melody, and he has an even keener ear for orchestral color,” says Allan Kozinn, classical music critic. Translation: Unlike other modern operas, this one probably wasn’t written to sound like a bunch of cats meowing at each other. Fingers crossed.

Looks Like:
Since Glory Denied will be a small-scale opera in the Pittsburgh Opera headquarters in the Strip District, it’s hard to say how elaborate the designers can get. But I imagine that, at least from a costuming perspective, it will resemble other Vietnam War era movies such as The Deer Hunter (1978 film) or Apocalypse Now (1979).

Feels Like:
When Colonel Thompson returns from Vietnam after being held as a prisoner of war for nearly nine years, he was surprised to find that his wife, who believed him to be dead, had married another man and moved to Massachusetts. This is not unlike the film Castaway (2000 film), when Tom Hanks discovers the same thing after spending years marooned on a deserted island. The only real difference is that Colonel Thompson’s wife leaves her new husband once she discovers that Thompson was alive all along—you will have to go to the opera to see how that works out for them.

You might also want to know:
Glory Denied is the true story of Colonel Jim Thompson, America’s longest-held POW, based on a book by Tom Philpott. The opera tells his story in a non-linear fashion, switching back and forth between his service in Vietnam and his eventual return to the United States and a society that changed drastically during his imprisonment.


La bohème
By Giacomo Puccini
March 30, April 2, 5 & 7
Benedum Center

Sounds Like:
You have most definitely heard music from La bohème before. Musetta’s Waltz (Quando m’en vo’), for example, was the theme song for Moonstruck (1987 film), and was adapted into Della Reese’s 1959 hit Don’t You Know. Jazz pianist Dave Burrell’s famous La Vie de Bohème album was also loosely based on La bohème, even though a lot of it was improvised.

Looks Like:
I know they are set in two very different cities, but from a costuming and setting standpoint, La bohème looks similar to Gangs of New York (2002 film). Both are set in the 1840s, and they share a certain grittiness that comes from the characters living in the more impoverished areas of two very large cities.

Feels Like:
This is where I roll my eyes and mention Rent (my least-favorite musical of all time, next to Les Mis). The story of Rent was based on La bohème, and there are even some musical nods to Puccini in the Rent score. Moulin Rouge (2001 film) was also loosely based on La bohème, so you can expect similar plot points.

You might also want to know:
Mt. Lebanon’s Sari Gruber will be playing Musetta in this production! Also, Mimi and Rudolpho will be played by Nicole Cabell and Sean Pannikar, who have played these roles together before and are reported to have great chemistry.


Don Pasquale
By Gaetano Donizetti
April 27 & 30, May 3 & 5
Benedum Center

Sounds Like:
Donizetti, a quintessential Romantic-style composer, wrote many significant operas that are often referenced today. Songs from Lucia di Lammermoor, for example, appear in box-office hits like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014 film), The Fifth Element (1997 film) and The Departed (2006 flim). While Don Pasquale does not enjoy as many musical references in pop culture today as some of his other operas, it is still considered one of his most beautiful scores overall.

Looks Like:
Pittsburgh Opera is setting this production in 1950’s Hollywood, so if you keep your eyes peeled, you may notice some cameos from the greatest stars of the ‘50s, including Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. For this reason, Don Pasquale may look a bit like La La Land (2016 film) at times, as they are both set in Hollywood and many of the scenes in the film are a throw back to ’50s musical style.

Feels Like:
Once again, without giving away too much of the plot, you will notice some similarities between Don Pasquale and How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days. Just like Kate Hudson’s character pulls out all the stops to scare away her hubby, the romantic lead in Don Pasquale, Norina, has the time of her life pretending she is an absolute shrew. Both stories also share a comic lightheartedness—it will be a delightful end to a more serious season of opera.

You might also want to know:
Before this opera premiered in January 1843 in Vienna, everyone involved in the production was certain it would be a flop. The librettist, Giovanni Ruffini, was so frustrated by Donizetti’s pace that demanded that his name be left off the final libretto. Legend also has it that, during the dress rehearsal, the company manager pronounced, “the text and music would be good, at best, for clowns.” Donizetti, however, was a very celebrated composer during his day, so like most of his pieces, this one wound up being a huge success.

Visit Pittsburgh Opera’s website or call 412-281-0912 to buy your tickets today.

When you go, look for your Mt. Lebanon friends in the orchestra and chorus*:

Stacy Brett Conner (Chorus)
Louise Farbman (Viola)
Janice Garrone (Chorus)
Judith Jenkins (Chorus)
Nancy Long (Chorus)
Katy Shackleton-Williams (Chorus)
Rich Williams (Chorus)
Carol Wolfe (Chorus)
Joan Zelkowicz (Violin)

*The number of chorus and orchestra members involved in a show is dependent on its composition and scale. Many of the above, however, will perform in multiple productions this season.

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