'Brokeback Mountain,' Sarah Palin and Klingons: 10 operas based on pop culture

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Image Credit: Javier del Real

Opera has always been a reflection of the cultural zeitgeist of Western society. Historical events, popular stories, real people—they’ve all inspired musicalizations which allow patrons to connect directly with cultural moments in artistic ways.

But while opera may have stopped being the most popular art form, it never stopped being a relevant one. Hats off to the contemporary composers who continue to devote themselves to breathing life into the art form (because if they don’t, who will?). Opera is an endangered species, much like pandas or stenographers, and it continues to thrive creatively by reflecting the pop culture moments—movies, novels, reality stars—that you perhaps didn’t expect to be made operatic.

You may not have known that there’s a Brokeback Mountain opera opening January 28 in Madrid. Or that New York City Opera ended its decades-long run with an opera about Anna Nicole Smith. In fact, there are a slew of recent pop culture-inspired operas you might not know about:

Brokeback Mountain
Annie Proulx wrote both the original story and the libretto, collaborating with composer Charles Wuorinen to bring the message of same love (among cowboys and beyond) to Madrid’s Teatro Real. The world premiere show (running through February 11) has drawn comparisons to Tristan and Isolde and stars Daniel Okulitch as Ennis del Mar and Tom Randle as Jack Twist.

The Fly
Director David Cronenberg, composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) and playwright David Henry Hwang joined forces with Paris’s Theatre du Chatelet for this 2008 opera based on Cronenberg’s 1986 film and George Langelaan’s 1957 short story. The show premiered in France and went on to play Los Angeles Opera, with Brokeback’s Okulitch earning praise in the Jeff Goldblum role (while Shore’s music was panned).

‘u’
The Hague in the Netherlands premiered the first-ever opera told entirely in Klingon (yes, seriously). ‘u’ told the story of Kahless the Unforgettable, a messiah-like character in the Star Trek universe who unified the Klingons and became one of the species’ most important legends. Marc Okrand, who created the Klingon language, crafted the show with composer Eef van Breen and librettist Kees Ligtelijn. (FYI, those names are Dutch.)

Anna Nicole
The last production to be staged at New York’s tragically bankrupt City Opera was Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s two-acter based on the life of the late Playmate and reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith. The opera first opened in London in 2011 and, in an attempt to reach a bigger audience, was broadcast on BBC4, where it struggled to seduce viewers.

The Golden Ticket
A musical version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently playing London’s West End (and is rumored to hit Broadway imminently), but an earlier team attempted to develop the book into an opera. The show finally materialized after some early struggle, commissioned by American Lyric Theater and Dahl’s widow Felicity Dahl, with a world premiere at Opera Theatre of St. Louis. And guess who starred as Willy Wonka? Daniel Okulitch!

Jerry Springer: The Opera
It’s technically a musical and not an opera, but the profanity-riddled show by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee is perhaps the most famous recent example of how pop culture can be unexpectedly musicalized (and become a hit, as it went on to earn the Olivier Award for Best New Musical). Premiering in London and going on to hit Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall (same thing, right?), the three-act opera included tap-dancing KKK members and a Jesus/Satan duet, therein inspiring copious protests.

Man on the Moon
An opera based on the 1969 events surrounding the iconic Apollo 11 moon landing? Whether or not it sounds like a cosmically bad idea, Jonathan Dove and Nicholas Wright tackled the landmark moment in U.S. history with this ‘60s period piece focusing on Buzz Aldrin (played by hunky American Nathan Gunn) and his family. The show was commissioned by Britain’s Channel 4 and was broadcast in 2006.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe
Inspired by the vice-presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, this low-rent 2009 opera premiered in Boston (commissioned by Guerilla Opera). If you’ve ever imagined Palin, Biden, Diane Sawyer, Gwen Ifill, Hillary Clinton, and Joe the Plumber together onstage, well…you’ve probably imagined this.

Lost Highway
Another cult film to get the opera treatment was David Lynch’s neo-noir thriller about a jazz saxophonist framed for murder. Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth and librettist Elfriede Jelinek (a Nobel Prize winner) adapted the 1997 mystery into an electronica opera in Graz in 2003, followed by a premiere in Oberlin, Ohio.

An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winning documentary about global warming was always an unlikely choice for a stage production (especially considering the film was basically a big PowerPoint presentation anyway). The famous Italian opera house La Scala announced plans in 2008 for a Giorgio Battistelli-composed piece to premiere in 2011, but “irreconcilable differences” spurred director William Friedkin to flee the production in 2009. After more shuffling and delays, the thing was reported to open in October 2013, but a recent Italian report suggested that the opera (now dubbed CO2) would bow in 2015. How convenient.

And because there’s no video footage for this last one, here’s a clip from the opera episode of Hey Arnold!:

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