3 TV opera references with great meaning (maybe)

3 TV opera references with great meaning (maybe)

Jenna Simeonov

The Puccini Gala in House of Cards

At the end of the second season, Vice President Frank Underwood is maintaining one of his notorious balances between total victory and total destruction. President Walker is on the brink of impeachment, after Underwood and his wife, Claire, have planted a million little seeds of sabotage to take him down. In episode 13, Frank is at the Kennedy Center, catching some Puccini. The selected aria that holds a few seconds of the spotlight: “Un bel dì vedremo”, from Madama Butterfly.

If this were a less thoughtful show, it might be easy to argue that the writers chose a really famous aria from a really famous opera, achieving no more than to show that these politicians are out for a fancy night at a fancy concert hall. But House of Cards is definitely a thoughtful show with no lack of symbolism, and it’s hard to forget the context of Butterfly’s infamous cry of optimism. It’s as much fun to imagine that “beautiful day” is the one where Frank Underwood rises from Vice to President, as it is to imagine the American people as hopelessly and benevolently ignorant as Cio-Cio San.

One of the season’s more important conversations between Frank and one of his pawns happens with the faint underscoring of more Butterfly, this time from the Act I duet between Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton. Talk about bullshit dressed up as beauty.

The Così trio in Better Call Saul

By episode 5 of the first season of Better Call Saul, the struggling lawyer (still going by the name Jimmy McGill) has his first taste of booming business. He has a busy morning of consultations, including one at one of those absurd, fancy-looking “log cabins” that are synonymous with the wealthy in the American Southwest. The man who lives in this fancy cabin wants McGill’s help seceding from the United States of America, so he can be one of those rogue cowboy-types who can hunt and make money without having to give back to Big Government.

It’s hard not to notice that, as this would-be client explains his case to McGill, and McGill’s face falls from payout-hopeful to exasperated-with-nutjob, you can hear faintly in the background the strains of “Soave sia il vento”, from Così fan tutte. This trio is a) gorgeous, and b) a lie. Two young ladies have been convinced of their boyfriends’ conscriptions, and with the fraudulent ringleader, Don Alfonso, they wave a tearful goodbye. It’s the start of one of opera’s meanest tricks, a fake set-up to the mens’ twisted test of their girlfriends’ fidelity.

This isn’t quite what’s going on in the scene, but Vince Gilligan, creator of Better Call Saul (and Breaking Bad, of course) is big on attention to detail. The operatic background noise certainly adds to the swankiness of Captain Anti-America’s Southwestern mansion, but the best part is in the choice of dishonesty. Is McGill reflected in those poor ladies, tricked by Albuquerque Alfonso into what seemed like a lucrative case? Or is it a more general reminder that Jimmy McGill is about as trustworthy as Alfonso himself? Like Puccini, Mozart places deception in a package that’s pretty on the outside; sweet-talking, truth-bending McGill certainly makes a career doing the same thing.

Carmen in Archer

It’s episode 4 of season 4 in the ongoing shenanigans of our favourite great-and-also-terrible-at-his-job spy, Sterling Archer. His mother, Malory Archer, has a man-friend named Ron Cadillac, and they have a very important date that Cadillac is not to miss: box seats for opening night of Carmen at The Metropolitan Opera. After an episode of drunken debacles in Canada between Sterling and his step-father, Ron Cadillac is successfully delivered in time for curtain. Three episodes later, in a tiny little flashback, we find out that the Malory and Cadillac didn’t stay for long, because Ron had smuggled in some restaurant crackers and made so much noise trying to open the little plastic wrappers that the usher came by to kick them out in the middle of the Habanera. “Well, we didn’t have to fight for a cab,” retorts Ron.

Unlike Frank Underwood’s night of Puccini, and Jimmy McGill’s Alfonso-isms, the little bits of Carmen, plus the box seats and her lovely fur stole, are less about symbolism and more about reinforcing that Malory Archer as an elitist witch of a lady. Archer is no two-dimensional comedy, and it’s pretty great at establishing three-dimensional characters. So, while we get some obvious opera at an obvious opera house to show that Mrs. Archer is obviously a stuck-up classist, we also get a quick, foil-like shot of Sterling Archer drunkenly humming the Habanera in the hot tub with a drink in hand. We won’t argue that those Met box seats aren’t populated by Malory Archer-types, or that the Habanera isn’t catchy enough to sing while you’re drunk.

Photo: Sarah Reid via Flickr.

What are your favourite operatic nuggest from television? Let us know in the comments below!

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