1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
Opera is not a genre that was created with the mainstream in mind. From the form's inception during the late Renaissance to the more modern works of composers like John Adams, it's hard enough to think of a plot line that a typical person can recount, much less an individual tune that they can hum. One theme that has gotten stuck in the popular subconscious is Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." And I'm willing to bet every other theme recognizable to you, presuming you are a person of average listening, is from Georges Bizet's "Carmen."
"Carmen" is just chock-full of songs and themes that I can hum from memory. I may know a little more about composers than most, but I am hardly an operatic expert. When it comes to individual movements, sans vocals, I am on the same level as you (so either we shouldn't be ashamed, or we should both be ashamed). Bizet's success with "Carmen" is that so many of his themes resonate with the common listener, or at the time, the common man. You don't need to be a prig to appreciate this work, but at the same time, the work is not so simple that prigs will roll their eyes at the adoring masses either.
The first riff you'll recognize is when Carmen, one of those girls your mother warned you about, does her habanera (a Cuban dance, considered sexy at the time) during an aria titled "L'Amour set un oiseau rebelle" ("Love is a rebellious bird"). Unfortunately, the best way for you to know what bits I'm talking about is to look them up online. But I'll try to give you the gist in text: "Dun-dun dun DUN!" You'll know it when you hear it. This aria also sums up the plot of the opera nicely (Carmen is the kind of woman your mother warned you about), in a sassy tone that could fit with any pop/hip-hop/alt song today: "When will I love you?/Good Lord, I don't know./Maybe never, maybe tomorrow/But not today, that's for sure."
The other recognizable theme is associated with the bullfighter, Escamillo. He provides protagonist Jose's main competition for the wandering heart of Carmen. His approach is marked throughout the performance, to Jose's irritation, by the "Torreador Song," a theme established early in Act II. Escamillo and Carmen (Xavier Depraz and Victoria De Los Angeles in this version) layer vocal parts in "Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre," long considered one of the greatest arias in the history of opera.
And if you thought, despite my telling you otherwise, that Carmen was just simple fare for the masses, consider its influence upon a young Pyotr Tchaikovsky. You may recognize other small bits within "Carmen," but odds are you're thinking of Tchaikovsky's work, in which he later quoted Bizet's masterpiece. "Écoute, écoute, compagnons" is referenced in the Russian composer's "The Nutcracker," and the opening to "Les Voici! Voici la quadrille" ironically influenced Tchaikovsky's "Overture of 1812," which celebrated a Russian defeat of France, Bizet's birthplace.
In a lot of ways, "Carmen" is as close as any opera has come to being what we now call a musical. The original style of opera it represented was opera comique, a subgenre where dialogue separated musical segments (Moon opts for a version where the dialogue is worked into the libretto), and the catchiness of Bizet's score puts it in line with the best musicals. It was his first major success, and unfortunately would be his last. With "Carmen's" current standing, a few more compositions along the same line could have made him the most popular opera composer of all time.
INTERESTING FACT: There have been more than 70 film adaptations of "Carmen." More interesting is that nearly 40 were silent films. How this makes sense is beyond me. I guess if the Carmen is hot enough, viewers will show up.
(Not the version Moon suggests, but Maria Callas is usually reliable)