Where have I heard that Overture: The Barber of Seville

12 Nov 2019

Full of vitality, humour and humanity, Rossini’s music has been embraced by popular culture like that of no other opera composer. Even if you’ve never heard the opera itself, you’ll recognise The Barber of Seville Overture and its most famous aria (‘Figaro, Figaro, Figaro’) from cartoons, film and television.

There are few pieces of music that say madcap and high-spirited like a certain excerpt of The Barber of Seville Overture. In film and television, this frenetic and lively tune often accompanies comical chase scenes or characters madly scrambling. Interestingly, this iconic piece of music so integral to The Barber of Seville was recycled by Rossini from two of his earlier works: Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815).

Just as the William Tell Overture was beloved by Disney, the opening tune from Rossini’s comic opera was a favourite of Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera in the 1940s. For example, Bugs Bunny takes up the role of barber and troublemaker in the vein of Figaro and gives Elmer Fudd a fruity haircut in the Looney Tunes episode ‘Rabbit of Seville’.

Placeholder

In the classic Tom and Jerry episode ‘Kitty Foiled’, the brawling duo are up to their usual shenanigans with chases involving household implements and anvils, accompanied by Rossini.

Placeholder

The Overture has also made many appearances in films over the years from A Clockwork Orange (1971) to Babe: Pig in the City (1998). The Beatles used it for the end credits of Help! (1965) and the great Italian director Federico Fellini borrowed it for a fantasy sequence in his surrealist masterpiece (1963).

Placeholder

Music from The Barber of Seville has proved popular for comedies about crime families. Film composer Alex North combined themes from The Barber of Seville, Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi for the score of Prizzi’s Honor (1985), a film about a contract killer (Jack Nicholson) who accidentally falls in love with the woman (Kathleen Turner) trying to kill him. Elmer Bernstein underscored John Landis’ 1991 film Oscar, starring Sylvester Stallone, with arrangements of The Barber of Seville.

Placeholder

And of course, The Barber of Seville Overture is ideal for any scenes involving eccentric barbers, such as this commercial for Honey Nut Cheerios or the Seinfeld episode ‘The Barber’, where Jerry is torn between his loyalty to his old Italian barber and the need for a decent haircut.

Placeholder
Placeholder

However, it’s not just the Overture that has been taken up by popular culture, the tongue-twisting patter of ‘Largo al factotum’, Figaro’s famous aria, keeps popping up in the movies. The most famous instance is the opening scene of Mrs Doubtfire (1993) in which Robin Williams performs a vivacious voice-over routine, introducing generations of movie goers to ‘Figaro, Figaro, Figaro’ without knowing its origins. 

Placeholder

Robin Williams is not the only screen star to sing ‘Largo al factotum’. In Hopscotch (1980), Walter Matthau mumbles his way through it while stopping to educate a border guard about the difference between Mozart and Rossini’s Figaro operas.

Placeholder

Cartoon characters Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry, Willie the Whale, and the Great Poochini (an animated canine relation of Rossini) all had a go too.

Placeholder

Finally, back to the advertising world and EA Sports’ FIFA16 commercial, featuring international players and soccer fans around the world, which changes the words of the aria to sing about ‘beautiful football’. It just goes to show that Rossini’s music crosses all boundaries.

Placeholder

By Beata Bowes

What are your favourites? Can you think of any other uses of The Barber of Seville music in popular culture? Tell us in the comments.