It’s that time of year again. Classes are starting, application deadlines are looming, and TV shows return with new seasons to distract everyone from all responsibilities. While it may seem like watching television is as far away from opera as one can get, that could not be further from the truth. In fact, there are several famous opera characters covertly starring in popular television shows. Here is a small sample of the secrets hiding in your Netflix subscription.
Musetta (La bohème) AKA Donna Meagle (Parks and Recreation)
Musetta is hiding in the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department. By all accounts, she’s living her best life. She has several men in rotation and knows the definition of “Treat Yo’ Self.” Donna Meagle, like Musetta, is queen of her domain and does not tolerate anyone who questions how fantastic she is. The bottomless confidence of both characters is seen in how they bounce through life without a care, flirting with whomever they wish and unapologetically leaving those men when they are no longer interested. Neither Donna nor Musetta is going to put up with a relationship that she doesn't want. Moreover, both women are fierce friends who are willing to show up and be strong in times of crisis. Musetta sold her earrings for medicine for Mimi, and Donna would have thrown Mimi in her Benz and floored it to the hospital. They both may be easy to overlook or write off as one-note in a cast of other popular characters, but the confidence, sex appeal, and compassion that both these women possess is notable.
The Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte) AKA Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)
She is a queen who has stolen her throne. She cares deeply for her child(ren), as long as they are loyal to her and help build her power. She has minions touched by magic, and she is not a fan of strict religious orders or the high priests who run them. Dragons may also be involved. In a time and place where men are assumed to be in charge, she demands her place at the table. Sure, she’s killed some people along the way, and she’s not the ruler anyone wants, but you kind of have to respect just how far she’s gone to get her power.
Don Giovanni (Don Giovanni) AKA Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother)
Don Giovanni and Barney Stinson have one identical goal: they want to sleep with as many women as possible. This is hardly a rare goal for characters on television; Netflix and Hulu are full of stories about guys in bars making jokes that are at least borderline misogynistic. However, Barney Stinson is the biggest monster in the bunch. Yes, he’s delightfully portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris, and the audience often gives him a pass because he’s just so adorable. This charm is the most dangerous thing about him and also what makes him just like Don Giovanni. Even when Donna Elvira tells Don Ottavio and Donna Anna what Giovanni has done to her, they’re hesitant to believe her because Don Giovanni is such a charismatic guy. They think he’s a little flirtatious, but he would never do anything so terrible as to seduce a woman, propose to her, and then abandon her. If that scheme sounds familiar, Barney faked a proposal to Abby (played by Britney Spears) in season 3, episode 19. With the exception of the Commendatore's murder, all of Don Giovanni's actions sound like stories told over a round at McClaren's pub. Barney’s friends rarely question the elaborate lengths to which he goes in order to seduce women, and they never seem bothered by the fact that he keeps a running tally of the women he’s slept with that is designated by country (Mr. Stinson is doing surprisingly well in the Baltics).
Leporello (Don Giovanni) AKA Dwight K. Schrute (The Office)
Leporello is arguably the most iconic sidekick in opera; some would call him the ultimate enabler. He is loyal to a fault to Don Giovanni, and he will do whatever is requested of him without hesitation. Leporello also knows that if he were in charge, things would be going a lot smoother, and the boss should be listening to more of his ideas. Dwight is similarly aligned to his boss. He has a strong loyalty to his job title, putting the company above all else to an absurd degree. Whatever insane scheme Michael cooks up, Dwight will follow, often at the expense of his own safety and morality. Dwight takes the blame for Michael’s questionable “Golden Ticket” promotion just as Leporello is nearly killed while in disguise as Don Giovanni. While Dwight stands by Michael after he drives their car into a lake and helps him steal back gift baskets from ex-clients, Leporello invites a clearly haunted statue to dinner at his employer's request. Both men embody the truly loyal lackey, but their loyalty is to the office rather than to the man. Even after their boss is dragged into Hell or moves away from Dunder Mifflin, they soldier on to the next assignment, ready to serve a new master/regional manager.
Violetta (La traviata) AKA Joan Holloway (Mad Men)
Violetta is a woman defined by her time even as she attempts to bend the world to her advantage. In an environment where many women are in unhappy marriages and have their lives dictated by their husbands, Violetta uses men to provide her with comfort and financial stability. Joan takes a similar stance in the 1960s. She is used to the misogynistic environment of Sterling Cooper, and she uses her femininity to give her an edge. Still, both women want more out of their lives. They want love, and this desire conflicts with societal pressures. Joan wants a perfect marriage and hides her husband’s violence and her own unhappiness to keep up appearances. Violetta abandons Alfredo after his father tells her how their relationship reflects poorly on Alfredo’s family. Both women sacrifice their happiness for the sake of social reputation. The patriarchal world that these women are stuck in makes it difficult for them to overcome societal expectations and forge their own paths. As consumption claims Violetta at the moment that she and Alfredo reconcile, one can only speculate as to how their relationship would have continued. Would Violetta return to her life of easy comfort and allow the expectations of society to dictate her life, or would she defy the system and be with the man she loved? For Joan, the answer is obvious. By the finale of Mad Men, Joan manages to strike out on her own and subvert traditions in a way she never expected. She leaves her troubled marriage and starts her own business, finding her happiness in her own self worth. Both Joan and Violetta begin in similar frameworks with drastically different details, but they settle on a common goal: they would rather have love and self-respect than be ruled by society.
Figaro (Il barbiere di Siviglia and Le nozze di Figaro) AKA The Doctor (Doctor Who)
If any character in an opera is secretly a 900 year old time traveling alien in disguise, it’s Figaro. Though he is the title character of two popular operas, neither story is completely about him. In Barbiere, he is there to help the Count woo Rosina and the whole ordeal plays out mostly for Figaro’s entertainment. That sounds like a certain Time Lord who also stumbles into outlandish situations, makes fast friends, and helps them with their personal problems before moving on to a new companion. The Doctor may also be stopping a robot invasion, which is less relevant but could be happening in a more inventive European opera production. With Nozze, the story is just as much about the Count and Countess as it is the titular wedding. Similarly, the relationship between The Doctor’s companions has as much focus as the hero's quests to battle the Daleks or find Gallifrey. Consider that Barbiere parallels the David Tennant/Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who, while Nozze aligns more with the Matt Smith/Steven Moffat run. In the latter, things get a little darker, a little more complicated, and the title character gets married. Figaro himself changes so much between operas that he regenerates into a different vocal fach. Only time will tell if Jodie Whittaker’s new Doctor bares any similarity to the Figaro in The Ghost of Versailles.
From sitcoms to sci-fi to critically-acclaimed dramas, opera characters are all around. The next time you rewatch Parks and Rec instead of reviewing that new aria, don't feel guilty. After all, binge watching is not time-wasting laziness. It's character study.