June 22, 2021

Pagliacci in pop culture

Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is among the most-performed operas in North America (14th), according to OPERA America — and its popularity extends well beyond opera-house stages. Arias and plot points from Pagliacci can be found throughout pop culture — in theater, television, film, and more.

In the opera, Canio, a jealous husband and leader of a small traveling theatrical company, is traditionally costumed as a clown for his main role in the commedia dell'arte troupe (“Pagliacci” means “Clowns” in Italian). This imagery, plus Canio’s heartbreaking and widely popular aria “Vesti la giubba,” make frequent appearances in other art forms.


The Marx Brothers parodied Pagliacci and incorporated highlights of the one-act opera into several of their musicals and films. During the 1928–1930 Broadway run of their last full stage play, Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx recited a self-penned philosophy of life that concludes with the line, "So be a real-life Pagliacci and laugh, clown, laugh." The poem didn’t make it into the 1930 film version of Animal Crackers, but is included on Groucho's 1974 comedy album An Evening With Groucho. The clown costuming and a few lines of “Vesti la giubba” also made their way into the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera (1935).

A Night at the Opera (1935) by the Marx Brothers.

In "The Opera" episode of Seinfeld, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer attend a performance of Pagliacci starring Luciano Pavarotti. Elaine's stalker, "Crazy" Joe Davola, buys a ticket from Kramer and sits near Elaine while dressed in a clown suit, scaring the group, each in different ways.

"The Opera" episode of Seinfeld.

Art beautifully imitates other art in the 1987 film, The Untouchables. In the movie, Al Capone (Robert DeNiro) goes to see Pagliacci and finds himself crying in his opera box during Canio’s tragic aria. Meanwhile, his henchmen enter his box and let him know that Jim Malone (Sean Connery) has been murdered by Capone’s men. Capone then finds himself laughing at the news while simultaneously weeping, mirroring Canio onstage.

It’s said that the Joker in Batman pulls a lot of inspiration from Canio in Pagliacci, to varying degrees depending on the iteration of the classic comic book stories. In this episode of the original Batman television series with Adam West as Batman and Cesar Romero as the Joker, the villain dresses up as a clown to sing “Vesti la giubba” in a Pagliacci TV broadcast as a disguise over his regular Joker clown makeup.

Cesar Romero as the Joker, costumed as Pagliacci's lead clown, in the original Batman television series.

In a popular episode of The Simpsons, “The Italian Bob,” the infamous Krusty the Klown performs in a production of Pagliacci at the Colosseum in Rome (where the Simpsons are vacationing and picking up a car for Homer’s boss). Krusty brings the Simpsons on as extras in the production. He sings terribly in the leading role and changes the lyrics of “Vesti la giubba” to “No more Rice Krispies…we are out of Rice Krispies…” referencing a 1960s TV commercial. Sideshow Bob finds the Simpsons on stage, corners them, and performs the climax of “Vesti la giubba” to a standing ovation. Kelsey Grammer won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for his portrayal of Sideshow Bob in this episode!

In an episode of the popular Nickelodeon series Hey Arnold!, the title character’s 4th-grade class takes a field trip to the opera to see Carmen. Arnold falls asleep and finds himself in a vivid dream featuring characters from famous operas. The class bully, Harold Berman, even appears dressed as a clown singing his own rendition of “Vesti la giubba” that goes, “I’m a big ugly clown, oh! A big, sad, ugly clown… oh!”

Harold Berman from Hey Arnold! dressed as Canio in Pagliacci.

Beyond television and movies, Pagliacci's influence extends into pop music of many genres. Give a listen to the opening of the Queen song “It’s a Hard Life” and you’ll hear influences from “Vesti la giubba:”

In the famous song “Mr. Sandman,” released in 1954 by The Chordettes, there’s a verse that name-checks the opera:

Mr. Sandman, bring us a dream
Give him a pair of eyes with a "come-hither" gleam
Give him a lonely heart like Pagliacci
And lots of wavy hair like Liberace

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’ 1967 hit “Tears of a Clown” also gives a nod to Pagliacci:

Now they're some sad things known to man
But ain't too much sadder than
The tears of a clown when there's no one around
Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my surface hid
Smiling in the crowd I try
But in my lonely room I cry

In Spike Jones’s spoof song “Pal-Yat-Chee,” he jokes about a group of cowboys who go to see Pagliacci thinking it’s about cowboys. The song was popular on The Spike Jones Show and is also featured on his album Spike Jones Is Murdering The Classics.

With its unforgettable characters and melodies that tug the heartstrings and convey the ultimate heartbreak, it's not hard to understand why Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is a popular go-to reference throughout television, film, and music. You'll have a chance to experience the iconic classic firsthand when Lyric releases an original film of the production featuring an all-star cast and members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus this August. To learn more about the Pagliacci film and project, visit www.lyricopera.org/pagliacci.

Header image: Lyric's 2008/09 production of Pagliacci; credit: Dan Rest

Other images: Courtesy of IMBd, YouTube, and Nickelodeon