Vincerò! Vincerò! You don’t have to be an opera buff to spontaneously sing along with these words in the right tune. After all, everyone is familiar with the aria from Turandot that ends with these words. You don’t just hear ‘Nessun dorma’ at the opera and on classical music radio stations; it is also a firm favourite with film studios, pop music programmes, TV talent shows and football stadiums. How did Puccini’s ‘Nessun dorma’ become such a phenomenon in popular culture?
By Eline Hadermann
In its original version as an aria in Puccini’s Turandot, ‘Nessun dorma’ is sung by Calaf, the ‘unknown’ prince, at the start of the third act. He has solved Turandot’s three riddles and now she is required to marry him. But he gives her one way out: if she can discover his name before dawn the next day, he will release her from her obligation. His proposal lands all of Peking in turmoil because Turandot sets everyone in the city to work to find out his name. Calaf can therefore be certain that “none shall sleep” while he stands on the steps of Turandot’s palace and confidently proclaims: “My secret is hidden within me, no one shall know my name. When the dawn light appears, I will reveal it to your lips! And my kiss will dissolve the silence that makes you mine! ... At dawn, I will win! ...” Puccini’s marvellous melodies and harmonies reinforce that sense of self-confidence and victory, especially when the tenor puts all his power into singing the challenging final notes — a sustained high B and A.
The orchestrated melody and the text combine to make this aria a true victory anthem. It is therefore no surprise that the aria has also been used in other settings that require a similar effect. Take the Daredevil TV series: the season ended with climactic images of a crime network being uncovered, with ‘Nessun dorma’ as the background music. But Puccini’s aria was also used in the British comedy Bend it like Beckham (2002), in which a British-Indian girl controversially decides to join a women’s soccer team. When she scores the winning goal at the end of the film after a dramatic tackle, the viewer is swept up in the joy of the moment not just by the slow-motion images but also because Calaf’s ‘Vincerò’ adds to the emotional power.
‘“Nessun dorma” became a firm favourite during the 1990 football World Cup.’
That soccer film undoubtedly drew inspiration from football history, given that ‘Nessun dorma’ played such an important role during the World Cup in Italy in 1990. Luciano Pavarotti’s recording of the aria from 1972 was used as the theme song for the British TV broadcasts of the tournament. And at the final in Rome, Pavarotti sang ‘Nessun dorma’ live with the two other tenors: José Carreras and Plácido Domingo. The aria would remain inextricably linked in people’s minds to the 1990 World Cup, as is demonstrated by the fact that The Guardian journalist Lee Calvert’s football podcast is called ‘Nessun dorma’.
Signature song of the stars
With his performances at football matches, star tenor Pavarotti took the popularity of ‘Nessun dorma’ to a whole new level. As a major opera star in the 1990s and 2000s, this became his signature aria that he performed not only at classical concerts, but also at venues aimed at a mass audience such as Madison Square Garden. In 1998, he was even scheduled to perform the aria in Radio City Music Hall in New York to celebrate the fortieth edition of the Grammys. He had to cancel due to illness and was replaced not by another tenor but by Aretha Franklin. Her soulful pop version of the aria can be heard on her compilation album Jewels in The Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen. And thanks to YouTube, her live performance at the Grammys can still be enjoyed, going down in history as “the moment Aretha invented Opera Soul” and “one of the greatest contributions to modern music”, according to one of the thousands of comments.
‘The aria regularly features in talent competitions.’
Aspiring opera stars also often seek inspiration in the aria’s triumphant spirit, and ‘Nessun dorma’ frequently features in talent shows. The British phone salesman Paul Potts and the Dutch baker Martin Hurkens, both apparent underdogs, won Britain’s Got Talent (2007) and Holland’s Got Talent (2010) respectively. When these shy, ordinary men sang the aria, its emotionally charged subtext and the context of insuperable self-confidence turned their performances into a spectacular success, garnering them a great deal of publicity.
Puccini died before he was able to finish his last opera, Turandot. Based on the annotations he had left, fellow composer Franco Alfano wrote a finale for Turandot in which the familiar theme of ‘Nessun dorma’ returns in an ecstatic closing scene where Princess Turandot rather suddenly changes her mind and falls in love with Prince Calaf. Unfortunately, we will never know how Puccini would have ended the opera or how he would have woven ‘Nessun dorma’ into that finale.
- Turandot will run from 2 to 30 December 2022 at Dutch National Opera.