Opera for Beginners: What do Star Wars, Jaws, and Tosca have in common?

Did you know that Puccini has influenced all film music, like Star Wars and Jaws? Today you'll learn about the motifs in the music of these movies and the opera Tosca by Puccini, a political thriller that involves crime and frightening emotions. A lethal story. Keep reading to learn more!

You know how when you read a book, characters are given names, right? Then as you read, you identify the character by it. Well, Puccini gave each character and situation a musical theme, a motif. This means that when a certain character is coming or a particular situation is about to develop, you'll hear "light motifs" or, in other words, music especially related to them. Therefore, by identifying the motifs, you get ready for what's coming because you got a heads up on which character is coming on stage or which situation will take place. Do you see what we mean? 

And that's how it happens in movies too! Think of Star Wars. Now, focus on Darth Vader? Simplifying it to the max, that music that you hear...it's his motif!  

Well, time's up! Let's get to Tosca's merciless story.

Top 5 things you'll learn:

1. What do Star Wars and Tosca have in common?
2. What the heck is going on?               
3. Analyzing the characters
4. Listen to Tosca's 4 main motifs 
5. Tosca's musical highlights

1. What do Star Wars and Tosca have in common? 

Motifs! A motif is a musical representation of a character, place, object, or theme. Let's begin with Star Wars. Watch the following video. At 1:25, a motif starts, announcing a character. Watch, listen, and try to guess who is the music announcing:

Ha, pretty obvious, right? Well, let's do the same with the movie Jaws. Listen and guess, who's coming?

So, our point is that this musical representation, or motif, was successfully used by Puccini in Tosca almost 200 years ago, isn't that amazing? He was using for his operas what we use now in movies to help the listener foresee what will happen next!

2. What the heck is going on?

Historical Context
In 1796, when Napoleon first invaded northern Italy, the country was divided into ten states, ruled by different European nations. In early 1799, a
the coalition defeated the French and the old regimes were reinstated. This opera, which takes place on June 14, 1800, includes two historical moments, in Act I and II. For history lovers, here is what was going on,

"Napoleon, however, needed to defeat Austria, which controlled much of northern Italy, in order to secure his grip on power in France, and so he re-invaded, engaging the Austrians at Marengo (near the city of Alessandria in Piedmont) on June 14, 1800. The Austrian general reported victory on the afternoon of that day, as relayed at the end of Tosca, Act I; but later in the day, the French forces returned and reversed the outcome. That news is reported to Scarpia in Act II, immediately after Mario learns that Tosca has revealed the fugitive Angelotti's whereabouts. Scarpia, an officer of the police state of the Papacy, represents the old regime, while Napoleon's victory signifies the reduction of church power and the re-establishment of secular control. Angelotti is referred to spitefully by the police as a "republican" of Rome." 

Crocca, C. (n.d.). Tosca and Napoleon . Retrieved from https://www.operaguildofrochester.org/opera-performance-essays


  • Baron Scarpia. Chief of Police. An absolutely detestable man. He feels a sick attraction to Tosca, close even to rape tendencies.
  • Cesare Angelotti. A republican fugitive who escaped prison, later helped by Cavaradossi.
  • Floria Tosca. Super famous singer, a diva. Faithful and loyal but extremely jealous.
  • Mario Cavaradossi. Painter, Tosca's lover. A republican too, not in good terms with Scarpia.
Act I
After escaping prison, Angelotti hides in a church. Cavaradossi arrives to continue working on a painting and they meet, promising Angelotti to help him hide. Tosca arrives, knowing nothing about Angelotti, and invites Mario to her villa for a romantic evening after her evening performance. A jealousy scene takes place, but Tosca leaves more in love than ever. Angelotti and Cavaradossi finish planning, being helped by the fugitive's sister who has been hiding women's clothes, including a fan, in the church for her brother to wear. Angelotti flees to hide where Angelotti has suggested. 

Napoleon has lost and a choir comes in to celebrate the victory. Suddenly, Scarpia and his men interrupt. They are looking for the republican fugitive. Scarpia finds the fan and figures out what's going on. Tosca returns and he takes the opportunity to win her by showing her the fan and making her rage of jealousy suggesting Cavaradossi has betrayed her. Everyone leaves and Scarpia remains to sing about his love for Tosca. 

Act II

Scarpia brings in Cavaradossi to be interrogated. Later, Tosca turns up. Scarpia is jealous of Tosca's love for the painter, and add it that he also wants Tosca to confess where Angelotti is hiding. He orders Cavaradossi to be tortured in the room next door. Tosca is listening to his suffering and can't bear it anymore. She confesses. 

Later, Cavaradossi is brought in. He asks Tosca if she kept the secret and...she lies. She says she did, but Scarpia gives her away and Cavaradossi's heart is broken. 

News arrives that Napoleon has won. Cavaradossi's hanging is ordered. Tosca begs Scarpia for a way out. Her body. She says yes. There'll be a fake execution. After it, they can leave. Before he gets his prize, she asks for a document so they can later runoff. She gets it, he forces himself into her and...she stabs him. Important to notice, she does pray before leaving. Just saying.


While in prison, Cavaradossi sings his love for Tosca. She visits him and explains. He forgives her and they talk about the plan: he should fake his own death, and then they will flee together. 

The execution takes place. Cavaradossi fakes extremely well and Tosca waits for everyone to leave. She rushes to his side and finds out they've been betrayed. He's dead. She's devastated. When they are coming to get her, she kills herself. 

Everyone died. 

3. Analyzing the Characters

Floria Tosca, The Diva of the Opera 
Tosca is one of the biggest divas of all time. Her attitude is that of a strong and independent woman. In the opera, we don't really know a lot about her past but, in the original play by Victorien Sardou, we learn that she was an orphan girl found by monks. With them and in church, she learned to sing. One day, after singing to the pope, she became an opera singer. That’s when she became a big star, a diva.

The first time we see her in the opera, she is a jealous woman with no patience who needs to be in control and know everything. During the opera, Tosca undergoes a change through the opera (the story takes place in 2 days, June 17- 18, 1800) and becomes a different woman. Like in many other operas, Floria Tosca goes through the path of love, except she is not ready to be abused. She does everything her own way.

In the second act, we can already see the “second Tosca”. Scarpia tries to manipulate her in order to save her love, Mario Cavaradossi, but she won’t allow it: She goes and kills Scarpia at the moment he gives an order not to kill Mario. Murdering the most powerful man in Rome is not an easy task, but Tosca did it. During this act, she sings her famous aria Vissi d'arte, where, for the first time in the whole opera, she makes herself look like a victim, hurt, damaged and weak. This is the only moment when she seems vulnerable and powerless. Floria sings, “I lived for my art, I lived for love, I never did harm to a living soul!” Tosca defends herself to save Cavaradossi until we see that her plan doesn’t work and we get into a tragic ending.

In the third act, Tosca goes to Mario and tells him to play dead whenever they shoot him (futile bullets), and for one minute she believes that he is alive but then she sees the truth. He is dead. It’s at that moment that she realizes she’s lost everything in life, from being a woman with power and respect she becomes a woman who has nothing but has turned into a murderer, having killed her love, Mario. This is the third Tosca. The instant she’s conscious of this, Floria Tosca takes her life into her hands and jumps off the battlements of Rome's Castel Sant' Angelo to find her death. She had nothing else to lose, or did she? 

Scarpia, The Villain
On Scarpia’s background, we know he was born in Sicily and there he was known for his cruelty at keeping the law. He was promoted and became the Police Chief of Napoli: Everyone knew that, behind his innocent face and his good looks, he was a horrible man.

Scarpia, as the head of Napoli’s police, is one of the most powerful men in Rome. For a long time, he’s been in love with Tosca, but she has refused him. When they meet at church, they play a game of politeness. Tosca knows exactly what he wants (her) and they both know who the real man behind Scarpia is (a villain); none of them want to make the other one angry. Scarpia tries to manipulate Tosca in Act 2, not by using physical force but by his eloquence. He tries to make a deal with Tosca: She will be his and Cavaradossi’s life will be spared. He uses his power to make her believe he will go through with his promise, but as we well know, he is deceiving and, this time, Tosca too trusting. He makes a promise we well know he’s not the kind to keep and won’t.

4. Listen to Tosca's 4 Main Motifs

Tosca has plenty of motifs which tell us a lot about the story. Each musical motif represents a character or situation and also repeats itself throughout the opera. Sometimes they change, sounding slightly joyful or sad. We'll look at the different motifs that appear in the opera and listen to them, their mood, and how they appear.
We'll cover four main motifs, three characters, and one idea.

Baron Scarpia's Motif, Chief of Police
The opera opens with Scarpia's theme. This theme is three chords. The chords sound pretty messy and they make Scarpia look like a mad and very scary man. With the first entrance of Scarpia, the motif appears again.  For the rest of the opera, these three chords will come back when a character refers to him, even if someone is only thinking of him. Later, you'll notice that Puccini changed the chords when Tosca kills Scarpia: She finally feels victorious. 

Scarpia's Original Theme: Score and A

Cesare Angelotti's Motif, Fugitive
His motif appears just after Scarpia's at the beginning of the opera. It sounds a bit sneaky and revolutionary, exactly like him. A man who repels the government and escapes from prison. This motif rarely appears during the opera, but in Act One it mostly repeats and appears sometimes. 

Angelotti's Motif: Score and Audio

Tosca's Motif 
A gentle theme with a tough expression. What happens is that Tosca enters the stage and calls, “Mario, Mario, Mario'', to what he replies, “I am here”. It is then that magically the motif appears. It also repeats in the love duet and at the beginning of Tosca's famous aria Vissi d'Arte. We think that this theme shows exactly who Tosca is, her emotions, power, and strength.

Tosca's Motif: Score and Audio

Love Motif
The love
theme appears during the love duet and in the reunion of Tosca and Mario at the end. This theme is a powerful one with so much emotion in it, actually Gabriel's favorite! It is accompanied by sextolas which gives it the feeling of movement till the top of the piece and then it ends completely, showing us that their love will stay forever.

Love's Motif: Score and Audio

5. Tosca's Musical Highlights

Love Duet, Act 1
Like in every opera, Tosca has a love duet. It's between Mario and Tosca and takes place at the end of Act 1. In Gabriel's opinion, it's one of the best ones ever. Why? Because it shows the inseparable souls of two lovers, starting as a dialog and slowly developing into a song. One of the most touching sections goes like this,

Watch the video and listen closely to the next section 11:05 - 11:43,

My life, my troubled one, beloved.
I shall always say, "I love you, Floria"
Set your uneasy heart at rest,
I shall always say "I love you."

Te Deum, Act 1
Te Deum, “We praise Thee, O God”, is an aria sung by Scarpia at the end of Act One. It's incredibly rich, containing different themes like lust, love, power, politics, and religion. It's also one of Gabriel's favorites because of two wonderful jewels one should listen to. One, the incredible mashup Puccini creates between a Latin Christian hymn called Te Deum and his own aria. The original hymn starts with bells as in the aria. On one hand, Puccini gives the audience the feeling of being inside a church, space where people pray experiencing a spiritual connection with God, while Scarpia is singing to Tosca. On the other hand, the theme he's singing about (his desire for Tosca) opposes the church’s principles, especially when Scarpia said, “Tosca you make me forget God.” In other words, the juxtaposition of the sacredness of religion versus Scarpia's dark feelings and thoughts is masterfully handled. Our second jewel is the aria's development. It goes slowly, from quiet church bells, then an organ, to later turning into a whole orchestra and a choir. We suggest you look for a very special moment when the choir, Scarpia, and the bells are singing at the same time; everything comes together in a powerful grandiose part. Finishing Act 1 like this is what makes it superb! 

If you'd like to listen to the original hymn, you can do it here

Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore, Act 2 
This is the most famous aria of the opera. Tosca is talking to Scarpia right before she murders him. Notice how, throughout the opera, Tosca is a determined and powerful woman, having things done any way she fancies and always in control. It's during this aria where we have the opportunity to observe her weak and powerless. She sings about what she lived for, how she lived for art and love, questions her life, and what she has done to get where she's at. 

I lived for my art, I lived for love,

I never did harm to a living soul!
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of.
Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.
In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?

E lucevan le stelle, Act 3
E lucevan le stelle is sung by Mario before his death and while he waits for his execution. The aria opens with a famous clarinet solo and then passed on to the orchestra. Mario is literally talking about life and death, giving it a sorrowful, painful feeling. 

When the stars were brightly shining ...
And faint perfumes the air pervaded,
Creaked the gate of the garden ...
And footsteps its precincts invaded ...
'Twas hers, the fragrant creature.
In her soft arms, she clasped me...

With sweetest kisses, tenderest caresses,
A thing of beauty, of matchless symmetry in form and feature!
My dream of love is now dispelled forever.
I lived uncaringly and now I die despairing!
Alas, I die despairing!
And never was life so dear to me, no never,
So dear, no never!

We've come to the end of our "brief" introduction to Tosca by Puccini. Before leaving you with additional resources in case you'll like to learn more about Tosca, special thanks to Gabriel'* not only for the illustrations and videos he's created but his hard work with pianist Dani Dvorkin. Thank you both for your enthusiasm and wonderful recordings. To find opera lovers is a gift to treasure. Thanks.

Oh! If you haven't read our posts on The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, here are the links to part 1 and part 2

*Gabriel Katz is a 16-year-old student, clarinet player, opera lover, and a dear friend. He lives in Israel. To get in touch with him, gabrielkatz2@gmail.

Additional resources:






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