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'Lakme,' by Leo Delibes

Listen to the Story

Even people who say they never listen to classical music most likely encounter it nearly every day.

Tunes from the concert hall and the opera house often turn up in places where you might not expect them. In 1945, Frank Sinatra recorded the hit tune "Full Moon and Empty Arms" — which you can listen to right here if it doesn't immediately come to mind. Its soaring melody first appeared more than 40 years earlier, in Sergei Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto.

In 1953, Robert Wright and George Forrest had a Broadway hit with the musical Kismet. The show was adapted from the works of Russian composer Alexander Borodin, and one of its tunes tends to overshadow the others. The melody to the hit song "Strangers in Paradise" was originally a dance number in Borodin's historical opera Prince Igor. After Forrest added the words, any number of singers took it up. Alfred Drake sang it in the original cast, and Tony Bennett helped to make it a pop standard.

Still, there may be no classical tune — operatic or otherwise — that turns up in more varied places than the other-worldly "hit single" from this week's featured opera, Lakme by Leo Delibes.

In the drama's first act, with the plot barely underway, the title character and one of her servants pause by a river to gather flowers. Delibes gave them a duet, to help establish the opera's exotic atmosphere, and that "Flower Duet" (audio) has become one of the most familiar numbers any composer, in any genre, has ever written. You can hear it at the movies, on television shows, in elevators and shopping malls, and in all manner of commercials. Recently, it became a sort of TV theme song for British Airways ads, as the peaceful accompaniment to a jetliner floating through calm skies and wispy clouds. You can even download the number as a ringtone for your cell phone.

This week on World of Opera, we'll hear the duet straight from the source. Host Lisa Simeone brings it to us in a complete performance of the 1883 opera by Delibes, produced by the Montreal Opera at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.