Contemporary opera exhibits a wide range of motivations for and approaches to making musical allusions to the past, more so than in any other period in the genre's history. I find, contrary to common definitions of musical postmodernism, that allusions are typically meaningful and symbolic in recent postmodern operas. I briefly consider musical collage in operas that represent a proverbial ‘postmodern’ approach to the past, with operas by Cage and Corigliano serving as extreme cases. The core sections of the article are devoted to three of the most prominent contemporary composers whose operas illustrate the range of forms and motives musical allusion has taken over the past few decades: John Adams's Nixon in China (1987), Louis Andriessen's ‘film opera’ La Commedia (2008) and The Exterminating Angel (2016) by Thomas Adès. By detailing musical allusion in these works, I offer evidence in support of a revisionary understanding of these operas and the aesthetic stances of these composers, who each engaged extensively in musical allusion to varying degrees. I conclude with rather unexpected examples of operatic allusion by composers (Glass, Nova, Mazzoli) who typically do not reference the past in their works. For numerous recent composers, opera appears to function as a particularly powerful magnetic attraction to the past, pulling into its orbit the most unlikely figures and warping their proclaimed aesthetic profiles. For opera audiences, allusion is experienced differentially and shapes popular perceptions of the genre as a whole.