I recently went to see Bohemian Rhapsody the movie about the band Queen. I knew that lead singer Freddie Mercury was an opera fan but I was impressed with the way opera was incorporated into the narrative.
There are three arias in the movie which are used as scene music. The first in “Un bel di vedremo* from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This is not the first time “Un bel di” has been used in a movie. Its most famous previous engagement was in Fatal Attraction.
In Bohemian Rhapsody “Un bel di” is playing as Freddie proposes marriage to Mary Austin. Upon further reflection the choice of this aria makes a lot of sense from the perspective of storytelling.
In Butterfly, CioCio San sings this aria after she has been married and abandoned by Pinkerton. In Bohemian Rhapsody it is inverted. The aria is presented before Mary Austin is abandoned by Freddie. It serves as an effective foreshadowing of Queen’s tour to America during which Freddie is tempted by coy truck driving bears slipping into darkened doors.
The second moment of opera comes as Queen is pitching their album A Night at the Opera. During this scene the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen plays as Freddie lays down the law to a record producer.
Again, the music fits the scene. Carmen is warning any potential lovers that if you fall in love with her, beware, she will do what she pleases as she pleases and not ask permission. Carmen will not be tamed but go ahead and fall in love with her if you must. You’ve been warned. Freddie is giving the same exact speech. Queen will make this album when they like as they like and not ask for any permission from a producer.
The final piece of opera isn’t as obvious but is no less effective. In this scene Freddie has purchased Mary an apartment next to his mansion. They (Freddie) have established a lamp signal where Freddie turns on a lamp by the window and Mary follows suit. During a bout of loneliness Freddie goes to his window lamp as “Signore ascolta” from Turandot plays. Freddie lights his end of the signal but Mary’s window remains dark.
The text of “Signore ascolta” is Liu’s confession to her lord that she can no longer bear the suffering of their situation. The aria is the voice of Mary’s darkened window.
The assimilation of opera into the story was as impressive and added a layer of culture and narrative to a very enjoyable movie, if you like Queen. And I do.