Explain the Diva Plavalaguna song to me, please?
April 16, 2013 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Please explain, in simple terms, the Diva Plavalaguna song, from the film The Fifth Element to me. I'd like to know more about the technical aspects of the song. I'm looking for the terms I'd need to plug into Google to find more music of the same style. I'm specifically talking about the first part of the song where the singer is singing in Italian, not the electronica-y second part. Also, I'm looking for recommendations for other similar music.

Things I like about the song:
1] Female singer with a strong voice.
2] The singer's voice is front and centre. The instruments are in the background and less relevant.
3] She holds the notes over different words and even changes notes during a given word, during "discesa", "nemici" and "t'assidi" for example.

Opera as a search term isn't really cutting it, mainly because (I'd guess) it's either not correct or not specific enough.
posted by Solomon to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
The beginning of the piece is an aria from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. I think any youtube search for opera arias will yield many results that satisfy your criteria.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:55 AM on April 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

I sometimes listen to this if I'm in the mood for that. Maybe it will hold you over while waiting for someone to explain it. :)

(Operatica "O", Vol 1)

On preview: Oops, I got the wrong end of the stick. Sorry, no non-electronica operatic stuff here.
posted by Infinity_8 at 9:56 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just to get you started, she's singing this aria.

I would listen to a number of arias and decide what you like/don't like. The things you list as liking are things that are common to classical opera.

I really like Mozart, and Don Giovanni (which has some strong arias) but YMMV.
posted by selfnoise at 9:57 AM on April 16, 2013

Donizetti wrote a style of opera called Bel Canto. Other well-known composers you might want to search for in this style are Rossini and Bellini. Another great keyword you can use is "mad scene" or "operatic mad scene". The famous Maria Callas was a specialist in this kind of thing.
posted by matildaben at 10:00 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The general term for what you want is "aria." It has a lot of formal characteristics that you may or may not be interested in, but speaking experientially it's the part in the opera where the action is interrupted, the other characters go off-stage or retreat to the background, and one singer comes to the front and delivers a virtuosic solo performance with (usually) some accompaniment from the orchestra, which sounds like exactly what you're looking for. There are a lot of famous arias, and probably the easiest way to start into exploring them is to index your search by some famous opera composers: Puccini ("Quando me'n vo"), Bizet ("Habenera"), Verdi ("Addio del passato"), and Mozart ("Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" -- this one is chock-full of coloratura singing, another term that might be useful to you, which is characterized by highly embellished melodies, wordless syllables, and all-round technical fireworks) are some good composers to start with, and I also just found this: The Aria Database.

Also, the multiple notes on a single syllable thing is called "melisma".
posted by invitapriore at 10:04 AM on April 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Wow, a million answers popped up in the meantime that make mine a little redundant, but there you go.
posted by invitapriore at 10:05 AM on April 16, 2013

Oh, and just personally, I really love the Fire aria from Ravel's "L'enfant et les sortileges."
posted by invitapriore at 10:07 AM on April 16, 2013

Best answer: "Bel canto" means "beautiful singing." The term is kind of a "you know it when you hear it" thing that is sort of a vague reference to an era and group of composers, but a lot of other stuff has bel canto qualities.

Matildaben has it right on for composers -- Donizetti, Bellini, etc. Callas did a lot of that stuff, as did Joan Sutherland; Natalie Dessay is one of many who do it now; she's known for her acting.

Another very well known bel canto aria is Casta diva from Norma (which you may have heard during the restaurant scene on Mad Men this week).

Terms to think about:
Line: Bel canto is all about loooooooooong lines. This includes melismas, but more often just having a long, long time between breaths. The phrasing is absolutely critical. Breath control is a monster. That's why bel canto is often seen as being more difficult than other styles.
Florid: this is kind of what it means when people bring up melismas. Lots of noodling. But the noodling often comes sort of at the edges of long notes (ornamentation), instead of just twirling up and down scales and arpeggios.
Coloratura: The classic example of this is the Queen of the Night aria (Der hölle Rache) from Magic Flute, or perhaps something like Una voce poco fa from Barber of Seville. (Rossini is sometimes considered a bel canto composer, and was in the same era and country, but I feel like his best-known stuff really isn't.) Coloratura arias are typically show pieces. Crazy high notes, crazy melismas just for the sake of having melismas and junk all over the place. Often very peppy-sounding, even if they're describing something dramatic.

Coloratura can describe a kind of singing as well as a kind of opera. So a bel canto aria will likely have some coloratura elements, but a coloratura aria will not usually be described as having bel canto elements.

So when you're thinking about bel canto vs. coloratura, or other showy stuff, bel canto will always emphasize a very graceful vocal line (usually quite a bit slower) and emotion, and the aria will have a feeling of being stretched out in form. There's a sense that the singer really linnnnnngers.

The orchestral accompaniment in bel canto will also typically have a lot more going on than in coloratura arias, where the emphasis will be on getting out of the way to show off the singer -- sort bursts of chords with more of a bass-line accompaniment.

One of the reasons that Maria Callas was so prized as a bel canto singer was likely all of the drama in her life: she had this sort of tragic and dramatic and deeply emotional air about her that fit the music and storylines very well. And she could of course sing things like Rossini, (and did, in the same concert), but the bel canto repertoire just felt right.

You might consider looking for the Met Opera broadcasts and see if they do them at any movie theaters in your area. They're really great because you can see the emotions close up as well as get backstage peeks during intermissions, etc. Renee Fleming is a hoot if she hosts because she's such a faaaaabulous singer but she talks like someone's Minnesotan mom. Natalie Dessay is a wonderful singer to watch as well as a wonderful host.

Cecilia Bartoli is one of God's special creatures, and should be taken as such. She's worth it for the expressions alone, but she also lives and breathes Italian opera. (She won't even do German lieder.)

And for a real jump in style that you might just love, try Renee Fleming (whom I prefer to Jessye Norman, but ymmv) singing Strauss' Four Last Songs (Vier letzte lieder). Just kill me now. Unbelievable.
Beim Schlafengehn
Im Abendrot

I think German expressionism (Richard Strauss, Mahler, etc.) really got awfully close to bel canto there at the end, but the interesting thing is that it came more from an extension of the symphonic form than operatic. Strauss was of course an opera composer, with things like Der Rosenkavalier, but he was drawing on the same older classical forms (the classical era, of Mozart and early Beethoven) that the bel canto composers did.

Mahler: Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen

So you can hear a lot of that same looooong line and emotion in these pieces from Germans in the early 20th century, who had a much more worldly view on things, as you do from the bel canto folks from a century before.
posted by Madamina at 10:57 AM on April 16, 2013 [71 favorites]

invitapriore has it, but I just want to add that this specific aria (the operatic part, not the electronic/enhanced bits) is a wonderful example of coloratura mastery.

I am not an opera expert, but I am a former singer (classically trained as a child). In a nutshell, there is a sharp divide between the older, more Baroque and highly ornamented coloratura technique, and the more "modern" powerful, technically simplistic and (to my ear) overly bombastic "Wagnerian" technique (idk what it's really called, I only know it's what led me to assume I hated opera for so long) that highlights simplicity and power over agile ornamentation and flexibility.
posted by lonefrontranger at 10:58 AM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

ah yes, thank you Madamina... thirty years on from any sort of practice and/or training, and I had utterly forgotten the distinction of bel canto technique. The breath control, agility and graceful attack, I think, is what you are liking about that aria. It's what I like about it, anyhow :)
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:12 AM on April 16, 2013

Best answer: Lovely answer from Madamina there.

Now just in case you didn't know, in the opera, Lucy (Lucia de Lammermoor, or the Bride of Lammermuir) is in love with Edgardo, whose family is having a feud with her family, so it's no go. They swear to be faithful to each other. Lucy's brother Edward wants her to marry Arturo, and shows her a forged letter 'proving' Edgardo's nicked off with someone else. So Lucia does marry the unfortunate Arturo.

Just as everyone's breathing a sigh of relief, down the stairs she comes in her bridal gown, covered in gore, and sings this marvellous song. She's stabbed Arturo to death and gone completely crazy.

There's a lot more to-ing and fro-ing but that's basically it, and then everybody dies.
posted by glasseyes at 11:38 AM on April 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, everybody dies, except for the poor suffering chorus members singing on their backs while wearing corsets.

I had the best hair ever in that show.
posted by Madamina at 1:24 PM on April 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I think Madamina and glasseyes win the thread.

Knowing the backstory of the song makes me love it to the power of 10.
posted by Solomon at 2:21 PM on April 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just a quick note about "bel canto." It seems that while the approach to singing signified by that term existed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, that exact expression was invented some time after the fact, essentially to describe a method that was (in the opinion of the speaker) falling into neglect and decadence. In a way "bel canto" is like "film noir"-- directors were making shadowy, morally ambiguous movies for a decade before anyone coined a term for the genre.

Now, as to mad scenes, this trope (the heroine losing her reason and therefore indulging in a long sequence of flashy vocals) was used fairly widely in operas of the early 19th century. The formal term for this sort of number was "scena," which obviously means "scene," that is, a sequence of dramatic moments that required the leading lady to express a wide variety of emotions through her voice. Thus, in the Lucia excerpt, the murderess first imagines she hears the voice of her lover calling to her to flee from the wedding, to join him at their old meeting place. Then she believes she sees a violent ghost murdering her lover, and then she describes her wedding, this time to the man she loves.

Some other mad "scenas" include Elvira's great aria in I puritani. This Puritan maiden has lost her mind because she has seen her fiance (a Royalist) fleeing from the palace with a mysterious woman (who turns out to be Queen Henrietta Maria, but never mind that.)


There is also the final scene of La sonnambula. Here the heroine is a sweet little village girl who one night sleepwalks into the bed of a visiting nobleman, and wow is her boyfriend bent out of shape. But then she sleepwalks again (across a rickety bridge!) and her reputation is restored. "The human mind cannot conceive of the happiness I feel," she sings.


The notorious Lucrezia Borgia suddenly realizes that among the group of men she just vengefully poisoned is... her own son!


Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London regains her reason just in time to forgive the "wicked couple," Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, before marching to her execution.


Even Queen Elizabeth I has her less than lucid moments thanks to bel canto.

posted by La Cieca at 10:15 PM on April 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't know bel canto but I know what I like. And I really like this album.
posted by gertzedek at 9:07 AM on April 17, 2013

As an aside, a singer or musician's failed attempt at Bel Canto style, performing it without sufficient subtlety or control, is sometimes jokingly referred to as Can Belt-o.
posted by Coaticass at 1:46 PM on April 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yes, if you haven't seen Cecilia Bartoli do Vivaldi's "Agitata da due venti" from La Griselda, you're missing out on something... major.

Also, as a Lucky Strike Bonus, here is a drag queen, Kimchilia Bartolli doing a parody. Because... wait... you really want reasons?
posted by jph at 8:01 AM on May 10, 2013

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