Opera Meets Film: How ‘Caro Mio Ben’ Explores The Universal Emotional Truths of Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell’By David Salazar
“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell.”
Wang’s masterful film tells the story of a Billi and her family seeing Nai Nai (Billi’s grandmother) for what they believe to be the last time. She has cancer and as the film notes, people in Chinese see this word as a death sentence. But the family agrees to never tell her about her diagnosis, allowing her to enjoy her final days without the fear of impending doom.
The family comes together under the pretense of a wedding of Billi’s cousin, the film constantly building toward this moment of celebration in a time of deep sorrow and pain.
So for this moment where Nai Nai seems at her happiest and most content, Wang brings in the famed song “Caro mio ben” by Tommaso Giordani. In the film, the piece is sung as a diegetic performance, though it eventually takes on a non-diegetic life of its own that explores the film’s emotional core and pain.
The song is itself a declaration of pain and sorrow without a loved one. “Dearest, my beloved, believe me at least this much, without you, my heart languishes,” says the piece’s main melody with B-section asking for cruelty to end between the narrator and the object of his/her affection.
While the song is sung by both male and female voices of all FACHs, it is sung here by soprano Hyesang Park (with director Lulu Wang at the piano). It’s not a surprising choice given that Billi is the film’s protagonist and her journey and the pain of saying goodbye not only to her grandmother but her history in China, is at the core of the story. The non-diegetic exploration of the song thus becomes Billi’s own lament.
But the film suggests that to see this as Billie’s lament is limited in both narrative and emotional terms. First off, much of the sequence that is shown over the song actually places an emphasis on her cousin crying. These aren’t tears of joy, but of pain and grief; earlier in the sequence we had seen his father, Billie’s uncle, also breakdown in thanking his mother for her support.
The choice of an operatic voice gives the scene an added emotional pathos due to its abstract and eternal qualities; this isn’t a vocal expression that has been tampered or edited with in the way a digital voice is on a lot of modern music. Its natural quality emphasizes the emotional veracity that the film seeks to explore.
This was furthered by composer Alex Weston’s score, which utilizes voices in a similarly abstract manner; he noted in an interview that the goal was to use the voices as a Greek Chorus to emphasize the theme of community that the film constantly explores.
It also shouldn’t be ignored that while much of the movie favors Mandarin as its main language, adding another language within the context of the story adds to the universality of the emotion experienced by Billie and her family.