Opera Meets Film: How ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ Transforms The Queen of Night’s Aria in ‘Die Zauberflöte’

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 the Zac Efron movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”

For many, listening to the Queen of the Night’s famed “Der Hölle Rache” suddenly appear at the emotional climax of “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” will come as a surprise. But it will likely be more than that. Hearing what the filmmaker Joe Berlinger and the music team have done with the iconic selection might actually wind up being exactly the title.

Liz Kendall, Ted Bundy’s long-time girlfriend, has just confronted the serial killer in prison and finally learned the truth from him. She’s been conflicted over the situation throughout the entire movie and ascertaining the reality of the situation is a means of freeing her emotionally.

But it’s not that simple and the film takes a moment to explore the catharsis through the pain she feels in this moment. She now knows that this man she loved was a monster and it is no surprise that the trauma from that fallout would be all the more potent. To underscore this moment, we hear an arrangement of “Der Hölle Rache” but slower, harmonized differently, and ultimately a completely different piece of music despite the same melody. It is grating, eerie, and strange hearing this famed aria like this. For purists, this would be appropriation of the worst kind and yet that is exactly in keeping with the film’s overall theme.

Like Kendall, Berlinger aims to abuse and disappoint his audience by subverting storytelling. Throughout “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” the audience is asked to empathize with Ted Bundy, despite likely coming in with previous knowledge about his heinous crimes. And despite resistance, you can’t help but feel captivated by Zac Efron’s charismatic performance (no doubt casting him was a similarly calculated choice with this very aim in mind). After sitting through the film, you can’t help but feel like Kendall – unsettled, annoyed, betrayed, and let down on some level.

So the Queen of the Night’s aria hits at a similar level. Those familiar with the aria (it is pretty renowned, getting used in a number of commercials recently) will be similarly disturbed at hearing it in its new transformation. It doesn’t sit comfortably, but it is exactly what the filmmakers aim and achieve to do.


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