Opera Meets Film: How Fellini Dialogues With the Audience Through Opera in ‘And the Ship Sails On’

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 Federico Fellini’s “And the Ship Sails On.”

Fellini’s “And the Ship Sails On (E la Nave Va),” kicks off in silent sepia, observing as a number of members of the aristocracy make their way toward a massive ship. Funeral processions take shape in what appears to be a mix of gravity and joviality. Eventually, the film color seeps into the frame alongside sound, the artifice of the process prepping the viewer for what is to come.

And it comes quickly because moments later all of these people start engaging in a full-on performance of a medley based on Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.” It’s full-blown opera performance, Fellini accomplishing his goals of not only bringing us into the central world of the story but propagating this off-kilter feeling toward the proceedings throughout.

The former goal is vital as the main story revolves around the funeral of a famed opera star Edmea Tetua and how she impacted others around her. In this context, we see other members of the European aristocracy take the trip to pay their respects, as well as other operatic colleagues. The film’s honoring of Edmea allows for Fellini to toy with the concept of celebrity, death, and social decadence to often comic effect.

And this is where that second goal of creating an off-kilter feeling for the audience comes into play. Fellini is constantly reminding audiences of the artifice before him, not as a trick to the audience’s senses, but because he wants to engage and critique the social class on display in intricate fashion, especially when class conflict takes up the second half of the film. And he wants to do it in direct conversation with us.

This is perhaps most apparent and explicit in a later sequence where the guests head to the engine room and look down on the workers keeping the ship afloat. From their “ivory tower,” the singers are asked to sing something for the common folk engaged in arduous toil.

After much hesitation, one of the tenors decides he’s going to whip off a tremendous high note, engaging his audience. The other opera stars, either feeling envious or inspired, do the same and Fellini introduces the audience to its second operatic medley in the film. But instead of full-on arias or musical passages, the entire sequence showcases a bunch of artists throwing off one high note after another. Opera fans are likely to notice the major moments from “Il Trovatore” or “Rigoletto,” but those less discerning are likely to find the entire sequence bizarre and pedantic on the part of the singers.

And it is. It isn’t music or artistry, but showmanship and pandering from the opera singers, who believe that their audience wants nothing more than tricks from them.

It’s laughable and Fellini wants to make you laugh and reflect.

But as an opera lover it isn’t out of line to consider how this sequence also ridicules a common misconception of what opera is or has been represented as. The workers in the boat might applaud this cacophony of high notes, but the viewer watching the film (again Fellini constantly speaks directly into the camera to the viewer in more ways than one) cannot help but question what all this noise and its consequent diminishing returns are about. What does it mean? Opera lovers can also take this a step further and remember – opera is so much more than high notes, which are often the main standards by which opera singers are (unfairly) judged (both back in 1984 and even through today). Ultimately, in this scene, Fellini is not only presenting a challenge toward the social class, but to the audience on multiple levels.

The film will mirror this sequence later on when the Persian refugees, stuck on a lower part of the boat, begin to engage in their own musical performance of traditional music. The opera stars and the other aristocrats hang out at a “higher” part of the boat, looking down at the spectacle. But the refugees’ musical playing is substantial and full-fleshed – unlike the opera singers’ empty pyrotechnics, their music playing develops a feeling of community and has the corresponding effect of luring the aristocrats “down” to their level of the ship. When some members of this higher social class try to “teach” the refugees how to dance, one of them falls ill. Eventually the others find themselves engaging in the full experience of the party, offering up a contrast from the colder showing in the engine room earlier in the film.

Once again, Fellini is critiquing the hypocrisy and decadence of the aristocracy. Initially, they refuse to become mixed with the refugees and even have them cordoned off by a rope while refusing to give them food or other supplies. They only cross that line when it is for their joy and entertainment.

The film’s mirroring continues in the final sequence when the ship starts to sink. The refugees are helped off the boat while the ruling class sinks to another medley from a diverse range of Verdi operas including “La Forza del Destino,” “Aida,” and “La Traviata.” It circles back to that opening sequence where they boarded the ship to music from “La Forza.” Fellini is obviously bringing attention to his structure, but also a stark contrast to that opening.

We were never expecting the operatic gesture to kick off the film, but by this point, music has become so vital to the narrative’s development, that it only feels natural that these decadent characters would sink to their ends while singing opera. Where the opening sequence felt awkward, by this point, all the viewer can do is laugh at it all.

Considering Fellini’s constant jabs at the aristocracy throughout, this is his final joke on them.


Opera Meets Film