Opera Meets Film: ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ As a Call For Respect in ‘A Fantastic Woman’

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 we will take a look at Sebastian Leilo’s Academy Award-winning “A Fantastic Woman.”

“A Fantastic Woman” is a film filled with dark and dreary moments. It kicks off with the bliss of love between Orlando and a transgender woman, Marina. Moments after experiencing their joy we see Orlando die and Marina forced to overcome his discriminatory family (and society) just so she can say goodbye to him.

We experience Marina’s journey through these challenges until she eventually manages just one moment of true intimacy moments before Orlando’s body is no more.

It’s quite breathtaking and beautiful in its impact, but what happens next is even more so

After so many challenges and difficulties, we hear Marina stand up in front of an audience and perform “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s “Serse.”

The aria kicks off the opera with King Xerxes pondering the beauty of a favored tree. It is one of opera’s most famed melodies, it’s melody relaxing for the listener, matching the mood of the text in which Xerxes asks that “Never was a shade of any plant dearer and more lovely, or more sweet.”

On a superficial level, one might see this as Marina singing one final eulogy to her beloved Orlando – who loved her as she was. She never experienced that depth of love or acceptance as she did from Orlando. And now he is but a memory, a shade. It’s beautiful on that level alone, a true expression of love that is uplifting in its use of music and the fact that this character is not broken or unwilling to be defeated by losing the person who most loved and respected her. Despite all the difficulties she has experienced, Marina is still able to sing for all. She isn’t going anywhere.

But Leilo wants this final moment to be a hymn of peace for all people like Marina who face discrimination. Xerxes may be singing to a tree, but on a deeper level, he is contemplating the beauty of all nature. Marina and the people of the transgender community are creations of nature and should be treated with that same level of reference and respect as Xerxes treats a tree. In this final moment, he is also asking for their peace, acceptance, and love by all in the most beautiful way imaginable – through music.



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