Opera Meets Film: Renée Fleming’s Appearance in ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ More Than Meets the Eye

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 puts a highlight on Oscar frontrunner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

The 90th Academy Award nominations were announced on Wednesday and for those keeping track, the frontrunners are established and set. Based on the recent history of the awards, Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is slated to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this March.

The Best Picture front-runner is a unique film in that it slowly but surely devolves into utter chaos, which is the premise of McDonagh’s vision. Violence is everywhere. There are tons of shootings throughout. Discrimination is present. Racism. Someone gets burned alive and survives. The entire film starts because of a rape and murder that preceded the film’s plot.

And yet the film doesn’t begin in this manner.

It starts off with Renée Fleming.

The iconic sound of the American soprano dominates the opening shots of the film. Singing “The Last Rose of Summer,” McDonagh sets up the opening moments of film in a blissful light. We get daylight shots of the environment. All is peaceful and relaxed.

He didn’t have to start the film in this manner, but this is one of the strategies he employs throughout the film. He constantly creates expectations for the viewer and then throws them aside and moves in a completely different direction.

McDonagh could have chosen a different piece to kick off his movie that fits the tone. Or he could have picked a completely different interpretation of the song, one sung in a decidedly more familiar style for the traditional moviegoer.

But he opted for the operatic voice of Fleming, giving the opening of the film a more romantic quality. A more mystical feeling. Ebbing, Missouri doesn’t exist as a real place, and making this early decision supports the concept of a distant and even magical place. It sets up the film as a fairy tale of sorts.

That it winds up going somewhere else completely is the point entirely for McDonagh. And there is no denying that the initial setup certainly plays up the dynamics and contrasts of the film all the more.




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