There was an art house movie in the early 80’s called “Diva.” The film became something of a cult classic. The complicated plot almost defies short summarization, but at the movie’s center is a unique plot device that is pure genius.


The main character in the movie is Jules, a mailman in Paris. Jules is obsessed with opera and in particular with the American opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins (brilliantly played by Wilhelmina Wiggins Fernandez). A fundamental part of Hawkins’s artistic philosophy is that she will not permit her singing to be recorded. Jules, well aware of Hawkins’s beliefs, nevertheless surreptitiously records one of Hawkins’s performances at a recital. Several different sets of bad guys become aware of the bootleg recording, causing Jules to flee and the bad guys to pursue, leading to one of the all-time great movie chase scenes, set the Paris Metro. The plot is even more complicated than I can convey in a summary; for example, Jules also has a cassette tape of a second recording having to do with corruption in Paris police department, and for which the police are separately pursuing him.


The movie is very entertaining and recently has gone through something of a revival. But while I can certainly recommend the movie, my subject today is not the movie itself. It is rather the music that Hawkins sings in Jules’s bootleg recording.


The music Hawkins sings in the recording is the famous aria from Alfredo Catalani’s 19th Century Opera, La Wally. The opera is not performed often these days (likely due to the difficulty of staging the final scene, in which the opera’s heroine, La Wally herself, commits suicide by throwing herself into an avalanche). However, while the opera itself may be almost forgotten, the aria, Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (“Well, then? I’ll go far away”), remains a calling card for many leading operatic sopranos, including, in her day, Maria Callas.


La Wally sings the famous aria in the opera’s first act. Her father, fearing that she is falling in love with his enemy, seeks to force her to marry a man she does not love, and in the aria she declares her willingness to flee and take her chances in the alpine snows rather than do as her father commands. The lyrics of the aria, which are sung in Italian, go something like this in English:


Well? I will go far away,
As far as the echo of the church bell,
There, through the white snow,
There, through the golden clouds,
There, where hope is regret and pain.


Oh, Wally is going far away,
Far from her mother’s happy house.
Maybe she won’t come back to you
You’ll never see her again.
Never again, never again.


I will go alone and far
As far as the echo of the church bell,
There, through the white snow;
I will go, I will go alone and far
Through the golden clouds.


I have inserted below a video of the scene in which Jules records Hawkins singing the aria, while attending a recital at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. The high art of the music presents such an interesting contrast to the gritty, Parisian underworld feel that otherwise pervades the movie. Occasional excerpts from the aria float throughout the movie, grace notes providing an ethereal, almost spiritual tone to what might otherwise have been merely an action movie (albeit, under Jean-Jacques Beineix’s direction, a high concept and stylish action movie). Watching and listening to the performance, you can certainly appreciate how Jules became obsessed with Hawkins. And how the aria  became so iconic, as well.