Space Operas, Opera Spaces, and Musical (In)Humanity in Contemporary Sci-Fi Media

This post is written by network participant Dr. William Gibbons.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of The Fifth Element (1997) takes place at an opera performance on a spacefaring cruise ship. Seeking help from the opera singer Plavalaguna, protagonists Dallas (Bruce Willis) and Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) catch up with the blue-skinned diva at a performance that begins with “Il dolce suono” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, then segues into the newly composed “Diva Dance.”

Plavalaguna’s alien body is exoticized in a visual counterpart to the literally inhuman sounds that emanate from it; to create the “Diva Dance,” composer Eric Serra wrote music that exceeded the upper and lower range of a human soprano, then digitally manipulated the singer’s voice to render it “alien”—the alien-ness of the music and its performer perfectly matched. At the same time, however, this scene is also one of The Fifth Element’s most poignant moments of humanity. Dallas’s hardened emotional walls soften enough to allow him a moment of introspection with major consequences for the plot—only when he can admit his feelings for Leeloo is she able stop the film’s villain.

This scene from The Fifth Element thus brings together two seemingly opposing aspects of how the genre is often represented in contemporary media: opera as “alien” and opera as profoundly “human.”

On the one hand, opera—and the singing voice in particular—creates alien experiences. Michal Grover-Friedlander, for instance, describes the sound of operatic voice as “artificial, stylized, eccentric, extreme, extravagant, exaggerated, excessive, grotesque, bizarre, irrational, and absurd. It is a voice at the limit of human capacity, bordering on the unnatural. It is ‘superhuman’ in its pyrotechnic acrobatic display.”¹

On the other hand, The Fifth Element also exemplifies what I call the “teardrop” moment in media—moments when a spectator (typically an emotionally unavailable opera skeptic) experiences a visible, visceral emotional response to opera, revealing their hidden emotional depths.² These “teardrop” moments capture the second half of Grover-Friedlander’s assessment of the operatic voice: it’s also “seductive and irresistible, and engenders states of ecstatic listening, passionate identification, introjection, the play of fantasy, and secret yearnings. It elicits physical, bodily, erotic responses…”³

The Fifth Element showcases all these: exoticism, eroticism, and emotionality. Although Plavalaguna is clearly marked as “alien,” she is nonetheless eroticized in both her appearance and in the way the “male gaze” of the camera approaches her. And the frequent cuts between the diva and close-ups of Dallas’s face suggest the emotional impact of the music; it’s not quite teardrops, but close enough.

By juxtaposing opera’s capacity for alienation with its capacity to humanize, this example exhibits extreme versions of two cinematic tropes: the “alien” opera singer is literally an alien, and Dallas’s teardrop moment literally saves the world. Perhaps the most remarkable thing, however, is that this scene isn’t alone in this kind of extreme juxtaposition.

My research for this project identifies several other examples from post-1990s sci-fi media in which the blending of opera’s “alien” and “human” elements creates crucial opportunities for characterization. In examples encompassing three Star Trek series and the Mass Effect trilogy of video games, I illustrate how opera scenes emphasize contemporary perceptions of opera and its performers as “inhuman,” yet also employ opera as a way to “humanize” emotionally distant male characters.


[1] Michal Grover-Friedlander, “Voice,” in The Oxford Handbook of Opera, ed. Helen M. Greenwald (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 318–319.

[2] Examples of the “teardrop moment” would include Moonstruck (1987) or Pretty Woman (1990), films in which operaphile men take their love non-operaphile love interests to the opera (Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi La Traviata, respectively), and in both films the women are visibly moved by the experience, illustrating the emotional depth lurking beneath their characters’ hardened exteriors. In both cases the characters specifically attend Italian opera—Puccini’s La Bohème (Moonstruck) and Verdi’s La Traviata (Pretty Woman)—perhaps calling to mind stereotypes about the emotionality of Italian opera in particular. On Moonstruck’s use of opera, see Marcia Citron, When Opera Meets Film (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chapter 5. On what I call the “teardrop” scene, see also Kordula Knaus, “Emotions Unveiled: Romance at the Opera in Moonstruck (1987), Pretty Woman (1990) and Little Women (1994),” Muzikoloski Zbornik (Musicological Annual) 48 (2012), 117–128.

[3] Grover-Friedlander, “Voice,” 319. Moreover, as Nicholas Till observes, “if opera is customarily exoticized, and queered in film, it has also consistently been feminized, being associated in particular with the ‘feminine’ attributes of emotionality.” Nicholas Till, “Opera and Our Others; Opera as Other,” in The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies, ed. Nicholas Till (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 318.

Dr. William Gibbons is Associate Professor of Musicology and Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University. His interdisciplinary research explores topics including musical canons and repertoires, as well as the history and interpretation of music in multimedia. His newest book, Unlimited Replays: Classical Music and Video Games (Oxford University Press, 2018), examines the complex relationship between these two media from a variety of perspectives, addressing topics from the prominence of classical music in early game soundtracks to the rise of orchestral game music concerts. His 2013 book Building the Operatic Museum (University of Rochester Press) addresses similar topics in a very different time and place, exploring issues of nationalism and historicism culture through the evolution of the modern operatic repertoire in France. In 2014 Gibbons co-edited the essay collection Music in Video Games: Studying Play for Routledge Press. He is currently co-editing a second volume for Routledge, Music in the Role-Playing Game: Heroes & Harmonies, to be published in 2019.