A lovely and supposedly impossible aria

January 12, 2021 • 2:00 pm

As Lord Randall said, “I’m weary wi’ hunting and fain wald lie down.” In my case, I’m weary of the incessant onslaught of bad news, which is now all over my social media, displacing the kitten photos I need as a palliative. So let’s end the day with a lovely aria from Chinese singer Jane Zhan. As the article in My Modern Met below notes (click on screenshot):

Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element was released more than two decades ago and is still considered one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever made. For fans of the cult film, there’s one scene that’s bound to stick out in your mind—the Diva Dance. Performed by an extravagant alien opera singer called Diva Plavalaguna, the blue-skinned, tentacle-headed character wows an audience with her impressive vocal range and otherworldly dance moves. In homage to the iconic scene, Chinese opera singer Jane Zhang sang her own rendition of the song, complete with a full orchestra.

The original Diva Dance was performed by Albanian opera singer Inva Mula-Tchako. According to movie trivia, the film’s composer Eric Serra designed the futuristic pop-opera to be technically impossible for a human to hit some of the high notes so quickly after another. Therefore, Mula-Tchako had to sing the notes individually so that they could then be arranged digitally. However, this didn’t stop Zhang from taking on the challenge, who hit every note perfectly without the help of any computer editing—mastering the seemingly impossible.


I haven’t seen the film, but here’s Zhang doing her aria in Chengdu, Szechuan. It really is a gorgeous piece of music and an real display of vocal virtuosity. Things get fancy around 3½ minutes in:

and here’s the original from the movie, with Mula-Tchako’s digitally-arranged singing:

65 thoughts on “A lovely and supposedly impossible aria

  1. Jerry, based on all you’ve shared here on WEIT regarding all matters cinema, I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t care too much for this movie. But I’d be very interested to find out.

    I, being somewhat less cultured, love this movie. It is quirky, strange and funny. The cast is composed of top actors, fashion models, Trip Hop stars and Tom Lister Jr. as president of Earth. What’s not to like about that?

    1. I remember liking it a lot, but haven’t seen it in many years. I’m normally very picky about sci-fi (or however you want to classify “The Fifth Element”), but you summed up probably why I did like this one: “it is quirky, strange and funny.”

      1. Same here. I don’t usually watch these types of movies or superhero stuff, but I used to join in with my kids, just as a family time. (Same with Mad Max Fury Road.) I ended up being totally engaged in and enjoying this movie. The operatic music clinched it for me.

  2. That aria is from Lucia Di Lammermoor by Donizetti: The famous “Mad Scene” .

    It was what propelled Joan Sutherland to her great fame. And yes, she more than mastered it. Sorry, but this young singer can’t really do it.

    Here is Dame Joan in her Covent Garden 1959 debut:

    1. Thanks for that, dd, i was just about to post the same.

      This music is 200 years old, from the great age of Bel Canto, and Joan Sutherland is the master of this aria. Not to mention bringing home the drama of the story (acting!), and avoiding the — to be polite — disaster in the Chinese clip and also the render from the film.

      Note: in a live performance with drums and effects, real time pitch adjustment, echo, compression … etc. are not only possible, but permitted and required in today’s faux singing. It goes without saying that these are liberally brought to bear in the soundtrack of a Hollywood film.

      Let pretenders stand at the footlights with not so much as a microphone and bring an audience of three thousand to tears. Dame Joan awaits the challenge.

      [Slide to 9:30 for Sutherland’s duet/contention with a flute. Half a minute later, she will teach you what High E-flat means.]

      1. Not to mention Zhang’s lack of texture and vibrato along many of the phrases. She’s clearly a talented singer, but she bit off more than she could chew here. Amateurish at best.

    2. The musicianship is absolutely ridiculous! It SHINES though on this old LIVE recording! There’s no production tricks to cover on this – the real deal! Gotta write this down…

  3. Yes, “Il dolce suono, the *incipit* of the Mad Scene. And while the Chinese soprano is certainly impressive, I’m not sure that she actually covers all of the notes that Inva Mula Tchako hit. I’d have to listen to them repeatedly one after the other to be sure; give this a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Vjss1nbJ2U

    Also, there’s some doubt in my mind whether Ms. Mula Tchako hit all of the notes either, digitally rearranged or not–it sounds to me like a few of them are not merely doubled, but actually handed off to a flute or perhaps even a piccolo. (I’m not confident about the tessiture of those instruments.) And of course, it could be a synthesizer as well.

    Anyway, Mula Tchako was no doubt sensational. I remember, many years after The Fifth Element came out, going to the L.A. Opera to see a production. Something modern that I wasn’t familiar with, and don’t recall now what it was. But out comes this soprano (I didn’t know at the time who she was), but ONE note out of her, and there was no doubt in my mind. I said to mi novia: “That’s Plavalaguna!” And it was.

  4. While I applaud her and the amount of work it must have taken to get it that far along, the pedant in me feels the need to point out that she missed several notes between around 4:09 and 4:20. Granted the large up and down gaps between the quick notes there is extremely difficult, the notes that she missed are some of the ones that are said to make this song ‘impossible’ for a human to sing.

  5. I love The Fifth Element! It doesn’t take itself seriously and has some great characters and actors, including Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, and the late Ian Holm. The turtle-like and dog-like alien races are very cool and silly. It’s definitely in my Top Ten.

  6. I have the Danish Symphony version on my shop playlist, with Jihye Kim as soloist. I am not qualified to judge who more accurately duplicates the film performance.

    1. On reflection, Ms. Zhang seems to have better mastery of the music.
      Also, thanks for posting something not about our current multi-pocalypse.

  7. I know of no other singer who could possibly outshine Sutherland. This young lady makes too many mistakes and lacks the dramatic color in her voice for the portrayal of a woman gone mad. I am a retired opera singer and singing teacher.

    1. I haven’t watched hm do Diva Dance as I don’t like the song, however, for an otherworldly talent he is the one.
      Anyone who has not heard Dimash must check out “SOS d’un terrien en detresse” Then some other ones.

      1. At about 0:55 he replaces the difficult low and high alternation with an easier phrase.

        Another part sounded suspiciously auto-tuned (yes, auto-tune is often done live), but if he was auto-tuning then there would be little reason to change the song at 0:55, unless auto-tuning that part would have been too obvious.

  8. “Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element was released more than two decades ago and is still considered one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever made.”

    I have to take issue with the author here. The movie is definitely not considered “one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever made.” Not even close. People still talk about it as a fun, silly, often inventive romp, and I certainly enjoy it, but I’ve never heard a single person call it “iconic” or any other synonym of that word. It’s not like it has ever been mentioned in the same breath as Metropolis, Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, etc.

    I wish Luc Besson made more good movies. His talent has really gone to waste on most of his projects. The Professional is great and also has a phenomenal performance by Gary Oldman. “Eeeeeverrrryyyyonnnnne!!!!”

      1. Perhaps “iconic” in the sense that it has a distinct style. The costuming was wonderful, at least in my opinion. The soundtrack is distinct enough that we are discussing it here.
        It has notable quotes- “Anyone else want to negotiate?” “mul-ti-pass!” “Green? Super green!”.
        It had distinctive characters, played by talented actors. Besides the principals, Chris Tucker was fabulous.
        It not intended as a “serious” film. But it had unique elements, which have influenced films that came after.

    1. I think iconic is an accurate characterization of The Fifth Element, though I do agree that “considered one of the most iconic sci-fi films ever is a bit of an overstatement. Perhaps true among devoted fans, but not movie goers in general.

      I’ve noticed that cinephiles don’t take unserious films seriously as contenders for great film status. They may talk about great comedies in the context of comedies, but when it comes to best of, year, decade, history, only serious films are contenders.

      1. “I’ve noticed that cinephiles don’t take unserious films seriously as contenders for great film status. They may talk about great comedies in the context of comedies, but when it comes to best of, year, decade, history, only serious films are contenders.”

        Oh, I’m definitely not one of those people; if anything, I loathe the ultra-serious critics who think that a work has to be “important” to be great. The Fifth Element is great fun, and movies that are made just to be fun can certainly be iconic, but can you name even three movies that seem like they were heavily influenced by it? That’s what “iconic” means to me, at least in part. I think it means that the work is something that’s considered important to the development of its genre, medium, etc., and I just don’t see much of that in the movie.

          1. I think it holds up wonderfully! I probably watch it at least five times a year. There are only a few things that don’t look great, and they’re all the stop-motion bits, but even those retain a charm lacking in today’s CGI. Oh, and the scene where Dick Jones falls out of the window at the end. Why are his arms so long? People have been asking that question since the movie was released and we still haven’t received an answer!

  9. I agree with those who pointed out that this is a slightly bastardized rendition of “spargi d’amaro pianto” from Lucia di Lammermoor. But I beg to (politely) differ with some of the comments above. For my money, as a performed of Donizetti, and especially of his “mad scenes”, my money goes to Beverly Sills. Her mastery of the coloratura and pyrotechnical trills is unmatched. While some may say that her voice was not as great as Sutherland’s, her diction and phrasing were superior. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hm9yJFfr9ME

    1. Sills was definitely a master of this type of singing, and her diction (although I have been a lifelong Joan fan) is absolutely better than Joan’s who was constantly criticized for her poor diction.

    2. Hi Mark, I screened Miss Sills version at the link you gave. Beverly Sills’ version is tremendous. I surrender any claim to Sutherland being completely alone at the top of this aria. I’m changing it to “and there are others who are equally great in it, even if in varying aspects.”

      What about Callas?

      [your comment seems to have strayed into the pub!]

  10. She has a beautiful voice, but I’m surprised this is considered so difficult to sing — the scales and arpeggios are considerably simplified compared to the kind of super-octave passagework in Donizetti and Bellini. More challenging is something like the coloratura aria in Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, which occupies a similar range but has much wider (and faster) leaps between low and high notes — Barbara Hannigan makes it look effortless (and funny) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pYb8eQIYfU

  11. Every time I hear something along the lines of “impossible song to [sing, play, etc.]” I think of Frank Zappa’s famous “black pages.” His band members would dread getting the sheets for his next piece, calling them “black pages,” which led to Zappa creating the piece Black Page #1, which was intentionally difficult.

    Frank Zappa might be the greatest composer of the 20th century, but nobody ever thinks of him as a composer. From Inca Roads to Son of Mr. Green Genes, he was a true genius and visionary, and he also played a mean guitar.

    1. EDIT: By “composer of the 20th century,” I meant born in the 20th century. I still think someone like, oh, Stravinsky, or Debussy, would qualify as at least much more important than Zappa, though they are different kinds of genius. Zappa was fusing jazz, rock, country, classical, and all sorts of other things. And sure, like Stravinsky, he was constantly playing with metre, tempo, dissonance, etc., but it’s all very different. I should have said one of the greatest because talking about “the greatest [x]” of any century is an absurd exercise.

      I just really love Frank Zappa 😉

      1. 1973’s “Overnite Sensation” still stands as one of the greatest rock albums of all time. I got to see that iteration of the Mothers (with the incomparable Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax) at Rob Gym (UCSB) shortly after it came out.

        Much later–true story–I have no idea how it was in the karaoke DJ’s catalog in THAT venue, but I ended up bellowing out both “Dina Moe Humm” AND “Zombie Woof”…in a shitkicker bar in Royal Oak, MI. Great fun until my fellow TKD instructors hustled me out before someone shot me.

        1. Dude, that’s fucking AWESOME. I wish I was old enough to have seen Zappa live, especially with the peak Mothers. Ruth Underwood also would have been in that lineup, right?

        1. Since you brought up beer, I’ve got to recommend this,

          You may recall me mentioning that while I like a good IPA just fine that I’m worn out on them because of their ubiquity. But this one caught my attention because it had a 97 rating from Beer Advocate. I’ve never seen a rating that high before. So I bought it. Easily one of the top 3 IPA’s I’ve ever had. If you see it, buy it.

          1. Thanks for the tip, darrelle. I’ll have to give it a try on the basis of the rating, although I’m not a big fan of double IPAs. (I’ve never understood the need to pump the alcohol rating that high, which comes from the malts, which tend to make the brew sweeter, when the whole point of an IPA is the bitterness that comes from the hops. For me, life gets interesting around 100 IBUs. Hence one of my “reference brews” being Lagunitas’s “Hop Stoopid.”) Also not generally a fan of the citrusy end of these libations, but hey–97 points? Gotta at least give it a chance.

            1. Hmmm. Given your tastes you may not be impressed by this one. It is on the sweet side, though not overly so IMO, and has a noticeable “grape” note to it that I really liked. It definitely is not a traditional IPA, or even an otherwise traditional IPA that’s been hopped to the bejeezus. Maybe, if you do try it, don’t think of it as an IPA?

              1. “IPA” has become an almost meaningless designation. I used to detest beers with that identity. Then it turns out that I really like NEIPA and hazy IPA’s quite a lot. I think I got turned off by the West Coast IPAs that were so dominant some years ago…. overly hopped and exceedingly bitter. No fun at all. Then there are IPAs in the UK which are pretty good, too. At least the few I’ve tasted.

          1. Not quite true. I have a good friend, a neighbor of mine and fellow beer-fan, who had a beer with him back in the day. (I expect during his life he wasn’t always following the same protocols.)

            1. Hazy IPAs…I’ve never been able to figure why someone would want to take a beautiful, clear, crystal ale…and mix it with a yeast infection. Well, different strokes.

              As for FZ knocking one back, that’s actually a relief–to think of what teetotaling can do to a rocker’s brain, just look at Exhibit A: Ted Nugent.

              1. Mix it with a “yeast infection”? You do know how all alcoholic beverages are made, no? As for “why?”… to make it taste good!

              2. “As for FZ knocking one back, that’s actually a relief…”

                Would you say that it’s a blessed relief?

                It’s OK, I’ll show myself out…

  12. Worth mentioning Rudi stole his leaking hair dye routine from Gary Oldman in this movie. Oh, and for true operatic fireworks Cristina Deutekom’s Queen of the Night aria is phenomenal, unbeatable and rather good.

  13. Like buttah – the skill in all players is exquisite – any tiny intonation problems and it would have been horrendous.

    She goes major in the rock section – I think her ear pulled her into it… maybe the noise is too much for a soprano… I’ll have to listen to the original if that’s how it goes – thanks to the aria sleuths above.

  14. A great fun film with some really memorable scenes. The music is rather good all the way through and the visual design is superb.

Leave a Reply