Have you ever wondered what life would be like without music? Undoubtedly, it would be a drab and gray existence, where one monotonous day slowly fades into the next — a week turns into a month, months quickly turn into years. You blink, and a decade has slipped past. And that is exactly what the inmates at the Shawshank State Penitentiary experienced in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, a profound allegory or preserving one’s integrity and self-worth in the face of adversity and hopelessness. But all of that changed for the prisoners on one memorable, transcendent day. That day Andy Dufresne, an innocent man who was framed for murder, locked himself in the warden’s office and played a song on the record player. The song, “Canzonetta sull’aria” (Italian for “A little song on the breeze”) is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous opera, The Marriage of Figaro (1786). As the song was played over the penitentiary’s public address system, all of the prisoners in the yard froze mid-step, staring up at the speakers, mesmerized by the beautiful sound. It’s a remarkably beautiful moment as we listen to the two women singing, their voices both elegiac yet soaring. Dufresne’s friend and mentor, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, in a touching voiceover explains the profound impact that the music had on these weary, worn-down souls:
“I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin’ about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away… and for the briefest of moments — every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
Ah, the liberating power of music that stirs men’s souls. Sadly, Dufresne pays a steep price for liberating the souls of his fellow prisoners — even if for just a fleeting moment — by serving two weeks in solitary confinement. But even in his cell, Dufresne felt the liberating effect of the operatic song. When asked if playing the record was worth it, Dufresne responds: “Easiest time I ever did… I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all… The music was here [pointing at his head] and here [pointing at his heart]. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it.”
Let us return for a moment to Red’s narration. He raises a good question: what were those two Italian ladies singing about? The song, a short duet (known as a “duettino”) occurs in act three of The Marriage of Figaro. The words to the song (known at the “libretto”) were written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian poet and opera librettist who collaborated with Mozart on two other operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutti). In this duet, the Countess Almaviva dictates an invitation to Susanna, her maid. The invite, addressed to Almaviva’s womanizing husband, Count Almaviva, is for a romantic rendezvous in order to expose his infidelity. Almaviva speaks a line and Susanna repeats it while she writes it down. Here are the translated lyrics without the repetition:
On the breeze…
What a gentle little Zephyr
This evening will sign
Under the pines in the little grove
And the rest he’ll understand.
It is only when you understand the context and meaning of the operatic song that you can appreciate the irony of its selection, whether intended or not, by Dufresne: the opera singers are writing a letter to expose an infidelity, while it is the discovered infidelity that indirectly leads to Dufresne being framed for the murder of his wife and her lover and being convicted and sentenced to prison.
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For further reading: The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script by Frank Darabont, New Market Press (1996), Roger Ebert: The Great Movies by Roger Ebert, Broadway Books (2002).