There are plenty of operas about teenage girls—love-sick, obsessed, hysterical teenage girls who dance, scheme, and murder in a frenzy of musical passion. Disney Princess films are also about teenage girls—lonely, skinny, logical teenage girls who follow their hearts because the plot gives them no other option. The music Disney Princesses sing can be divided into three periods that correspond to distinct animation styles:
Onto these three periods we can map the themes of the princess anthems, the single song for which each princess is remembered:
The relative lack of variance in these songs tells us something important—while animation styles have changed, the aspirations of girlhood have not been radically altered.
But then there’s Frozen.
Elsa’s anthem, “Let It Go,” combines aspects from all three periods: Frozen is a computer animated film, Idina Menzel is a Tony Award-winning singer, and, most importantly, the song and the Snow Queen who sings it have an operatic legacy rooted in representations of madness and infirmity. “Let It Go” is a tribute to passion, spontaneity, and instinct—elements celebrated by both the opera (which nevertheless punishes the bearer severely) and the Disney film (which channels them into heterosexual romance). Frozen does neither.
Unlike the songs of longing for belonging that came before it, “Let It Go” insists that being like everyone else is bound to fail. It’s a coming out song often read as a queer anthem and easily interpreted to account for a number of stigmatized identities. As such, Elsa is a screen onto which may be projected our fantasies and fears. While her transformation into a shapely princess swaying in a sparkly gown with wispy blond hair may be familiar, the scene where this takes place, the way she looks back at the viewer, and the music she sings define Elsa as more ambiguous than she appears. Is Elsa sick, is she mentally ill, is she asexual, is she gay? What is Elsa and why does she resonate so strongly with young girls?
Elsa is like the women of 19th-century opera in her exclusion from the world the other characters comfortably occupy. Marred by magical ability, Elsa must isolate herself if she does not want to scar those she loves—or so the dialogue tells us. The imagery suggests an illness; Elsa behaves as if she were contagious. Indeed, she is consumptive like Mimi, but she is also betrayed like Tosca and scandalous like The Queen of the Night. As Catherine Clément says of women in the opera: “they suffer, they cry, they die…Glowing with tears, their decolletés cut to the heart, they expose themselves to the gaze of those who come to take pleasure in their pretend agonies.” Operatic women express their hysteria skillfully. At the pinnacle of her agony, Elsa builds a magnificent castle while singing her most beautiful song, a song that has itself become infectious. In its final moments, she exposes herself, only to slam the door on viewers who would like nothing more than to gawk at the excess.
Most princess anthems end satisfactorily on the tonic chord, their musical conclusions coinciding with lyrical expectations that assure the story will fulfill the princesses’ desires. For example, when Ariel wishes she could be “part of that world”, she sings a high F, which a trombone echoes an octave lower, reinforcing the song’s key and suggesting the narrative’s interest in giving Ariel what she wants. In “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Snow White’s final line repeats the home pitch no less than six times as if to insist the screenwriters pay attention. “Let It Go,” on the other hand, ends unresolved. The score establishes a sharp distinction between the assertive melodic phrase sung by Elsa, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and the harmonic manifestation of the accompaniment. Elsa turns her back to the camera after singing the downward moving line, which ends rather abruptly on the tonic, while the chord that ought to have shifted with Elsa’s exit lingers in the icy upper register of the strings, as if refusing to acknowledge the message. Is the music condemning the singer’s difference by suggesting that her immunity to the elements is indicative of a physical or psychic malady?
Unlike Donizetti’s operatic heroine, Lucia, whose infamous “mad scene” prompts the chorus to weep for her, Elsa stares into the camera, eyebrow raised, as if daring the spectators to pity her. This is the look of a woman who refuses to capitulate to patriarchy. And with our endless covers and video parodies of “Let It Go” we have rallied to her defense. Rather than constrain her by Frozen’s story, “Let It Go” lets Elsa escape again into possibility. The new princess message, “Leave Me Alone,” is echoed by little girls everywhere.
Peter Conrad says of opera, “It is the song of our irrationality, of the instinctual savagery which our jobs and routines and our nonsinging voices belie, or the music our bodies make. It is an art devoted to love and death (and especially to the cryptic alliance between them); to the definition and the interchangeability of the sexes; to madness and devilment…” Such is also a fair description of Frozen, for what are its final moments than an act of love to stave off death, what is Elsa but a mad and devilish woman who revels in the impermanence of sexuality, what is a fairytale but a story full of savage beasts that prey on our emotions. “Let It Go” releases an archetype from the hollows of diva history into the digital world of children’s animation.
Headline Image: Disney’s Frozen. DVD screenshot via Jennfier Fleeger.