Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Adopts the Music of Opera Singers

You don’t need opera glasses to see that Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter” takes on more than just country music.

Nearly two minutes into “Daughter,” a track of ballad-like storytelling, she inserts a famous operatic song from the 18th century: “Caro Mio Ben.” And, in Beyoncé fashion, she makes it her own.

Singers of all vocal types have performed “Caro Mio Ben”; most of them have been from the opera world, including it on recital programs. But as the song has been adapted for high and low ranges, its sound has stayed more or less the same.

It was written in the early 1780s by a member of the Giordano family. At different points it has been attributed to Giuseppe or his likely older brother Tommaso. (This history is all a bit hazy.) And, like many Italian arias and songs, its lyric is brief. The singer expresses heartache in the absence of a loved one, and begs for the end of a conflict with them before returning to the sentiment of the pain caused by loss.

Like much music of longing and sorrow from this time — such as the sadly beautiful arias of Mozart’s operas — “Caro Mio Ben” is in a major key, and has endured as such for more than two centuries as a concert and recording staple. But that’s also where Beyoncé comes in.

“Daughter” excerpts “Caro Mio Ben” as a bridge and distorts its major-key atmosphere into a minor one to fit with the rest of the song. After opening with a moody guitar ostinato, Beyoncé enters with the dark, melodramatic storytelling of a murder ballad, with a refrain like something out of “Carmen” in its bravado and rustic flavor. In Beyoncé’s “If you cross me, I’m just like my father/I am colder than Titanic water,” you can hear a spiritual descendant of Carmen’s warning to “be on your guard” from another opera classic, the Habanera.

Beyoncé keeps “Caro Mio Ben” in its original Italian, but its melancholy and yearning get across the feeling of the text, which complicates the rest of the song, introducing to her toughness a vulnerability and desire for peace — most ardent in the wailing and ghostly vocalise, or wordless singing, that follows.

She doesn’t have the voice of an opera singer, but that doesn’t really matter. “Caro Mio Ben” is not an aria from opera; it is a song, and was most likely performed in its time in intimate settings, with the comparatively direct, human-scale sound you hear in “Daughter.” What’s more significant is that Beyoncé finds in this old tune a quality shared by the finest music from any century: something to say.


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