What stories make the best operas?

There are certain things that every single opera needs to have, whether it’s by Monteverdi or Verdi, Wagner or Wuorinen. One is brilliant music, of course. And another is an enthralling plot: opera, after all, is a type of theatre. But where do opera’s stories come from?

A few different sorts of story have proved especially popular. Though it’s far from a definitive list, here are a few of them, with examples drawn from right across opera’s 400-year history. How much has really changed?…

Myths and legends

Claudio Monteverdi, the oldest opera composer whose works are still performed, was not alone in turning to some of the oldest stories of all: Greek or Roman myths. One reason for this was that early opera audiences, understandably enough, weren’t accustomed to seeing characters on stage sing. The use of mythological stories helped to make this seem a little more natural: it somehow seems easier to imagine a mythical character singing, and perhaps especially so if—like Orpheus, whose story has been set by Monteverdi, Rossi, Gluck and many others—the character is himself a singer. What’s more, using Greek (or Roman) myths suggested enticing, exotic links to the lost tradition of Greek tragedy.

But there’s also something gripping about the stories themselves. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (around 1688) adapts part of Virgil’s epic Aeneid. Dido, queen of Carthage, is devastated by the departure of her beloved Aeneas. Her Lament (above) is an astonishingly moving aria, sung as she slowly dies of grief.

Myths are full of brilliantly dramatic set pieces like this, and the sheer intensity of opera—think of the way time seems to slow down during an aria—makes it the perfect vehicle to convey the extremes of passion of Dido mourning her lost love, or Orpheus pleading with the gods, or Hercules’s wife Dejanira descending into madness in Handel’s Hercules. Dido and Aeneas doesn’t tell the whole of Aeneas’s story: it’s taken from the fourth book, out of twelve, of Virgil’s epic poem. But it hones in on a particularly intense moment, and renders it unforgettable. Which is something opera does especially well.

One of the most intense moments in all opera is also based on a legend—though an Arthurian one rather than a Roman one. Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (1865) may be some four hours long, but in a sense it is a single crescendo that culminates in Isolde’s shattering “Liebestod” (Love-Death). Like Dido, Isolde has lost her beloved, though Tristan, unlike Aeneas, has been killed, and Isolde’s dying song is an expression of ecstasy, not grief, as her spirit unites with Tristan’s.

There are differences galore between Purcell’s and Wagner’s operas. But both take fantastical, ancient tales, and evoke these tales’ extreme emotional states in searingly vivid style.

History

The Baroque fascination with the ancient world didn’t stop at myths and legends. Stories from the history books found their way onto the operatic stage as well. Composers from Monteverdi to Handel and Mozart drew on ancient history, and more recent history has inspired many an opera too.

What is it about these stories that was (and is) so alluring? As with myths, there are extremes of emotion galore. Perhaps another key element is the ruthlessness of so many of the characters: though they were based on real historical figures, the astonishing behavior of all those Roman emperors and Mongol conquerors seems thrillingly alien.

Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1643) is the story of Roman emperor Nero’s infatuation with his mistress Poppea. It’s a tale of lust and its destructive power whose conclusion is morally troubling: banishing a whole host of characters, including his current wife, Nero weds Poppea and she is crowned empress. The opera ends with a lascivious duet, the beauty of whose music only makes it seem stranger. In real life, as many of the first audience members likely knew, their wedded bliss was short-lived: Poppea died not long after, possibly at Nero’s own hands.

Times have changed, but the lessons that history teaches us remain just as ambiguous. Events from the French Revolution (see Giordano’s Andrea Chénier) to the creation of the atomic bomb (John Adams’s Doctor Atomic) have found their way onto the opera stage.

Even more recently, George Benjamin and Martin Crimp have taken the medieval story of Edward II of England for inspiration. Lessons in Love and Violence (2018) covers somewhat similar ground to Poppea, in that the king’s extreme passion for his sinister lover Gaveston has appalling consequences for his kingdom. In the clip above, the King seems hypnotized by Gaveston’s erotic fortune-telling. “You know where I am,” says Gaveston: “inside your life… I live where you are looking: in the hard palm of your hand.” Opera still seems magnetically attracted to these strange stories of power, lust and destruction. History is full of them.

Classic literature

Lessons in Love and Violence is only somewhat based on history: it draws more strongly on Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II. As such, it’s also one of the many operas that adapt works of literature. Marlowe’s contemporary Shakespeare, as you might expect, has been a particularly fruitful source of operatic inspiration through the ages. Verdi, Gounod and Britten are just a few of the composers to have transformed Shakespeare into music.

Verdi’s first Shakespearean adaptation was  Macbeth (1847). Lady Macbeth’s famous soliloquy—“Out, damned spot” in the original—becomes the entrancing “Una macchia è qui tuttora,” the rapid repeating notes of the orchestral music mimicking the character’s obsessive efforts to cleanse her hands of her victim’s blood.

Of course, opera composers have set classic literature other than Shakespeare. Goethe’s Faust was adapted for operas by both Gounod and Berlioz, and his Sorrows of Young Werther became Massenet’s Werther. Victor Hugo was the source of the stories of Rigoletto, La Gioconda and Ernani, and Pushkin inspired Boris Godunov, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, among many others.

One of the most audacious operatic creations of recent years is Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (2010), which transformed Herman Melville’s great whaling novel. Above, the obsessive Captain Ahab contemplates the 40 years he has spent at sea, and all that this has cost him. His expression of regret shows a humane side to this character, in some contrast to the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth. But both these monologs show that the deep psychological themes that permeate great literature can transfer thrillingly to the sung stage.

Contemporary literature

Just as it’s not always canonical literature that makes the best films (think Jaws or The Godfather), it doesn’t have to be the most hallowed novels or plays that make the best operas. There’s an especially long history of operas based on contemporary literature: often, using a current writer has meant that an opera can address the key issues of the day in an especially provocative way.

In 1853, for instance, Verdi wrote that he had hit upon “a subject of the times” for his new opera. “Others would not have done it,” he continued, “because of the conventions, the epoch and for a thousand other stupid scruples.” Verdi wanted to set his opera in modern times, just like the novel and play on which it was based, but the strict Venetian censors, shocked by this, pushed the setting back by 150 years. These days, this opera—La traviata—is the most popular of them all.

In one of La traviata’s most famous passages, Violetta (the “fallen woman” of the title) is confronted by the father of her lover, Alfredo, who explains that Violetta’s past life as a courtesan is preventing Alfredo’s sister from marriage. Violetta understands the young woman’s plight, and agrees to leave Alfredo for her sake.

The novel and play, by Alexandre Dumas fils, were a huge success in the years leading up to Verdi’s opera, in part thanks to their frank look at the devastating effects that could result from the social conventions of the day. Today, the story doesn’t seem nearly as scandalous—but the themes of passion and forbidden love still resonate.

Contemporary literature is still inspiring operas: the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for instance, has just commissioned Missy Mazzoli to write an opera based on George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017). And a few years ago, Charles Wuorinen adapted Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain—also a famous movie of 2005. Premiered in 2014, Wuorinen’s opera updates a Traviata-like theme. “In older operas there would be an illegitimate child or difference of social classes,” Wuorinen told The Guardian. “Same-sex love, especially when it takes place in an environment where it’s absolutely forbidden, is a contemporary version of the same eternal problem.”

The social topic might be up to date, then, and so is the literature Brokeback Mountain is based on. But the underlying plot gives this contemporary story an almost universal tinge.

So: What stories make the best operas?

Is there anything that connects all of the very different stories collected above? You might think that there’s a very simple connecting theme: love. But that leaves some gaps. Both Poppea and Lessons in Love and Violence (despite the latter’s title) seem somewhat more preoccupied with lust than love, and it is two very different forms of obsession that drive Lady Macbeth and Captain Ahab. Maybe “passion” comes closer than “love.”

Maybe what’s most important is that, whatever the characters are singing about on stage, they feel passionately enough about it that it makes sense for them to be singing rather than speaking. Isn’t there something inherently passionate about the very idea of opera? After all, when you’ve got a voice big enough to fill a theatre, and a full orchestra underneath you, only the most extreme emotions will do.

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