Love gone wrong: horrifying tales from classical music

Anyone who’s familiar with the operatic stage knows that most love stories don’t end with the perfect pair riding off into the sunset. This year, instead of cherry-picking a handful of happy endings, we’re leaning into the dark side of classical music with a playlist of love stories gone horrifically wrong…

Case study #1: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Poor Butterfly. Undoubtedly one of the most tragic figures in the repertoire, Ciocio-san (“Butterfly”) is dealt blow after blow. First, the Japanese teenager is ostracized for converting to Christianity in preparation for her marriage to Pinkerton, a US naval officer and class A jerk who sees her as a convenient stop-gap while he waits to find a “real” wife. Then, Pinkerton flees the country almost immediately. For three long years, she waits for his return, quietly raising their child on her own and refusing offers to move on and start a new life. When he finally does come back, he’s accompanied by his new American wife, Kate, with whom he wants to raise the child.

The cherry on top? Pinkerton doesn’t even have the gall to see her! When Butterfly learns she is to give up her son, she agrees on the condition that Pinkerton man up and face her. While he dithers outside debating whether or not to come, she prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice so her son can have the American life she dreamed of. She blindfolds him and kills herself with her father’s seppuku knife before Pinkerton finally arrives, moments too late.

Death count: 💀
Traumatized children: 😱

Case study #2: Alban Berg’s Lulu

Our first introduction to Lulu doesn’t shy away from revealing her true nature. Presented as part of a curious menagerie including tigers, monkeys, and bears, Lulu is dubbed the snake, with a circus tamer adding, “She was created, evil to instigate, to murder – without leaving any clues,” before ominously inviting the audience to witness what unfolds next…

When it becomes immediately clear that Lulu is essentially a psychotic femme fatale, we can’t claim that Berg didn’t warn us. Over the course of three acts, she experiments with adultery, blackmail, prostitution, and murder, before (karmically? tragically?) being murdered herself by Jack the Ripper, one of her johns. Berg’s score is fantastically inventive, drawing on structural palindromes, double-casting Lulu’s three victims/lovers as her trio of clients, and embedding a silent film passage into the first act to take us through Lulu’s stint in prison and a mental institution.

Death count: 💀💀💀💀💀
Happy endings: N/A …literally everyone’s plot point ends in disaster

Case study #3: Strauss’s Salomé

Few works in the repertoire have inspired as much lore as Strauss’s Salomé. Based on Oscar Wilde’s erotically-charged reimagining of the death of John the Baptist, the scenario’s dark twist on a(n already quite dark) Biblical tale made waves across Europe and North America. The titular Salomé is a young princess exploring her sexuality. As she tries to come to grips with her attraction to Jochanaan, a high priest imprisoned in the palace, she also fights off the lecherous advances of her stepfather, Herod. When Herod finally lands on a convincing argument—that he’ll offer her whatever she desires—she agrees to dance for him, a performance that resulted in one of the most talked-about moments in classical music history, the “Dance of the Seven Veils” (below).

This plotline is already admittedly quite unsettling, but the “reward” Salomé requests as payment for her striptease takes things to a new level: she wants Jochanaan’s head. After trying to distract her with offerings like jewels and peacocks, Herod acquiesces, only to be so disgusted by the sight of his stepdaughter passionately kissing the severed head that he orders his soldiers to kill her immediately.

Death count: 💀💀
Disgusting/disgusted stepfathers: 🤢

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s famous declaration is of course true of love of as well: unhappy endings come in many stripes. Offenbach’s Hoffmann ends by swearing off love entirely. Wagner’s Ring Cycle weaves a complicated tale of intertwining incest that provokes the rage of the Gods. Bartok’s Bluebeard traps his beloved in a castle of terror. Shostakovich‘s Katerina comes to an icy end in a Siberian river. Dvorak’s Rusalka and her Prince end as a demon and dead, respectively…

Click through to see the rest of our playlist and spend your Valentine’s Day reveling in the delicious dark side of love 🖤

With love, xoxo

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