Monday, October 5, 2009

Dying in the Opera

I saw my first Opera, Puccini's "Madame Butterfly", at the age of 9. Instantly mesmerized by the music, I was a bit shocked that Butterfly dies in the final scene. Where was the happy ending I was used to in Hollywood films?

Unbeknownst to me at the time, tragedy and death are common in opera. In fact, some would say that opera as an art form is obsessed with death, and has been since its inception. The first known operatic works of "Euridice" (1600) and "L'Orfeo"(1607) both have tragic deaths, with Euridice stepping on a venomous snake and dying, and Orfeo searching for his beloved in Hades, finding her and then having her vanish from his sight for eternity.

Many feel that part of the obsession has to do with the cultural beliefs surrounding death in the 18th and 19th centuries, when most operas we enjoy today, were written. It was in the 18th century that death began to be viewed not as a natural fate, but traumatic rupture. This morbid fascination with death became a part of the romanticism of the 19th century. It is no surprise then that this time frame produced such death themed classics as Carmen, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, Tosca, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and The Tales of Hoffmann.

To our death defying culture, it seems strange that not only are operas packed with people dying, but the deaths don't hold the same negativeness or sadness that we're used to. The deaths portrayed seem more about redemption, reunion, and transcendence. This romanticized view of dying becomes a thing of beauty, in line with the Greek belief of kalos thanatos (beautiful death).
These beautiful deaths, however, are not just a form of art, composers such as
Richard Wagner tried to live it. He wrote to a friend:

"We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness; and the fear is generated only when love begins to wane. How came it that...all that mankind did, ordered, and established, was conceived only in fear of the end!"

As byproduct of the death centered operas we get to enjoy haunting aria's given to the heroes or heroines, often contemplating death or mourning a life lost. Perhaps one of the most famous is the final aria from
Aida, "O Terra Addio"

In this opera by Giuseepe Verdi, the heroine Aida is an Ethiopian princess who falls in love with her enemy Prince Radames. As punishment Radames is sentenced to be buried alive unless he denounces his love for Aida. He refuses and in the final scene we find that Aida has snuck into the tomb to be buried alive with him. They sing together "O Terra Addio" the lyrics below:

Farewell earth, farewell valleys of tears. Dreams of joy that vanish in grief. Heavens open to us, wandering souls who fly to the rays of eternal day.

You can see this song on Youtube as sung by Placido Domingo and Aprlie Millo at the end of this post. Visit the main pallimed arts site if the link doesn't appear.

The prevalence of dying in opera is so common, that now when I attend the opera I glance at the synopsis not wondering if their will be death, but how much and in what dramatic fashion.

1 Responses to “Dying in the Opera”

Unknown said...
December 12, 2009 at 5:00 PM


I am thrilled that you posted this topic - death and opera. More so, I am intrigued by the concept of suffering and opera - another central theme. La Traviata so exquisitely portrays the social annihilation of a young woman with TB: a theme repeated in Carmen, written this time in an era where the librettist and audience understood that tuberculosis was not a disease of poor breeding, but rather that of infection.

I will never forget the first time I watched La Traviata: carried by Violetta’s highs and lows, courage, redemption, and forgiveness. Her lover’s father begs her to leave his son, Alfredo, stating that her relationship with his son threatens the marriage of her daughter, who is pure as an angel, to a suitable and prominent young man. Skipping to the last act, which opens with Violetta’s doctors actually making the prognosis of her imminent death, and ends with her in the arms of Alfredo with his father at their side seeking forgiveness all during the final breaths of her life. It was in this opera I was introduced to the “swan’s song” that we so often see – in the final surge of energy that results in Violetta’s stunning last aria. The totality of suffering associated with social isolation, illness is explored in this opera.

Mixing passion, allure and shame of sexual promiscuity, madness and death, Wagner’s Parsifal, Berg’s Lulu, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and Berstein’s Candide bring Syphilis to the stage.

As Linda and Michael Hutchison write in their book, Opera: Desire, Disease and Death, (University of Nebraska Press, 1996 –opera amplifies “staged tragedy […] by the emotion of music.” In other words, music is added to the story, to the “narrative power of an individual’s struggle with illness.” He stipulates that “Of all the art forms, perhaps only pera is so thoroughly depending on suffering in general as a narrative and emotional staple. The body, the singing body, gives voice to the drama of the suffering person – in this case the sick person; in the process it also gives meaning to both the disease and the one who suffers from it, meaning that includes but supplements the medical understanding of bodily pain.” (p12)

The same authors wrote Opera: The Art of Dying, 2004.

Thanks for posting!