Kenneth Lafave. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Editor: Robert Kastenbaum. Volume 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.
Opera began in the last decades of the sixteenth century in Florence, Italy, when a group of music and drama enthusiasts called the Camerata decided that ancient Greek drama must have been sung throughout. While there is evidence that music played a role in the theater of ancient Greece, this surmise of the Camerata involved a leap of the imagination: What if the words were declaimed as song? From this idea sprang opera. The form has gone through so many changes according to era, national, and individual temperament that it challenges common sense to draw it all under one umbrella. Yet the constant of sung drama has remained.
As the earliest operas were modeled after a certain conception of Greek drama, the tragic ones among them naturally reflected an idea of death in line with their model. The first operas took plots from mythology, including Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), the oldest opera still produced with any regularity. The story is the familiar one that begins when the happy marriage of Orpheus to Euridice is terminated by Euridice’s death. The gods then give Orpheus permission to travel into the underworld to retrieve his wife, such is his love for her. Their single prohibition: “Do not look at her until you reach the sunlight.” Of course, he cannot resist a glance backward and the entire enterprise is ruined. The story links love and death; in a very broad sense, the ensuing history of tragic opera has been an elaboration on that theme.
Peter Conrad’s A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera (1987) addresses this confluence of Eros and Thanatos. Conrad espouses the theory that desire and annihilation in opera directly parallel their respective personifications in Greek mythology: Apollo (god of the sun and reason, and therefore of individual desire) and Dionysus (god of wine and therefore of the obliteration of individual consciousness). He uses the theory of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in support of his idea that the history of opera forms a kind of dialectic in which desire fulfilled is desire destroyed (Conrad 1987).
In the beginning, however, opera was less a quest to bind love and death than to portray them as mutually exclusive opposites. Death in the earliest operas is accompanied neither by the quest for Apollonian individuation nor a need for self-forgetting, though both emotional states play roles in later operas. Instead, many characters in early operas die simply for lack of love, frequently accompanied by the most wretched self-pity. In Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas(1689), the first English opera to find a permanent place in the repertoire, the climax of the score occurs when Dido, deserted by the Trojan Aeneas so that he may go found the city of Rome and father Western civilization, cries in music her famous Lament. “Death must come when he is gone,” she sings, weeping herself to death, though in “reality” she dies atop a funeral pyre. This mood of pulling one’s own tragic death around the shoulders like a blanket would be revived briefly in the nineteenth century and given to the same character, when Berlioz’s Dido in Les Troyens sings in French: “Je vais mourir / Dans ma douleur immense submergee,” which is interpreted as, “I wish to die, In my immense anguish submerged.”
In the early eighteenth century opera became highly formalized. Opera seria (tragic opera) and opera buffa (comic opera) both took on rigid formulas in which certain sorts of characters recurred and a handful of librettos (texts) were recycled among composers such as Gluck and Handel, less as inspiration to tell stories in music than as excuses to display technique. This was the age of the castrato, the castrated male singer whose unnaturally high, pure sound was relished by knowledgeable opera goers. Opera seria was chorus-less, representing a disappearance of society from the stage. Without the presence of society, and without the threat of sex (the castrato was, after all, harmless) opera took on a strange coolness. Sexual love was replaced by fanciful sentiment, tragedy was muted by its isolation.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a singular case with regard to the subject of opera, just as he was exceptional in most other regards. In a short span of time, he virtually founded modern opera, fulfilling and then abandoning the old opera seria, reinvigorating the German form known as Singspiel and, with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, inventing a new form in which full-blooded characters experienced life in ways that conformed neither to tragic nor comic preconceptions.
Although as a Freemason he espoused belief in death as “man’s best friend,” and while one of his last completed pieces was a work for use in Masonic funeral ceremonies, Mozart seemed to shy away from death in certain key operatic and even religious scores. In his setting of the Latin Mass in C Minor (1781), Mozart waxed operatic, with solos and choruses worthy of the stage. Left unfinished, its omissions are telling. The twenty-five-year-old composer did not merely take the Latin text as far as he could, one movement after another, but instead stopped cold at the point in the credo in which Jesus is made man—the extraordinarily beautiful Et Incarnatus Est. The remainder of the credo deals with Jesus’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection, yet Mozart skipped over this to the following movement, the Sanctus-Benedictus,and never returned to finish it. This deliberate avoidance of portions of text dealing with death is all the more peculiar, as the score was composed as a memorial for his mother.
Mozart loved opera from early in life and composed for the theater until his death at age thirty-five. He composed his first opera seria, Mitridate, at age fourteen and his last, Idomeneo, at age twenty-three. In both, fathers wrong their sons, to whom it is left to redeem the fathers’ actions. King Mitridate distrusts both sons and envies the love one of them enjoys with the beautiful Aspasia. Only in death does he see the truth and ask his sons’ forgiveness. The unlucky title character in Idomeneo pledges his son, Idamante, in sacrifice, but this is avoided and the son, at close, is morally triumphant.
As soon as he was done with opera seria, Mozart was, for all intents and purposes, done with death onstage. In his triptych of operas made in collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte—The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte— life takes center stage and is flooded with light. Forgiveness among quarreling and conspiring lovers is the theme of both The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. Death figures only in Don Giovanni, when the famous lover (Don Juan of legend) kills the father of one of his conquests in a duel, and is later himself dragged to hell by the dead father’s shadow. Even so, Giovanni’s killing of the Commendatore is an act of self-defense, not premeditated murder, and when Giovanni is pulled to hell, the punishment seems inappropriate. In some versions of the opera an ensemble of Giovanni’s friends and enemies sing about life after his death and the distinct feeling is one of loss. An aspect of life has been condemned by moral agent (the Commendatore) and snuffed out.
In The Magic Flute, Mozart’s penultimate opera and one steeped in Masonic ritual and symbolism, the characters do not die, though at the end several of them are vanquished from the holy realm of the supremely wise Sarastro. Flute is a psychological study, and just as the early degrees of Freemasonry are initiations into one’s own inner states, the various characters in the opera may be seen as parts of one ideal character. The hero Tamino is that character’s questing self, while the sidekick Papageno calls himself the “doppelganger,” or Tamino’s superficial double. Tamino contains within himself the archetype of the Mother, personified as the Queen of the Night, and an anima figure with a name much like his, Pamina. The evil Monostatos is his shadow, and the great Sarastro the Wise Man he would become. The dark archetypes are vanquished, but death as such does not appear in The Magic Flute.
The title says all in Mozart’s final opera, La Clemenza da Tito. The clemency of the Emperor Titus is the subject and the end of an opera that commemorates forgiveness, reason, and free will, completely contradicting the operatic tradition of revenge, emotional chaos, and fate. But all of that made a quick comeback.
Bel canto (“beautiful singing”) opera was the most popular in early-nineteenth-century Italy. Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti were among its greatest practitioners. Donizetti was unusual in his ability to compose very effectively in both comic and tragic modes. His Daughter of the Regiment (1840) is so light that it could fly away, while Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) probably deserves the prize for the bloodiest opera written before the twentieth century.
In Lucia, love and death make a huge return. The Scottish lass Lucy, of the castle Lammermoor, is in love with Edgar of Ravenswood and he with her. But her brother Henry has other plans and forces Lucy to marry a man named Bucklaw for money and advantage. On her wedding night, Lucy goes insane and stabs Bucklaw to death, then sings a very long and very effective insanity scene, accompanied by flute and usually draped in a bloody nightdress, then collapses, dead of sheer sorrow. Not to leave anyone innocent alive, Donizetti has Edgar stab himself to death at Lucy’s grave.
Thus did the bel canto tradition revive the marriage of Eros and Thanatos. Society was back, too, in the form of large choruses that sang commentary on the action while distancing themselves from the horror. Death does not happen to crowds; it comes only to individuals.
Giuseppe Verdi summed up the traditions that had gone before and created, over a period of several decades, a body of work that forms the very center of most opera houses, at least in the United States. He was much stronger a tragedian than he was a comedian, and the sense of doom forecast in a typical Verdi opera is palpable from the start. Love and death now started to merge. Verdi’s Aida (1872) offers perhaps the clearest single example of the purity of their union. The Egyptian Radames loves the enslaved Aida and proclaims it in the aria “Celeste Aida,” translated as “Heavenly Aida.” The beauty of the music and the extra-earthly location of Radames’ praise immediately signal death at the end of the tunnel. And indeed, at the end, Radames and Aida, the victims of political wrangling and the circumstances of birth, are together in a tomb, awaiting their suffocation together song singing, “O terra, addio!” or “O earth, farewell!”
Dying for love is permitted, even praiseworthy, but murder for revenge will get its karmic due. In Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851), the hapless title character, a hunchbacked jester, believes the dying human in a sack he is about to throw into the river is the Duke of Mantua, whose murder he has plotted. Instead it is his own daughter, Gilda, who dies in the duke’s place.
The Verdi opera that most crucially mixes love and death with greatest intensity is also the composer’s most unusual opera, La Traviata (1853). Alone among his works, La Traviata takes place in the composer’s own time; every other Verdi opera happens among ancient nobility or in biblical times. Based on the play The Lady of the Camelias by the French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas, La Traviata finds the courtesan Violetta in love with dashing, callow, young Alfredo Germont. When the elder Germont, Alfredo’s doleful father, wishes to forbid the relationship, he addresses not his son, but Violetta. His admonition to her takes the form of a warning that his son’s future will be irredeemably tarnished by association with such a woman as she. Violetta gives up Alfredo, and dies of tuberculosis.
In La Traviata the themes of love and death come together. Old Germont, the voice of the crowd, society, and its morals, severs the sexual from the personal and thus condemns Violetta to death, for without love she cannot live. The tuberculosis is either a punishment for her sexual liaison, a symbol of her airless life without Alfredo, or both.
The advent of Richard Wagner’s music dramas ushered in an entirely reformed view of death. While the death of the individual was the cornerstone of tragedy for the Italians, it took on a transcendent meaning for Wagner. In a Wagner music drama (a term he preferred to the Italian “opera”), individual death is nearly always a meaningful sacrifice to a greater whole. Death is no longer punishment, it is a kind of reward in the form of escape from desire. In Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the title characters find true love only in death; in fact, the musical climax is a passage called the “Liebestod,” or “Love-Death.” Their ends as individuals return them to a transcendent unity. Desire and death are one.
The opera-obsessed German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose views Peter Conrad draws upon, saw clearly that Wagner’s innovation advanced the transcendental over the real. Yet Nietzsche’s view of the role of opera as musical tragedy changed markedly over the course of his short professional life. In his first major, published essay, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music (1872), he announced himself as a Wagnerian. German music has “Dionysian root” he wrote, starting in Bach and culminating in Wagner. The Dionysian death-ecstasy in German music contradicted the Apollonian habit of placing importance on individual ego, replacing it with the superiority of Dionysian sacrifice of the individual.
Late in life Nietzsche contradicted himself. In an essay titled The Case of Wagner (1888), he condemned Wagner’s embrace of death and praised Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) for its sunniness and embrace of life. Carmen, of course, ends with the death of its heroine, and she even sees it coming. She has rejected her former lover for a new one and the former will stab her to death outside the bullring. She has seen this in the cards—literally. But her death is not a sacrifice, it is an affirmation of the values by which she has chosen to live. Nietzsche at the last saw in this a greater, larger thing than Wagner’s “love-death.”
For most of the nineteenth century the Italian and German models existed side by side. Giuseppe Verdi continued, and brought to a climax, operatic death as the portrayal of individual tragedy. In Verdi, death is punishment, from god or at least from some faceless universal fate. In Wagner’s four-part Ring of the Nibelung (completed 1876), death is the supreme reward, coming only to great heroes such as Siegfried, and to his female counterpart Brunnhilde, who rides her horse Grane onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre.
In both Wagner and Verdi, the action was nearly always removed from contemporary realities. All Wagner is myth-ridden and Verdi preferred to distance his characters from immediate relevance by placing them in the past or upon a throne. Toward the end of the nineteenth century a school of Italian composers brought about a revolution that turned this upside down.
It was called verismo, literally “realism,” and it transposed the traditional subjects of betrayal, revenge, and murder among nobility to those of betrayal, revenge, and murder among everyday people. The first verismo opera to enter the repertoire was a one-act, unusual in the operatic realm. Cavalleria Rusticana marked the debut of twenty-eight-year-old composer Pietro Mascagni. Terse, intense, and violent, Cavalleria was shocking in its time, as much for its directness of expression as for what it expressed. Here were revenge and murder stripped bare of any noble pretence or mythological garment. The story is a simple one involving a Sicilian soldier, his burning lust for a married woman, and the inevitable outcome.
The composer Ruggero Leoncavallo tried to duplicate the success of Cavalleria in I Pagliacci (1892), cast in two short acts and a prologue, but short enough to be produced in tandem with another brief opera. (Today, in fact, it is usually teamed with Cavalleria.) In I Pagliacci there is the added element of layered reality: A player (un pagliacco) acts out in character the very feelings of jealousy and revenge he is feeling as a private individual. Again, jealousy leads to murder, but what “on stage” has been merely a distraction becomes, in real life, shocking tragedy. The famous final line sums up this irony: “La commedia e finita!” (“The comedy has ended!)”
With Giaccomo Puccini, the greatest name of the verismo school, all sacrifices are love offerings, and they are made exclusively by women. Between 1896 and 1904, Puccini composed three of the most enduring tragic operas in Italian: La Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. In La Boheme Mimi dies of tuberculosis—Violetta’s disease—while the title characters of the others snuff themselves in contrasting emotional modes. In Tosca the eponymous heroine attempts to foil fate and fails when her lover, Cavalradossi, is shot to death by a Napoleonic firing squad. Tosca had thought the muskets to be loaded with blanks; in horror, she flings herself from the parapet of the castle of Saint Angelo-Rome. And in Madama Butterfly, a Japanese wife commits hara-kiri when her American husband returns to Nagasaki with an American wife after not taking the Japanese ceremony seriously.
In Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West and La Rondine, nobody dies. They are his least produced works. In Suor Angelicaof his Trittico—a set of three one-act operas—Puccini presents what is perhaps the most poignant death of any in his works. The title character, who has taken vows as expiation for having had a child out of wedlock, finds out that her child has died, and so ends her own life.
Death figures oddly in the sole comedy of Trittico, the enduringly charming Gianni Schicchi. In this opera after Dante, the title character feigns to be the voice of a dying man (who is, in fact, already dead) in order to will himself the man’s fortune. This is not selfishness, but a distorted nobility, the opera implies, as Schicchi does this in order to produce a proper dowry for his love-stricken daughter. In Turandot, left incomplete at Puccini’s death in 1924, the gentle Liu sacrifices herself for her master Calaf so that he can claim as his own the moon goddess Turandot. This role of woman as sacrificial object was uniquely nineteenth century and predominantly Mediterranean.
There is nothing in opera before bel canto, nor after Puccini, to match the regularity with which women die in Romantic Italian operas. (German operas offer up gender-neutral sacrifices.) They do not languish, like Dido, but either give themselves willingly or are punished for sin—theirs or another’s. This almost certainly reflected the role of women in Catholic countries of the time, at once relegating them to secondary status and elevating them to a kind of deity. When Gilda dies willingly for the worthless Duke in Rigoletto, it confers on her a sainthood no male character in Italian opera comes remotely near achieving.
Russian opera of the nineteenth century had a distinct political bent. The death of the czar in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godonuv is also the temporary death of the state. The title character, who has seized power through an innocent’s murder, is toppled by a pretender; his personal tragedy is merely symbolic of the national tragedy his fraud has initiated. In Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the death of one of the characters in a duel is rendered nearly meaningless by his killer’s lack of regard for Tatiana, the woman they have fought over. Russian society at large—has the final say, rejecting the killer’s eventual advances and propping up the stability of her conventional marriage.
The twentieth century saw an explosion of opera, which took on myriad forms and generated many subgenres. Richard Strauss announced in Salome (1905) and Elektra (1908) a new and heightened dissonance, all the better to accompany the beheading of John the Baptist in the former and the bloodbath of the latter. But he soon dropped this innovative language for operas that cradled gentle melodies set to more optimistic stories, such as Der Rosenkavalier. The ceaseless anxiety produced by the unrelieved dissonances of Elektra is a cue for future work that Strauss himself never took up. The musical language hangs on to dissonance as to some painful reminder of life; to achieve cadence, to dissolve into consonance, would mean death.
The Czech composer Leos Janacek bloomed late, composing a first opera of any significance (Jenufa) at age fifty, and his greatest operas after age sixty-five. This imbued his works with the glow of wise emotional distance. Forgiveness and understanding, not revenge and murder, are the dominant themes. In Jenufa, the title character is repeatedly wronged by those around her. Her fiancé’s jealous brother disfigures her, her fiancé leaves her, and her stepmother drowns her illegitimate baby. Through it all, Jenufa finds opportunity to grow emotionally. In The Cunning Little Vixen, the story is set among animals. The title creature escapes a gamekeeper to found a family, only to see her path lead to death. Yet, it is a death absorbed into a cycle of life. Nature has taught humankind a lesson. The Makrapulos Affair concerns an opera singer as old as her art. In the course of the opera, 337-year-old Emilia Marty (one of many names she has had over the centuries) must learn how to die.
Death seems to be the least of worries for the characters in Alban Berg’s two operas, Wozzeck (1921) and Lulu (left unfinished at the composer’s death in 1935). The titular character in Wozzeck is a simple-minded soldier and fool of nature. He makes extra money by shaving his captain and by offering his body as a guinea pig for a doctor bent on proving arcane theories, the funds from which he gives to his common-law wife, Marie, and their child. But when he finds that Marie has bedded the handsome Drum Major of his battalion, he slits her throat under a blood-red moon and then, in remorse and confusion, drowns himself. In Lulu, the title character is cut to pieces by Jack the Ripper. Sex and death meet here in the most hideous fashion. Notably, the only “pure” character in the opera is the Countess Geschwitz, a lesbian. All male advances made to Lulu, with their potential for procreation and the regeneration of life—and therefore death—are treated essentially as acts of violence. Only the Countess, whose sexual relation with Lulu cannot continue the wheel of life/death, is pure. Here Wagnerian “transcendence” is given modern meaning.
In English, composer Benjamin Britten’s operas, death usually involves the sacrifice of an innocent for the supposed good of the greater whole. In Peter Grimes (1945), a misfit suffers under the watchful eyes of a judgmental society. In Billy Budd, after Herman Melville’s novella, the title character is made a scapegoat and in Death in Venice, after Thomas Mann’s work, life itself is viewed as sacrifice.
In the French composer Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites (1958), death is the very subject. A young woman fears death and, seeing the tumult of life around her and the threat of the 1789 French Revolution, escapes to a convent. At length, it becomes clear that the other nuns have taken vows in order to embrace death, not avoid it. The final scene, one of the most chilling in the repertoire, calls for the sisters to chant a Salve Regina (Hail Queen of Heaven) as they exit the stage, one by one, to be guillotined. Periodically, the guillotine falls. The chilling effect is a constant diminuendo, until at last only one voice is heard singing, and that, too, is terminated.
No other theatrical form treats death in the heated and often terrifying way opera treats it. Opera’s stepchild, the musical play, may involve death but it is infrequently given emotional coloring. The deaths in four of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals—Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and The King and I—are nearly incidental to the stories. Only in the 1990s, with Stephen Sondheim’s Passion and Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins, did American musical theater come to treat death with a sobriety approaching that of opera.
Tragic drama without music can convey horror, pity, fear, and sorrow, but music adds a dimension of unsettling personal involvement. Aristotle’s famous dictum to the effect that drama is a purgation of the emotions does not really fit opera. One might leave Aeschylus feeling grateful that one is not among the characters, yet likely to leave Strauss’s Elektra feeling very much like one or more of the characters. In the end, opera has become a form vastly distanced from the ancient Greek drama it was originally designed to emulate.