As I have noted before in earlier installments of "Off the Cuff," opera is often defined by its stereotypes, even though these stereotypes often fail to stand up, under scrutiny. One of the prevailing notions about opera is that it involves heroines who invariably die in tragic circumstances—whether from disease, murder or suicide—and usually taking a very long time to do it. The popular term "ABC opera" (Aida, Bohème, Carmen), subtly reinforces this perception, since all three operas involve heroines who die tragically.
To test this view, I chose to examine the plot outlines of the most frequently performed operas. In America, the opera business relies quite heavily on 15 titles (give or take) which are well-known to audiences and reliable sources of single ticket sales. Each opera company's list of the most popular operas will vary somewhat based on the taste of their local audiences, so I decided to rely on the online site Operabase, which tracks a wide variety of opera statistics, including the ranking of worldwide productions over the last five years (between the 2007-'08 and 2011-'12 seasons to be precise). For anyone who fears that popular operatic classics might leave no room for lesser-known works in the canon, Operabase has tracked more than 100,000 performances of over 2,500 different works over this brief period. What remarkable diversity—and at the height of the economic downturn!
Returning to the question of tragedy in the most frequently performed operas, the top three operas as reported by Operabase do indeed fit the stereotype. In order, they are Verdi's La Traviata, Puccini's La bohème, and Bizet's Carmen. All three involve tragic heroines (two sopranos and a mezzo), who die of the same tragic illness in the first two (tuberculosis) and suffer murder in the third. Number 5 on the "most popular" list is Puccini's Tosca, in which Scarpia's double cross of Tosca and his death at her hands leads to her suicide to avoid capture and punishment. Number 7 is Puccini's Madama Butterfly, in which Cio-cio-san dies by her own hand rather than face the shame of returning to her former life as a Geisha. So far, suicide is keeping pace with TB.
Leavening this otherwise dark and tragic list, though, are numbers 4, 6 and 8. Mozart's The Magic Flute (Number 4) ends on a positive note, with Tamino and Pamina successfully completing the trials of fire and water and attaining a higher state of enlightenment without either one losing his or her life. The work can be performed quite seriously, or with more comic emphasis, depending on how favorably the bird-catcher Papageno is portrayed. (TDO's production last spring in my opinion drew the perfect balance between the more serious and comic elements in this work).
Although Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (Number 6) is often characterized as an "opera buffa" (comic opera), to me it is neither conventionally comic nor tragic; in fact, it includes an exceptionally wide range of emotions related to love including young romantic love (Figaro and Susanna), unrequited love (Marcellina's love of Figaro), "puppy love" (Cherubino in less cynical productions), physical desire (the Count for Susannah), and maternal love (Marcellina, once she discovers that she is Figaro's mother). Other deep emotions include despair and a profound sense of loss (the Countess over her loss of the Count's love) as well as rage (the Count when he believes he has been tricked; Figaro when he believes, wrongly, that Susanna plans to betray him). The justly famous Act II finale includes a series of comic elements and misadventures, which undoubtedly earn the work the "opera buffa" label. The opera ends well, in that Figaro and Susanna do marry happily, and the Count and Countess reconcile, at least for a time.
Number 8 on the list is Rossini's The Barber of Seville, a magnificent comic opera with a happy ending—and some glorious singing along the way. Its heroine Rosina is a mezzo-soprano, like Carmen (although with a much sunnier outlook). Number 9 brings us back to Verdi's Rigoletto, with its dark themes of debauchery, kidnapping, betrayal and murder. That being said, depending on the production, the Duke can be effectively portrayed as making a genuine change of heart from his life of debauchery to sincere romantic love, and Gilda's self-sacrifice to save the Duke can feel cathartic in the hands of a skilled stage director.
Number 10 is Mozart's Don Giovanni. Like Figaro, and to some extent The Magic Flute, the work is neither conventionally tragic nor comic, although Mozart himself considered it an opera buffa. Don Juan's damnation at the end of the opera for his murder of the Commendatore and his other misdeeds is hardly a classic comic theme! All of the main characters at the end of the work at least reconcile themselves with their situations, and anticipate a brighter future: Donna Anna and Don Ottavio agree to marry in a year to give her time to mourn the loss of her father; Donna Elvira plans to join a convent; Zerlina and Massetto reunite; and Leporello leaves in search of a new, and hopefully much better, master. Despite the dark themes at the end, there is a sense of hope renewed.
Number 11 is another Mozart opera, Così fan Tutte – one of three he created with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (Don Giovanni and Figaro being the other two). Like the opera Figaro, Così depicts love in many of its most recognizable forms: flirtatious, sincere, longing, desperate, vengeful. The emotions sweeping through the audience depend hugely on the production, which can emphasize the comic and flirtatious, or the more serious and anguished, in the two couples. (The role of the maid Despina will be highly comic regardless). Whatever the production style, the couples reconcile at the end and learn something about human nature—and themselves—just as Don Alfonso hoped.
A quick description of the final four in the top fifteen includes three more optimistic works. Humperdinck's fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, although not a conventional comedy (Number 12) ends on a satisfyingly sweet note as the boys and girls turned into cookies and candies are rescued and released from a wicked spell. Not to mention a witch who can be played as broadly as one likes by either a character actress or a man "in drag." Donizetti's melodramma giocoso, The Elixir of Love (Number 13), is a gentle love story with a happy ending, and Nemorino's anguish along the way typically does not have the "bite" of a well-acted and sung production of Così or Figaro. Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus (Number 15) is a witty comedy, with some sparkling orchestral writing that can be brought to life in skilled hands. One of my very favorite productions of this work took place at San Francisco Opera in 2006, with Donald Runnicles conducting.
The final opera in the top fifteen is Verdi's Aida, which ends with the death of Aida and Radames. In this case, their demise results from Amneris' jealously, inspired—appropriately operatically—by their passionate and sincere love. For those of you who attended TDO's recent season-opening production, I think you will agree that despite the dark ending portraying Aida and Radamès condemned to death in an underground tomb, their rapturous singing lightens their untimely demise—at least compared with operas incorporating supremely dark conclusions such as Verdi's Otello, Berg's Wozzeck, or Britten's The Turn of the Screw.
So, what does all this tell us about the nature and appeal of opera?
I've always believed that one of the great gifts of the operatic art form is its ability to convey the most powerful of human feelings and emotions, whether good or bad. It may be that tragic themes bring out the most powerful depth of feeling, even if the work ultimately ends on a more optimistic note (e.g. Don Giovanni). Returning to the premise that the operatic art form favors the tragic, seven of the fifteen truly fit the stereotypical "tragic" model (Traviata, Bohème, Carmen, Tosca, Butterfly, Rigoletto and Aida). However, three are unequivocal comedies (Barber of Seville, Elixir of Love, Fledermaus), and two are at least partially, or even mostly, comic depending on the production (Magic Flute, Così fan Tutte).
Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel is a fairy tale opera with a broad range of potential for nearly silly or more serious dramatic treatments. And, if further proof were needed of Mozart's genius, the remaining two operas on the top fifteen list contain such a broad range of emotions that they inhabit a place all of their own (Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni). The wide range of emotions in opera, and the variations of comic and tragic themes are two of the main reasons I find opera such an engaging art form, and one that speaks directly to the human heart in each of us through both laughter and tears.
◊ Just for fun, here is the list of the top 25 operas produced in the world in the past five seasons, from Operabase (on that site, you can also see more on the list, and see which are the most popular in various countries.) The number in parentheses represents the number of productions.
- Verdi, La traviata (629)
- Puccini, La boheme (580)
- Bizet, Carmen (573)
- Mozart, Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) (571)
- Puccini, Tosca (504)
- Mozart, La nozze di Figaro (494)
- Puccini, Madama Butterfly (469)
- Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) (465)
- Verdi, Rigoletto (434)
- Mozart, Don Giovanni (433)
- Mozart, Così fan tutte (336)
- Humperdinck, Hänsel und Gretel (300)
- Donizetti, L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir or Love) (291)
- Verdi, Aida (290)
- Strauss, J, Die Fledermaus (285)
- Puccini, Turandot (266)
- Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin (247)
- Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor (237)
- Verdi, Nabucco (226)
- Leoncavallo, Pagliacci (216)
- Verdi, Il trovatore (208)
- Lehár, Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) (184)
- Mozart, Die Entführung (The Abduction from the Seraglio) (177)
- Verdi, Macbeth (173)
- Wagner, R, Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) (173)
◊ In a YouTube search for "opera soprano death funny" (looking for comedic takes on the stereotypical soprano death scene), we found this:
◊ Here's a legit and well-done death scene, with Beverly Sills and Henry Price in Massenet's Manon, New York City Opera, 1977. Check out Sills' fall to the floor at 9:25:
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. His first column can be seen here, the second is here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here, seventh here, eighth here, ninth here and tenth here.