Good deeds in Opera

13 November 2023

Today is World Kindness Day, where people across the world unite in celebrating and committing to showing more kindness to those around us, to ourselves and to the world.  

In opera, a lot of stories revolve around love, lust, revenge and death, but looking a little deeper, we see that kindness often serves as an underlying theme, contributing to the development of characters, resolutions and redemptions.  

Puccini’s La bohème follows the story of two young, bohemian lovers in Paris. Set at the turn of the 19th century we meet a group of penniless friends on Christmas Eve, in their rundown attic apartment. Their tiny abode is as cold as the outside, and so, to keep his friends warm, Rodolfo, the poet of the group, sacrifices his prized possessions and burns his books to keep the fire going. Rodolfo’s lover, Mimi carries out what she believes is the kindest thing she can do, sacrificing her own happiness by leaving Rodolfo, to save him from her worsening illness.  

Sacrificing one’s happiness for the sake of their lover is also an integral moment in Verdi's La traviata. Violetta, a Parisian courtesan, is in love with Alfredo but, at the insistence of his father, leaves him to protect his family’s reputation. Violetta, like Mimi, is dying from tuberculosis, and in the final moments of the opera, is redeemed through the forgiveness and compassion of those who once judged her. She is welcomed back into the family by Alfredo's father, Germont, though it is too late, and Violetta dies in her lover’s arms. 

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is filled with acts of kindness, from Papageno caring for the birds that he collects for The Queen of the Night to Pamina’s compassion. Papageno exemplifies the power of simple acts of kindness throughout the opera as he forms bonds and friendships with other characters. His humorous and light-hearted nature, combined with his willingness to help others reminds us of the importance of extending kindness to those around us. Pamina, the opera's heroine, shows kindness and compassion to Tamino when he is in distress, helping him on his quest. 

Richard Wagner's epic opera Tristan und Isolde is a tale of forbidden love and tragedy, but even the darkest stories have glimmers of kindness. Tristan, badly wounded after killing Isolde’s lover Morold, is met by Isolde, though using the false name of Tantris. Even though she doesn’t know him, Isolde kindly nurses him and tends to his wounds with her renowned powers of healing, before realising his true identity. 

In Puccini's timeless masterpiece, Madam Butterfly, we see one of the most heart-wrenching acts of kindness as Butterfly or Cio-Cio-San, the tragic heroine, makes the ultimate sacrifice for her son by taking her own life to ensure a better future for him. It is a moment of tremendous emotional depth, demonstrating a mother's love and selflessness. 

The moments we have explored in these operas highlight the universality of kindness, love, and forgiveness, even in the most dramatic and emotional contexts. These acts of kindness in opera serve as poignant reminders that amidst the grandeur and tragedy of life, the simple gestures of kindness are what truly make us human.