Letters in Opera

20 February 2020
Lady Rhondda and Sybil, looking pensive at the Ballot Box.

In the age of texting, Instagram and email, the handwritten letter can seem like a relic of ancient time, but in the world of opera, the form is alive and kicking. While you’d expect most letters to be filled with messages of love, in opera, they are often used to reveal a secret, send a warning or concoct a plan. Here are five of our favourite examples.

Two women looking at a letter smiling.

The Marriage of Figaro
A flirtatious Count needs his comeuppance and who better to give it to him than his wife, Rosina. Together with her maid, Susanna, they concoct a love letter and attached to it, a pin. The famous letter aria, Sull’aria, makes one of the most beloved and delightful scenes in The Marriage of Figaro. During the wedding ceremony, Susanna passes the letter to the Count. He believes Susanna is planning a tryst with him, but little does he know that the invitation is part of a plot to expose his infidelity.

Eugene Onegin
The most famous letter scene in all opera and the centerpiece of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. When the literature-loving Tatyana falls head over heels in love with Eugene Onegin, she spends the whole night pouring her heart out on paper. Her feelings aren’t reciprocated until Act III, when the tables have turned and Onegin has fallen passionately in love with her, but she is now married. To music from her Act I Letter Aria – Puskai pogybnu ja - he declares his intention to write to Tatyana and tell her his feelings.

Distraught man holding letter held by other older man singing.

Les vêpres siciliennes
During a ball, the French governor Guy de Montfort is handed a confiscated letter. The content of the letter forces him to remember his relationship with a young Sicilian woman 18 years ago and the son they conceived. Tormented by the behaviour of his younger self, he sings the emotive Au sein de la puissance, during which, in our new production, the past comes alive in front of him through the medium of dance. Instantly yearning a relationship with his newly found son, Montfort shows the letter, which was written by Henri’s mother, to Henri and seeks a reconciliation. 

Letters fly about the stage from start to finish in Verdi’s sparkling comedy. In desperate need of funds, the large and lecherous Sir John Falstaff, sends two identical letters to the wealthy Windsor wives Alice Ford and Meg Page. Alice and Meg realise what Sir John is up to and determine to teach him a lesson. Letters, delivered to Falstaff by their friend Mistress Quickly, play a key role in their schemes, particularly Falstaff’s final humiliation in Windsor Forest. 

A lady clutches her hands in despair

The letter in Bizet’s alluring Carmen is one of love and of a mother’s plea. Tasked with finding Don José, Micaëla finds him and delivers both a letter and a chaste kiss from his mother, who asks her son to marry Micaëla. Don José promises his love and fidelity to Micaëla. A ruckus erupts from the cigarette factory and the officer Zuniga commands Don José to take Carmen to jail, but he succumbs to her charms. He agrees to a rendezvous and lets Carmen escape.