Opera inspired by plays

6 October 2020

Opera is loved by audiences for all sorts of reasons – the music, the passion, the performers, the drama. Here at Welsh National Opera we like to explore the titles a bit further, look at their history and what inspired the composers. We know that opera is closer to other artforms than people may think and here we will look at operas that are based on well-known (and less familiar) plays.

Starting with our current, and recent, productions there is a whole lot of drama behind the opera.

Jenůfa is an opera in three acts by Leoš Janáček based on the play Její pastorkyňa by Gabriela Preissová. Like the original play it’s known for its unsentimental realism, a story of maternal love, pride and forgiveness. After the play’s premiere in 1890, Preissová faced criticism for the portrayal of a single mother which was not considered appropriate for a noble stage.

Another of our forthcoming titles, Faust, is inspired by multiple pieces including Michel Carré's play Faust et Marguerite which was in turn loosely based on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, Part One. Originating in German legend, the tale of the man who sold his soul to the devil began as a religious morality tale with the title character being punished for preferring human to divine knowledge. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus popularised the story in England in its classic form, but Goethe’s interpretation makes Faust more of a dissatisfied intellectual who yearns for more than ‘earthly meat and drink in his life’. The story features in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita while Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus adapts the legend into a 20th century context with a fictional composer bargaining for success.

A group of people are chatting, with Flora in the centre, looking out.

One of opera’s favourite titles, Verdi’s La traviata, is based on La dame aux camellias, a play adapted from the 1848 novel by Alexandre Dumas fils. The semi-autobiographical tale of the author’s brief love affair with a courtesan was picked up by Verdi following the play’s success, and has also been successful in the English-speaking world as Camille which has been performed in 16 different versions on Broadway alone.

We can’t leave this subject without mentioning the ultimate playwright, William Shakespeare. Back in 2016 WNO’s Autumn Season was dedicated to work inspired by the Bard with Verdi’s Macbeth, Andre Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice and the musical Kiss Me, Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew. Other titles that have been made into operas include Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Love’s Labour’s Lost, King Lear, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale.

If you enjoy a good play, whether it’s a classic or contemporary story, you’ll find an opera you enjoy too.  All of the drama, suspense and passion of the story with added powerhouse singing and world class musicians to enhance the performance even further.