Operas based on books

20 January 2022

In the arts, it’s incredibly common for one work to be based on another (and another and maybe even another). Opera is a great example of this and the most common resource for adapted operas we hear you ask – books. Let’s consider Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, based on John Luther Long’s short story Madame Butterfly, which was influenced by the novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, and both were influences on the play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan by David Belasco, which in turn inspired Puccini to write the opera. During his career Puccini had also considered adapting other novels into operas, including Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and he wasn’t alone.

Our first live performances after the pandemic were of Will Todd’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s favourite; with the well-loved characters of the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and even the Queen of Hearts, transforming brilliantly into operatic roles. Another successful children’s book adaptation is Where the Wild Things Are – Oliver Knussen’s opera is not just based on Maurice Sendak’s picture book but has a libretto by the author.

It is not just the shorter books that make great operas either – many composers have been inspired by epics such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Prokofiev), or other Russian works such as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky), or From the House of the Dead – Janáček’s opera being based on Dostoyevsky’s semi-autobiographical memoirs of life in a Siberian prison.

There are British writers whose works have been developed into operas too, Oscar Wilde’s Salome – itself being based on the Biblical stories – was the basis for Richard Strauss’ opera of the same name. Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. To commemorate the centenary of World War One and to celebrate WNO’s 70th year Iain Bell composed In Parenthesis – where he used David Jones’ epic poem of his own experiences in the Somme. Bell has also adapted Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol into a solo opera which WNO performed in 2015.

Some of today’s most popular operas are also based on books, even if the operas are now more widely recognised than the original source material. From Carmen – Bizet based his famous opera on Prosper Mérimée’s novella; to Verdi’s La traviata, a version of Alexandre Dumas fils’ story of La Dame aux Camélias; Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring was from a short story by Guy de Maupassant: Le Rosier de Madame Husson and another Puccini adaptation, Manon Lescaut – one of two popular operas based on Prévost’s short novel, the other being Massenent’s Manon. Like Puccini, Benjamin Britten was quite the book worm, along with Albert Herring he also adapted Billy Budd from the novel of the same name by Herman Melville.

More recent adaptations include The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald’s book was turned into an opera by American composer John Harbison in 1999; or Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid's Tale by Danish composer Poul Ruders and librettist Paul Bentley in 2000.

To prove how wide-spread such inspiration is, this Spring, alongside Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, we are also performing another adaptation of sorts – Janáček based his libretto for The Makropulos Affair on a story by fellow Czech, Karel Čapek. And, of course, Don Giovanni is based on the legend of Don Juan, star of many a literary work. Pick a book, read it first, or just enjoy it live on stage.