How to enjoy tragic opera… as a beginner

tragic opera - tosca


How to enjoy tragic opera… as a beginner? Tragic opera is a feast of morbid blood-letting passion in which half the cast will be dead by intermission. Pick up the high points of Tosca and Salome… two grandly tragic operas that make Brothers Grimm appear no more fantastical than Burger King.

Maybe you’ve already enjoyed our beginner’s guide to opera. Now we shall focus on tragic opera (also called opera seria). Highlighting the most tragic operas would be like picking the most heart-wrenching films. There’s so many that the decision is impossible. I chose to discuss Tosca and Salome as they are standard pieces of opera repertoire and among my personal favourites.

SPOILER WARNING: half the cast will be dead by intermission.

Enjoying tragic opera: Tosca

Tosca is an Italian piece by Giacomo Puccini (more famous for Madame Butterfly and La bohème, which was the basis for the film Rent). The librettists were Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the play by Victorien Sardou, and the opera premiered in 1900. Tosca is named after the heroine, Floria Tosca. Floria is a celebrated singer living in Rome during the year 1800, and all is going well for her. Of course, this is a tragedy, so she can’t stay happy for long.

Tosca’s beloved Cavaradossi, an artist, is arrested for helping his friend, a political offender, escape. Scarpia, the police chief, arrests Cavaradossi and sends him to be tortured while he tries to seduce Tosca in order to learn where the escapee is hidden. Tosca tries to hold out, but her boyfriend’s screams of agony make her give up the secret. Cavaradossi denounces her for this as he is led to an execution. The police chief tells Tosca that it is only a mock execution, but he will set Cavaradossi free if Tosca gives him her virtue. Tosca consents. However, at the last moment, she plunges a knife into Scarpia’s heart, screaming her famous line – This is Tosca’s kiss!

All that is left now is for Cavaradossi to make it through the mock execution. Tosca goes to him and, after singing of how much they love each other, she explains that he is not really going to be killed. When the soldier fires at him, he falls to the ground, and Tosca exclaims that he is such a good actor. Her delight quickly turns to dread as she realizes that Cavaradossi is actually dead, the news of Scarpia’s death has escaped, and the soldiers are coming for her next. Tosca jumps, still singing, from the ramparts of the castle and falls to her death. In most productions, a trampoline is placed in back of the stage for the soprano to safely land on; however, much caution is exercised with this as more than once, Tosca has bounced back up into audience view.

The presence of a strong female character is common in opera. What makes the heroine a heroine is usually her loyalty to her lover and her sense of virtue. As Italy is both very influential in the opera scene and, during the past several centuries, was very Catholic, it’s not surprising that chastity is among the most defining marks of the ‘Good’ side. Tosca is one of my favourite operas because not only does Floria Tosca remain loyal and faithful and all that jazz, she also is not afraid to defend herself, and doesn’t freak out after Scarpia dies. In fact, she calmly prepares his body for burial before proceeding to Act Three.

Enjoying tragic opera: Salome

Salome, the heroine of the eponymous opera, both contradicts and parallels Tosca. She does not have the Tosca’s values, but Salome does share Tosca’s cunning. The libretto and score were both written by Richard Strauss, based on the play by Oscar Wilde which, in turn, was based on the Biblical story. Salome premiered in 1905 and left the audience shocked. The piece was banned in London until 1907 and in Vienna until 1918. A century later, Salome isn’t as controversial, but my advice is avoid it as a first date.

Salome is much shorter than Tosca; the opera is only one act long. All the action takes place in and around King Herod’s palace, in First Century A.D. Judea. When the curtain rises, Herod’s birthday party is in progress. Salome, Herod’s teenage daughter, grows bored of the festivities and goes to the terrace. There she hears the voice of Jochanaan, the Christian prophet ‘John the Baptist’ cursing Herod’s wife from his prison cell. Intrigued, Salome convinces Narraboth, a man in love with her, to bring Jochanaan to her. Though Herod has ordered that no one contact Jochanaan, Narraboth gives into Salome.

Salome immediately desires Jochanaan. She praises his white skin and black hair but he rejects her flattery. At last she begs him for a kiss. Narraboth cannot bear to hear this and kills himself. Jochanaan is led back to his cell, all the while prophesizing the Messiah. Herod enters shortly after and slips in Narraboth’s fresh blood. He begins to hallucinate and is filled with lust for Salome. Salome initially rejects him, then agrees to dance for Herod when he offers to give her whatever she wants in return.

The (in)famous Dance of the Seven Veils follows. The dance concludes with Salome lying, either naked or in a body stocking, at Herod’s feet. She demands the head of Jochanaan. Herod protests but, unable to either break of his promise or change Salome’s mind, he is forced to concede. The head of the prophet is presented to Salome per request. She makes love to the severed head, culminating in a passionate kiss, which horrifies and disgusts Herod so much that he orders his soldiers to kill his daughter.

Perhaps Salome is your sort of role-model, perhaps not. Vocalists who take on the challenge of portraying Salome can, however, serve as role-models for nearly everyone. The part of Salome is written for dramatic soprano, arguably one of the most difficult voice parts as it requires the high pitch of the soprano along with volume, power and stamina. The ability to sing like that often takes years to develop, but the vocalist must be able to portray the part of a teenager. In addition to all that, the gracefulness of a prima ballerina is needed in order to perform the dance. Talk about a strong woman, non?