Opera and Greek tragedy have been intertwined for as long as opera itself has existed. From around 1580, a group of Florentine poets and musicians, known as the Camerata, sought to revive Greek drama and music. This group of intellectuals, who would go on to pioneer opera, took much inspiration from texts written by ancient Greek philosophers, writers and poets.
Thanks to opera’s origins in the preservation of Greek drama, it’s no surprise that one of operas founding fathers, Claudio Monteverdi, chose Greek tragedy as his first opera’s starting point. Take a look at some of these best known operas based on myths and legends.
L’Orfeo – Monteverdi
Orpheus and Eurydice by Peter Paul Rubens; Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the underworld
Known as opera’s first masterpiece, Claudio Monteverdi took ideas from the Camerata and other composers of the time when creating L’Orfeo. Librettist Alessandro Striggio took his words from Ottavio Rinuccini, an Italian poet who is also said to be the first ever librettist. The opera itself is based on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the most famous Greek myths.
As the story (and the opera) goes; on her wedding day, Eurydice is bitten by a snake and dies. The newly-widowed Orpheus, a talented musician, manages to convince the rulers of the underworld to allow his wife a few more years in the land of the living. Eurydice is allowed to leave the underworld so long as Orpheus leads her home without looking back. He gives into temptation, believing Eurydice isn’t behind him, and she is trapped in the underworld forever. In the myth, the mourning Orpheus is then killed by beasts. Monteverdi, however, chose a happier ending.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice continues to be opera’s most popular myth to this day. From Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (Orfeo ed Euridice) to Philip Glass’s chamber opera Orphée, and Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, composers have been drawn to the tale for hundreds of years.
As with the majority of operas that turn to Greek mythology for inspiration, Handel’s opera stays true to legend.
A shepherd, Acis, and his lover, Galatea, a sea nymph, are together when the jealous giant Polyphemus crushes Acis to death with a boulder. Galatea then turns his gushing blood into a river, immortalising him forever at the base of Mount Etna. In Handel’s opera however, Acis is immortalised in the form of a fountain, not a river. There is also the addition of Damon, Acis’ friend, who would rather Acis tend to his flock, then spend time with Galatea.
Elektra – Strauss
Electra Receiving the Ashes of her Brother, Orestes by Jean-Baptiste Wicar; Electra receives the ashes from her brother himself, unaware that he is in fact alive.
In 1905 composer Richard Strauss attended a performance of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra. Soon after, Strauss reached out to the playwright, having decided the play would be ideal for operatic treatment. The two men then collaborated on the composer’s second major opera (his first is Salome).
Both the play and opera are adaptations of Greek playwright Sophocles’ Elektra, and so follow the legend closely. In Greek mythology, Elektra was the daughter of the king and queen of Mycenae. She is devastated when her father, Agamemnon, is killed. Believing her mother to be responsible, Elektra and her brother seek revenge, and murder their mother and her lover. Strauss’s version of the tragedy is set to a German libretto, and unlike the myth, his Elektra falls dead at the end of the opera.
The Minotaur – Birtwistle
Theseus victor of the Minotaur, Charles-Édouard Chaise, oil on canvas, circa 1791.
Nearly 400 years after Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo premiered, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, shows us that Greek tragedy is still as important as ever in inspiring opera. The legend of the half man-half beast is still one of Ancient Greece’s best known myths.
The hero in this story, Theseus, successfully manages to slay the Minotaur, ending years of ritual killings. He also defies the odds by finding his way back out of the Labyrinth, by intuitively using a piece of string to help guide him (an idea given to him by the Princess Ariadne).
As with most Greek mythology, the legend of the Minotaur ends in tragedy; Theseus’ father wrongly believes his son to have died on his quest to slay the beast, and ends his own life. Birtwistle’s Minotaur, although violent, is given a human voice at some points in the opera, allowing us to see the man behind the beast.
Operas inspired by Roman legend...
Dido and Aeneas – Purcell
Dido and Aeneas by Pompeo Batoni (1747); Aeneas prepares to leave Carthage and Dido behind
The story that Purcell gives operatic treatment to can be found in book IV. In it, we learn that Dido, who had previously vowed to never love again after the death of her husband, has fallen in love with Trojan prince, Aeneas. Soon after the couple fall in love with one another, Aeneas is reminded of his duty to leave Carthage, and the devastated heroine kills herself.
In adapting Virgil’s story for the London stage, composer Henry Purcell and his librettist, Nahum Tate, changed some significant parts of the story. In the opera, Dido falls in love with Aeneas on her own accord, not because of a love potion. The most interesting change, however, is the addition of the witches that meddle in the couple’s relationship, as opposed to the gods in the original version. There has been great speculation as to why this variation was made, but nevertheless, it is a sorceress, her witches, and their elf that destroy the relationship of Dido and Aeneas, not Venus, Jupiter and Mercury.
The Rape of Lucretia – Britten
Tarquinius Rapes Lucretia, from Scenes from Roman History, Georg Pencz
The opera’s libretto follows the original story closely. As the Roman legend goes; Lucretia, faithful wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the King of Rome’s youngest son. Having pleaded with her husband for vengeance, Lucretia took out a dagger and stabbed herself. Her death spurred a revolution in ancient Rome, over throwing the King, and thus the Roman Republic was born.
Unlike the mythological origins of the other operas we’ve chosen in this article, the legend of Lucretia is partly based on fact. The rulers in the story did in fact exist, and there has been much debate as to whether Lucretia was a real person or not. Whether or not this tragedy did in fact spark the change is the entire social and political structure of Rome we may never know!