Classical 91.5

A few deliciously creepy operas for the season

Oct 9, 2018

An operatic adaptation of the Hitchcock thriller Marnie will be on stage at the Met (and Live in HD in movie theaters) this fall

Witches, ghosts, and devils - these traditional fixtures of the halloween season are no strangers to the operatic stage. You can find witches advising Macbeth in Verdi's opera and ghosts of opera characters of old reanacting their tales in John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versaillesas well as plenty of devils in Gounod's Faust, Boito's Mefistofele, and others. 

A few operas really stand out to me as being particularly creepy, beyond the apperance of a touch of the supernatural. 

I ended up thinking about aspects of horror in opera this weekend while reading this profile of contemporary British composer George Benjamin in The New Yorker

Benjamin's opera Written on Skin (written in collaboration with librettist Martin Crimp) taps into something truely horrific in its gruesome tale: 

After the wife and the artist begin an affair, the landowner kills the artist, cooks his heart, and serves it to his unknowing wife—a part written for Barbara Hannigan, the Canadian soprano. After the wife takes a bite, the landowner reveals his cruel trick. “In the original text, the wife says, ‘Nothing I eat will ever take the taste of that heart from my mouth— it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted,’ ” Benjamin told me. “That is eight hundred years old, and that act of defiance and courage in the face of such grief—and also torture, virtually—was extraordinary.”


What else? How about Der Vampyrcomposed by Heinrich Marschner in 1828? This early nineteenth century German opera set in Scotland brings plenty of atmosphere to the tale of a vampire lord bent on seduction, murder, and other destructive acts. As the body count adds up, a young man has to decide whether he can brave betraying the vampire Lord Ruthven to save the lives of others. 

For more from Marshner's time, you can also get a chill from the Wolf's Glen scene from Carl Maria von Weber's opera of deals with the devil and their danger - Der Freischutz


The Wolf's Glen scene from Der Freischutz
Credit Charles Maurand

All things haunted, mysterious and spooky permeate stories by Edgar Allen Poe - Claude Debussy started to turn one of them into an opera - The Fall of the House of Usher.  In his (completed) opera, Pelléas et Mélisdande, we can find plenty of hidden, murky depths, if not necessarily any supernatural creatures. The same ideas seem to be in play in the incomplete La chute de la Maison Usher; Debussy even worked out musical ideas to evoke the mustiness of the old house and the psychological unraveling of its inhabitants (including low oboe notes and high harmonics on the violins).  


Mozart's Don Giovanni, with its fiendish "Stone Guest" (inhabited by the ghost of the murdered Commendatore might seem like a shoo-in for a list of spooky/haunted operas, but I wasn't going to include him at first. The effect of this lumbering statue is often more awkward than truly frightening on stage - but the music itself provides some good chills. 

As I was assembling this list, I kept finding that psychological horror creates the creepiest spectacles - more than actual ghosts or demons. Here are just two more that touch on that nerve. 

Bluebeard's Castle, by Béla Bartók
Jaap van Zweden lays it out in creepy clarity in just five minutes here:


And something new! What would spooky be without Alfred Hitchcock?  The Hitchcock thriller Marnie has been turned into an opera with music by Nico Muhly. The opera Marnie had its premiere last year at the English National Opera and will be performed this season at the Met; it is one of the operas you can see Live in HD at the movies (Nov. 10th and 14th).