- Michael Ewans
Opera is one of the most important sites for the reception of Greek and Roman literature, history, and myth. Significant operas have been based on classical topics from the invention of the medium (Peri’s Eurydice, 1600) through to the present day. Important composers of classically based operas include Monteverdi, Handel, Gluck, Cherubini, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Tippett, Henze and Turnage.
Updated in this version
Article and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Discography and links to opera performances added.
The 17th Century
The Florentine Camerata—a group of humanists, musicians and intellectuals—invented opera, at the end of the 16th century ce. Its members believed that Greek tragedy was sung throughout, and sought to devise a new medium that would equal its perceived excellence. They had a preference for happy endings; the lyric poet Battista Guarini argued that, rather than purging pity and fear, as in Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy, modern texts should aim to purge melancholy from the soul. The first operas (e.g., Peri's Eurydice, 1600) largely consisted of declamation, and it was only with Monteverdi's Venetian operas—Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1642)—that a true expressive power began to be achieved. Monteverdi established a dialogue between different musical forms, which was a true recreation in Renaissance terms of the structural principles of Greek tragedy. Sections declaimed over a light accompaniment are alternated with passages accompanied by the full orchestra in what was known as the stilo concertato—for example when Ulisse revenges himself on the suitors (see video Ulisse’s Revenge).
The 18th Century
Except in France, where Lully's Alceste (1674) and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1733, after Racine’s Phèdre) are important, the significant operas of the Baroque turned largely to Rome for subject matter. Neoplatonism and Stoicism dominate the outstanding operas of this period, which include Handel's Guilio Cesare in Egitto (“Julius Caesar,” 1724) and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito (1791). Both operas alternate recitative—sections declaimed over relatively modest accompaniment, in which the action is advanced—and arias—in which the emotions of the characters at that point in the action are explored, often in a simple ABA form, where on the reprise of the first section, the singer is expected to ornament his or her vocal part with embellishments (see video Cleopatra's second aria from Handel’s Julius Caesar). Handel in particular had a very considerable output of operas based on classical themes, mainly Roman but also including a pastoral Acis and Galatea, an Alessandro and even a musical drama, Hercules, which is based on Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (see video G. F Handel—Acis and Galatea).
Baroque operas on Greek themes tended to trivialize or sensationalize the stories until the advent of Gluck, whose late operas brought back a seriousness of intent and firmly focused emotion. Gluck was the first composer to use Greek tragedy as the basis for a serious modern tragédie lyrique. He was also the first of the great reformers of opera; he opposed the ossified conventions, complicated plots and repetitive, trivial subject matter of the contemporary opera seria. Gluck sought a return to the simplicity and clarity of Greek tragedy, and he wanted to evoke “terror and compassion”—a rephrasing, of course, of Aristotle. After Orfeo ed Eurydice, Gluck realized that to achieve this, his “reform operas” needed to use not simply a Greek myth but an actual Greek tragedy as the basis for the libretto. The new works would emulate the economy and directness of their Greek originals. Irrelevant display was to be avoided, both in scenic extravagance and in vocal pyrotechnics by singers; the new operatic drama would move fast and be full of “heartfelt language, strong passions [and] interesting situations.” The results can be seen and heard in Iphigénie en Aulide (1774), Alceste (revised French version, 1776), and Iphigénie en Tauride (1778). See video Oreste and Pylade.
Gluck's new direction was developed further in Cherubini's powerful, forward-looking Médée of 1797, in which Euripides’ anguished and often sympathetic heroine is restored after many treatments, both in Charpentier’s opera of 1693 and in French spoken plays, in which she had been demonized, following Seneca (the Younger), as a witch. The orchestra comments increasingly powerfully as the action unfolds; Cherubini uses dramatic, surprising changes of mood to great effect. And the opera has a unique ending. Since Euripides, Medea had flown off to refuge in Athens in her dragon chariot, but here Médée has invoked Tisiphone in an aria when steeling herself to kill her children, so at the end she welcomes her imminent descent to Hades; a fiery chasm opens, the three Furies appear, and they pull her down (see video Médée invokes Tisiphone).
The 19th Century
The 1800s were a relatively barren time for classical reception to opera, with the outstanding exception of Berlioz's highly individualistic masterpiece, Les Troyens (1860). It is a grand opera in five Acts, based on books 2 (Acts I–II) and 4 (Acts III–V) of Vergil’s Aeneid, and it culminates with Dido's death on her funeral pyre, followed by a vision of the triumph of Rome. Berlioz shows deep insight into the predicaments of his two heroines, Cassandra and Dido; but the concurrent focus on the people of Troy and Carthage, and the opera’s epic scale, allow it to dramatize the fall of two civilizations and the rise of a third (see video Cassandre and the Trojan Horse).
In Germany, Wagner thoroughly rethought his own art after 1849, in the light of the example of the Greek festival theatre, and in particular of Aeschylus’s use of myth to create a trilogy in the Oresteia. This led to the creation of The Nibelung's Ring (first performed complete in 1876), a cycle of three very substantial music dramas with a ‘preliminary evening,’ based on German and Norse mythology. Wagner propounded the concept of a tension between intellectual, “Apolline” aspects of Greek tragedy and Dionysian, instinctual and emotional elements, which was taken up by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.
Wagner argued that his Ring orchestra, with its complex system of over 70 principal, interconnected Leitmotive (leading melodies), had the same function of commenting on the action as the Greek chorus. There are also Aeschylean themes; both trilogies begin with an act of renouncing love for power (the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Agamemnon, the theft of the Rhine gold, and the forging and possession of the ring in Das Rheingold); and in several scenes, for example that of Sieglinde’s prophecies in Die Walküre Act II, recalling Cassandra’s, there are echoes of the Oresteia (see video Sieglinde’s vision). Wagner also established a specially designed theatre at Bayreuth for the performance of the Ring, and made it a festival event distinguished from regular repertory opera.
The 20th and 21st Centuries
Wagner, Nietzsche, and above all Freud influenced the single most successful 20th-century opera on a classical theme: Richard Strauss’ Elektra (1909), based on the “Tragedy after Sophocles” (see Sophocles), by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Here the rigorously shaped tonal architecture of the one-act opera and the detailed use of Wagnerian Leitmotive barely contain the intense violence that Strauss unleashed in response to von Hofmannsthal's vivid imagery, and the stage action, which culminates with Elektra dancing like a maenad (Dionysus again) to celebrate the deaths of Klytemnästra and Aigisth—and falling dead at the climax of her dance (see dance reception). Hofmannsthal’s portrait of Elektra shows, in her opening monologue, a woman in love with her murdered father; and when Orest comes to take his vengeance, she projects onto him all of that love. Strauss reinforces this by casting Orest as a baritone, a deep voice like that of a mature man, rather than the tenor which is usual for young men; and by accompanying Elektra’s recognition of Orest with an extended development of the lustrous string theme to which she had begged her father’s ghost to appear to her (see video Elektra recognition). Strauss clinches this view of Elektra by closing the opera with monumental chords of the motif to which Agamemnon’s name had been sung earlier in the opera; her father’s dominance of her psyche has driven her to madness and death (see video Elektra’s death).
Two other notable post-Wagnerian operas raise a significant issue. Taneyev in Oresteia (1895) and Enescu in Oedipe (first performed in 1936) attempt to graft Christian elements of forgiveness and redemption onto the endings of their respective Greek tragic stories, whose successful resolution had been achieved in Aeschylus’ Eumenides and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus on much more pragmatic terms. In Aeschylus, there will be a permanent central role at Athens for the Furies, precisely because of their awesome power to create fear, and in Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus deserves his resting-place near Athens because he has become a heros, able to help his friends and harm his enemies even from beyond the grave. By contrast at the end of Taneyev’s Oresteia Athena becomes a Christ figure 1,000 years before his time, abolishing the Furies and inaugurating a new era of pity, forgiveness, love, and justice. In Enescu’s opera, Oedipe is redeemed and welcomed by the goddesses of the grove at Colonus (once the “fetid Furies,” now the “gentle Eumenides”) because he is “pure in soul.” The consequent juxtapositions jar, though in both operas the sublime music of the closing pages does much to create an illusion of dramatic unity. Fauré’s lyrical Penelope (1913) raises no such problems; it closes with a hymn of thanksgiving to Zeus. Fauré had also earlier composed the music for a pageant, Prométhée. Outdoor performances were given with wind bands, strings, and harps in the amphitheatre at Béziers in 1900; it was later re-orchestrated for a normal symphony orchestra, and this version was successfully premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1917.
There is one important opera drawn from ancient Greek comedy. Braunfels’ Die Vögel (1920), after Aristophanes’ Birds, is a beautiful, lyrical opera with a predominant theme of Sehnsucht—longing for a better life (see video of Braunfels’ The Birds, song of the nightingale). In striking contrast to the conquest of the gods by Pisthetairos in Aristophanes’ original, the human founders of Cloudcuckooland and their bird allies abandon their ideal of a city in the clouds under the threat of severe reprisals from Zeus.
In the later 20th and 21st centuries, opera has continued to draw its inspiration more from Greece than from Rome. Two pre-eminent post-war operas are Tippett's fatalistic Cold War reworking of Homer’s Iliad (King Priam, 1962) and Henze's The Bassarids (1966). Tippett’s Priam is inexorably doomed, and so too is his city, from the moment that Paris is born. In Achilles’ tent in Act 3, there is none of the rich interplay between Priam and Achilles that makes Iliad 24 so memorable; instead, the two men contemplate their own inevitable deaths. The music is extremely austere (see video Priam and Achilles).
Auden and Kallman, in their libretto for The Bassarids based on Euripides’ Bacchae, attempt to denounce Dionysus from a Christian perspective, but Henze overwhelmingly opposes this with his musical portrait of the Mediterranean warmth and beauty of the god, contrasted with the ascetic severity of Pentheus. The opera concludes with the apotheosis of Dionysus and Semele (now become the goddess Thyone), followed by stage images that symbolize Dionysus’ conquest of rational civilization. It is imbued with the spirit of liberation seen in the hippie movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Although it is not an opera, mention should be made of the immensely successful African-American musical Gospel at Colonus (after Sophocles) by Lee Breuer (book, lyrics, and director) and Bob Tilson (composer) (New York, 1983).
The most notable (and successful) among many more recent operas based on the classics is Mark-Antony Turnage's Greek (1988). It is based on Steven Berkoff’s play, in which the tragedy of Oedipus is relocated to the East End of London under Margaret Thatcher’s rule; the plague symbolizes the decay and degeneration of British society. There is an extraordinary ending; Eddy, on discovering that he has married his mother, at first contemplates putting out his eyes “Greek style,” but then changes his mind. The work concludes with his ecstatic welcoming of sex with his mother/wife. The score, for a chamber orchestra, alternates bittersweet lyricism with an abrasive, “in your face,” almost punk-style idiom to powerful effect (see video “Greek,” love duet Eddy, Wife/Mum).
Greek has been presented in several subsequent productions since its Munich premiere and has been given outstanding CD and DVD recordings. More recent operas based on the classics include Mikos Theodorakis’ lyrical, folkloric Medea (1991), Electra (1995), and Antigone (1999), and Harrison Birtwhistle’s acerbic The Minotaur (2008). None of these has achieved more than one production.
Opera has proved to be the site for some of the most significant—and emotionally powerful—responses in and after the Renaissance to Greek and Roman myth, history, epic, and tragedy.
- Burian, Peter. “Tragedy adapted for stages and screens.” In The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Edited by P. Easterling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
- Ewans, Michael. Wagner and Aeschylus: The “Ring” and the “Oresteia.” London: Faber and Faber, 1982.
- Ewans, Michael. Opera from the Greek: Studies in the Poetics of Appropriation. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.
- Ewans, Michael. “Greek Drama in Opera.” In A Handbook to the Reception of Greek Drama. Edited by B. van Zyl Smit. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, 2016.
- Ewans, Michael. “Aeschylus in Opera.” In Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aeschylus. Edited by R. F. Kennedy. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2018.
- Ketterer, Robert. Ancient Rome in Early Opera. Urbana: Illinois University Press 2009.
- Ketterer, Robert C., and Jon Solomon. Classics and Opera. Oxford Bibliographies in Classics, June 2017.
- McDonald, Marianne. Sing Sorrow: Classics, History and Heroines in Opera. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.
For further information about composers and works, see the relevant entries in Oxford Music Online.
(All DVDs unless stated to be audio CDs)
- Berlioz, Hector. Les Troyens, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Heathfield, UK: Opus Arte, 2004.
- Braunfels, Walter. Die Vögel, conducted by James Conlon. Halle/Salle: Arthaus Musik, 2010.
- Cherubini, Luigi. Médée conducted by Christophe Rousset. Paris: BelAir, 2012.
- Enescu, Georges. Oedipe, CDs conducted by Lawrence Foster. Paris: EMI, 2012.
- Gluck, Christoph von. Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Aulide, conducted by Marc Minkowski. London: Opus Arte, 2013.
- Händel, Georg Friedrich. Julius Caesar, conducted by Charles Mackerras. West Long Branch, NJ: Kultur, 2011.
- Henze, Hans Werner. The Bassarids CDs conducted by Gerd Albrecht. Dusseldorf: Koch Swan, 1991.
- Monteverdi, Claudio. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Henze version), conducted by Jeffrey Tate. Chatsworth, CA: R.M. Associates 2002.
- Rameau, Jean-Philippe. Hippolyte et Aricie, conducted by Emmanuelle Haim. Paris: Erato, 2014.
- Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. La Clemenza di Tito, conducted by Andrew Davis. Munich: Arthaus, 2010.
- Strauss, Richard. Elektra, conducted by Karl Böhm. Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 2005.
- Taneyev, Sergei Ivanovich. Oresteia, CDs conducted by Koloniytseva. Moscow: Melodya, 2015.
- Tippett, Michael. King Priam, conducted by Roger Norrington. Leipzig: Arthaus Musik, 2008.
- Turnage, Mark-Anthony. Greek, conducted by Richard Bernas. Leipzig: Arthaus Musik, 2007.
- Wagner, Richard. Der Ring des Nibelung, conducted by Pierre Boulez. Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 2005.