Biographical operas are nothing new, with subject matter ranging from Anne Boleyn to Steve Jobs. These operas are often compelling because they offer a chance to explore specific themes, periods, and relationships for the subjects they focus on. They also occasionally give the librettist and composer the opportunity to play up certain attributes, embellish certain events, or even completely fabricate historical moments for dramatic effect (Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, anyone?). With that said, here are four historical figures whose larger-than-life biographies could prove perfect for operatic settings.
Vincent van Gogh
Now one of the most well-known artists of the 19th century, the post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh has inspired his fair share of dramatic interpretations of his life. Having reached an almost mythical status, the artist has been depicted in numerous novels, films, and a particularly moving episode of Doctor Who. The classical music world hasn’t neglected him either, with Ben Moore’s song cycle Dear Theo, based on the letters van Gogh sent his brother Theo, coming readily to mind.
In fact, there are already two operas written about van Gogh - one by Turkish composer Nevit Kodalli in 1952 and another entitled Vincent by Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara in 1990. But who’s to say we can’t write another one?
Van Gogh’s narrative is a compelling one, with few understanding or recognizing his talent until after his death. Van Gogh’s life can be viewed through several lenses; that of the struggle between his mental illness and artistic prowess, through his relationships with his brother and other artists (like Paul Gauguin), or even through the stories of the paintings themselves. Still, one of the most interesting viewpoints to take could be that of Johanna van Gogh, the wife of Vincent’s brother, Theo. It is she who translated and published the brothers’ letters and helped grow Vincent’s legacy after his death by working with art dealers to arrange exhibitions of Vincent’s work. Her journey to understand the artist could make her a potent point of access for an audience that seeks to understand the man behind the myth.
Another artist that deserves their own opera is the Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. A follower of Caravaggio, Artemisia grew up in the studio of her father Orazio, also an acclaimed artist. Artemisia almost certainly served as a model for her father, and her early career was nurtured under his tutelage. At age 17, Artemisia was sexually assaulted by her father’s collaborator Agostino Tassi. After the assault, Tassi promised to marry Artemisia and he continued to pursue a sexual relationship with her. However, when Tassi rescinded his marriage promise, Artemisia’s father sued him to protect both the honor of his daughter and his own pride. The trial was difficult for Artemisia, and due to the structure of Italian Baroque society, Artemisia was seemingly more on trial than her assailant. However, the Gentileschis prevailed, and Tassi was found guilty of several crimes (including scheming to steal paintings from the Gentileschis).
Despite this harrowing experience, Artemisia went on to maintain a highly successful career in Rome, Florence, Naples, and even England. She was included among the circles of the most influential artists and minds of her time (like Simon Vouet and Galileo Galilei) and was the first woman to be admitted to the Florentine Accademia delle Arti del Disegno. She was patronized by important families such as the Medicis and even briefly worked for the English royal family alongside her father. Hers is a story of overcoming adversity to become one of the most expressive artists of her time - a story that many did not appreciate until renewed feminist scholarship in the later part of the 20th century.
Frederick the Great
Frederick II (the Great) was King of Prussia for over 40 years in the late 18th century. Known as an excellent military strategist, Frederick the Great was also an important patron of the Enlightenment, art, and music. His reign ushered in an era of education and cultural expansion in Prussia, as well as solidified Prussia’s position as a European power for many years to come. Frederick himself was both an excellent flautist as well as a fairly prolific composer. He met with J.S. Bach and hired his son C.P.E. Bach as a court musician. Frederick even wrote parts of scores for several operas and it is therefore fitting, I think, that he should inspire one.
One of the more engrossing events in Frederick’s life comes from his youth, when the young prince attempted to flee to England with fellow soldier and lover Hans Hermann von Katte. After their plot was discovered, Frederick was imprisoned by his father and forced to watch von Katte’s execution. While this event has been alluded to in several plays and films, it has not yet (to my knowledge) been depicted on the operatic stage. Still, this is only one of many formative episodes in the life of one of history’s most well-known LGBT monarchs.
Last, but certainly not least, we come to Marian Anderson, renowned American contralto. The first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan opera, Anderson had a massively successful international career. After experiencing intense prejudice in her early career in the United States, Anderson performed extensively in Europe in the 1930s. When she returned to the US in the later half of the Thirties, she was famously barred from performing in Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939. Aided by the NAACP, President Franklin D. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson performed her iconic outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Anderson went on to participate in benefit concerts for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and served as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Her life and the difficulties she faced seem particularly relevant today as the classical music industry continues to grapple with its own deeply-seated racism.
What historical figures would you like to see on stage? Be sure to drop a comment below!