Feeling like being spooked on an operatic scale this Halloween? Here are seven horror-ful operas to chill your spine with (click on opera name for corresponding sample Youtube clip):
1. Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 Der Freischütz (The Marksman): Set in Bohemia in the late 1600’s. This beloved spookily mythical opera is based on a favorite German folklore often told over a campfire during a cold and dark night in the forest. Max the handsome young ranger is desperate to earn the right to marry his beloved Agathe (the daughter of Kuno the chief ranger) by winning Duke Ottokar’s shooting competition. Having been beaten in a recent match by another ranger, Max takes up on Kaspar’s offer to conjure up Zamiel (the devil himself) and help him forge seven magic bullets that will hit anything the shooter aims at. What Max doesn’t know, of course, is that Kaspar owes a debt to the devil and is trying to bargain three more years of his fast-expiring life in exchange for that of Max and his bride. Only six of the ‘magic’ bullets will hit whatever Max aims for, while the seventh is under sole command of the devil. What will happen to the young lovers and their devious friend? Go to a performance of Weber’s Freischütz near you or rent/buy a DVD or CD recording. The forging of the magic bullet in the famous Wolf’s Glen scene is one of the spookiest pieces of classical music you’ll ever hear!
2. Heinrich Marschner’s 1828 Der Vampyr (The Vampire): Opera is ahead of the teen fad curve! Long before the modern day’s Twilight Saga-induced vampire-mania, opera was already playing up the glamorous side of deadlessly pale-skinned (and good looking) humanoid blood suckers. Lord Ruthven is a vampyr with an expiring cause. Informed by The Vampire Master that he has just one day (24 hours) remains on earth to bring in three more victims in exchange for another year of the good vampiring life, Ruthven sets out on a deadly rampage while counting on his reluctant friend, Aubry, to keep his true sucky nature secret. The arrangement gets complicated, of course, when Aubry’s girlfriend and prospective bride, Malwina, is sent by her father to be Lord Ruthven’s wife — just as Ruthven is running out of time looking for his third victim! This operatic nail-(among other body parts)-biter comes accompanied by gorgeously romantic music worth getting sanguine for.
3. Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1831 Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil): Many of us spend many of our growing up days convinced that either of both of our parents are the devil, Robert, Duke of Normandy, didn’t, but he ought to have! The opera-ful of sinful deceits centers around Robert and how his ‘friend’ Bertram courts him down all the roads ought not taken. One of those finds them in an abandoned convent where Robert, cheered on by a swarm of gyrating temporarily-resurrected-dead-nuns (whose bedeviled state is supposedly the result of having insulted god with their not quite pristine thoughts), steals a magic branch that renders him invisible. His hope of using it to regain his wealth and win the hands of Isabelle is crushed, however, when he learns that she has been arranged to marry the Prince of Granada instead. Just as all hope is lost for Robert’s rehabilitation, however, Bertram reveals that he is actually Robert’s father, though he has a deal with the you-know-who to either deliver Robert or himself to hell at the end of the day.
Robert le diable is considered by most as the first French grand opera. An honor well earned and iced with a truly chilling Invocation Scene (AKA Nuns Scene), whose music is apt to appear in the background of horror films by directors who knows spookadelic music when they hear it.
4. Giuseppe Verdi’s 1847 Macbeth: Taken, naturally, from the famous Shakespeare play on the bloody perils of self-fulfilling prophesies. Witches and ghost, delusions, apparitions and even a slumbering attack of somnambulic guilty conscience haunt this dark tale of ambition gone awry. Bonnie and Clyde have nothing on Macbeth and his Lady when it comes to spending no thought on shedding others’ blood. I’m afraid it is a lot easier to find a DVD or CD of this show than live performances of it at your local opera houses, though. Like its namesake play, the Scottish Opera is notoriously well hexed and tends to spook off its performers.
5. Hector Berlioz’s 1846 La damnation de Faust (The Damnation of Faust), Charles Gounod’s 1859 Faust, Arrigo Boito’s 1868 Mefistofele: When it comes to theme of the ill-advisable practice of employing the devil as one’s adviser, Goethe’s Faust is probably the one story that is sure to pop up in your head whether you agree with its premises or not. All three operas here tell the same story, though some more entirely than not. Berlioz’s La damnation is more ‘collection of scenes in music’ than it is an opera, though it boasts some of the most descriptive and haunting music ever written. Gounod’s Faust concentrates on part 1 of Goethe’s story, only giving a glimpse into the 2nd part in the short in time but long on monstrosity Walpurgis Night scene. Boito’s Mefistofele is the most ambitious of all, though the sheer length of the story and scale of the story doesn’t translate all that cohesively into the opera. All the same, go for the Berlioz if you are into gorgeously haunting music; the Gounod for the most coherent rendition of the bedeviled story; and the Boito if you have a fetish for the shirtlessly powerful deep basso.
6. Benjamin Britten’s 1954 The Turn of the Screw: Based on a particularly supernatural novel by Henry James about a governess and her young charges being persistently harassed by pedophilic specters in their isolated wooded estate. A clever work based on a clever book that encourages many different attempts to define its ambiguities, both James and Britten will have you pondering your own brand of reality and fear before the final scene is done. No gore or blood, I’m afraid. Just the nagging unknown that keeps you listening for the monster that your mind would like to conjure up.
7. John Corigliano’s 1991 The Ghosts of Versailles: What is not to love about this tuneful modern piece of music theater during the Halloween season? All the cast are French, dead, and historically confused! A modern day grand opera in two acts, using a huge singing cast, two orchestras (one in the pit and one on the stage) along with an extra marching band, this wittily silly phantoms-filled musical comedy packs a lot of punches into its couple of stage hours. Marie Antoinette, reunited in death with her head, still mourns the manner of her passing as her smitten suitor, Beaumarchais, tries to cheer her up with a performance of an opera based on his third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother. The opera characters (all played by ghosts, of course), however, prove just as interfering as the dead playwright, necessitating active interference from Beaumarchais in mid-performance. It is a fun farce that gleefully breaks every operatic rule imaginable in its quest to entertain the audience.
While many of the operas on the list are quite dark and/or eerie for the young audience’s consumption, Britten’s Turn of the Screw and Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles are ideal for the entire family of music lovers looking to spice up their Halloween with ghosts-galore viewing while munching down pumpkin pies and spiced cider. Deeply musical thrill never dies… It just goes operatic.
– The Metropolitan Opera International Radio Broadcast Information Center
-The Big Score. New York Magazine. 9 December 1991.
– The New Groves Book of Opera. St. Martin’s Press. 1997.