If Medicare was the third rail in American politics (touch it and you die), then religion ought to be the third rail in opera… But it isn’t! There are actually many operatic musical plays that range from just sharing some religious pathos to being overtly pious, albeit in a very dramatic sense of the word (which can even occasionally stray into ‘pompous’ when taken too seriously). Here are a few of them that are quite well known (if only to opera fans):
1. Francis Poulenc’s Les dialogues des Carmelites (Christianity)
Based a bit distantly on a true story of a bunch of Carmelite nuns in Compiègne region of France who (literally) lost their head for refusing to denounce their faith during the French Revolution in 1794, Francis Poulenc’s The Dialogues of the Carmelites is a significant work both for its marvelously emotionally illuminating music and for the content of its ethos. I should tell you outright that I am not a Christian (I don’t subscribe to any religion at all), but all the same, every now and then we all can use a good jolting reminder of the importance of free speech and religious tolerance (both of religions and by religions).
The story of the opera follows Blanche de la Force, a young and rather panicky young aristocrat who seeks spiritual comfort in joining the Carmelite nuns and finds herself blistered in the anti-religion and anti-aristocrat whirlwind of the French Revolution. Her father, the Marquis de la Force, is executed, her brother exiled to England, and, to top it off, her spiritual leader renounces her own faith in the horrific cancer-induced death-delirium. When her fellow nuns are finally rounded up for the guillotine after refusing to let go of their religion, Blanche, psychologically battered and torn whole, has to make the decision in whether her belief is worth living without.
It is already a powerful play on the soul merit of the brutal morality of its story. Coupled with Poulenc’s darkly inspired music (Poulenc’s ex-gay-lover was dying of stomach cancer as he worked on the opera), it is a haunting theatrical experience that is liable to turn even a well toughened redneck into a hugely lachrymose onion by the end of the show.
2. Jules Massenet’s Thaïs (Christianity)
From Anatole France’s novel, the monk Athanaël sets out to converts the famous and influential Egyptian courtesan Thaïs to a life of Christian devotion. Being already aware of the gradual fade of her beauty, Thaïs complies and joins a desert convent, where she resolves to starve herself to atone for her past sins… much to the dismay of her savior, Athanaël, who had fallen quite madly in love with her in the process.
The opera isn’t often performed, but the orchestral Meditation depicting Thaïs’ conversion is a very famous concert piece for virtuoso violinists. To be really honest, the story is neither pro or against religion. If anything I tend to see it as something of a cautionary tale about fanaticism and how putting pure ideology to practice can shatter lives rather than save them. But then one can also idealize the opera’s heroine and just blame her fallen converter for spiritual weakness (or what can equally be described as humanity).
3. Giuseppe Verdi’s Stiffelio (Christianity)
Christ-like forgiveness is a virtue Verdi’s Stiffelio preaches through out his career as a pastor in mid 19th century Salzburg, Austria. But doing forgiveness is quite easier said than done and Stiffelio’s discovery of his wife’s adulterous affair tests his moral resolve to the limit. This opera used to be Verdi’s lost work (an expose of adultery in a protestant minister’s household was considered rather too explosive for the days’ censor to handle), but has seen increasing revivals of late. Like any good work of drama, it allows for different interpretations. And being set to music by Verdi, even the non-religious will still find much to enjoy in the melody-laden piece.
Of course there are many more operas whose pathos are heavily influenced or even based on Christianity. There are many famous works based on Goethe’s Faust: Charles Gounod’s Faust, Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust, Boito’s Mefistofele , Busoni’s Doktor Faustus, that are pretty much in the standard repertoire. And then there are the heavily mythologized Christian opera of Richard Wagner (Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Parsifal, for three). But there are more religions around in the opera world than just Christianity…
4. Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (Judaism)
This historically highly inaccurate fiction set during Israel’s 3rd occupation by their neighboring Babylonian (somewhere around 587BC) really only features one character from the Bible/Torah, the title role of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar). You would remember him from high school history class as the mad man who had a famous hanging garden in his backyard, though, unfortunately the garden doesn’t appear in this opera at all. Nabucco in the story is bestowed with two daughters; a legitimate bleeding heart who side with the oppressed Israelites and a not-so-legitimate woman warrior who would rather usurp her father’s throne than admit to the impurity of her blood. It only juices the story up a notch that both daughters are in love with the same Israelite general!
The running theme of the show, however, is the very active intervention by the god of Israel and how the occupation was lifted as one Babylonian after another convert to the religion (in Nabucco’s case, his conversion cures his rather operatic bout of insanity). Of course the real life story was quite different… but then who goes to the opera for a history lesson anyhow? This early Verdi work is famous for its Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, but my favorite scene, when done well, is actually the very understated finale.
5. Fromental Halévy’s La Juive (Judaism)
Set in ultra-conservative Konstanz, Germany during the Counsel of Constance in 1414 under the religiously segregated rule of the Holy Roman Empire (sexual relation between Jews and Christians was prohibited under the penalty of death by burning at stake). Rachel, the adopted daughter of the vengeful Jewish goldsmith Eléazar, is caught having a romantic relation with ‘Samuel’ a painter who is actually the married (and distressingly Christian) Prince Léopold, the general who had recently earned glory in the war against the Hussites, in disguise. The crowd demand their death even though Cardinal Brogni, the man who had caused Eléazar to be exiled from Rome many years ago, had grown more keen on mercy since. The fate of father and daughter all comes down to whether pride and the hatred between religious factions is stronger than the humanly sense of selfless love and mercy.
6. Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (Judaism)
A famous story, this is, and one repeatedly used (mostly unsuccessfully) by me as an excuse for my dread of visits to the barbershop. The Israelites are oppressed and occupied again. This time by the paganistic Philistines who are after Samson for having murdered their commander. The Philistines have a ace up their collective sleeves, however, in the form of endlessly sultry Dalila. An ex-lover of Samson, Dalila is bestowed with the task of seducing him into confiding in her the secret to his strength. I guess the moral of the story is to never let your hair down in the presences of temptation (even when it takes the form of the most gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice in the planet).
7. Philip Glass’ Satyagraha (Hinduism, Brahmanism)
This is a modern opera on a rather modernly derived Hindu concept of Satyagraha, how sustained non-violent peaceful protest can bring down political tyranny. A concept closely associated with Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948) and other peace-mongering leaders (Ravindranath Tagore, Leo Tolstoy, and Martin Luther King, Jr) depicted in this opera. Hailing from different countries and different background, all are united in their embrace of compassionate passive political resistance. The concept is quite easily understood in itself, though in the opera the use of sur-title translation is quite needed since the whole thing is taken from the Bhagavad Gita right down to its original language, Sanskrit.
I have deliberately omitted the religions of Greek mythology, of course, since not a lot of folks really practice that anymore. There are also opera with pagan setting. Bellini’s Norma, for one, but religion isn’t such a big part of it. Opera being a product of the Western culture, I’m afraid I don’t know of any that touches on Islam to any significant degree. Perhaps that will change in the future. Who know? For now, though, this is already enough of religion in a single classical music article!