Opera article: “Operatic Insanity” from opera21

Article about opera by Ilana Walder-Biesanz originally published on April 25th, 2014 on the opera21 blog: http://opera21.tumblr.com/post/83842576727/operatic-insanity

Lucia arrives on stage, hair disheveled, eyes crazed, dressed in a blood-stained wedding gown, and proceeds to execute some of the trickiest coloratura in opera. The mad scene is the most visually and musically iconic section of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and of most other operas that contain one. Insanity makes for good drama. However, it is by no means a constant presence in the operatic canon: insanity in opera is a trend that has come, gone, and changed in the last few centuries.

Three Phases of Operatic Insanity

In a letter to the Psychiatric Bulletin, Neil Brener suggests that opera can be split into three phases with respect to its treatment of madness. The first is the phase of the mad scene, beginning with Handel’s Orlando in 1733, appearing briefly in Mozart’s Idomeneo, and reaching its height in Donizetti’s operas, of which at least five contain impressive depictions of insanity. In this phase, insanity serves as an excuse for virtuoso displays on the part of both the composer and singer.

By the mid-1800s, opera moves into a phase that shies away from explorations of madness and prefers to use physical illness as a metaphor for passion. Lucia and Orlando give way to Violetta and Mimi, and the few mad scenes from this period tend to be parodies (e.g., “Cheerily carols the lark” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore). Brener suggests that perhaps madness was too much of a threat in real life to be dealt with comfortably by the composers of this era.

Wagner’s patron King Ludwig II was clearly psychotic. Verdi, after a rather feeble attempt to portray madness in Nabucco, gave up, scrapping his proposed King Lear because he found the subject “too stressful.” Italian composers also had to be careful around the topic of insanity after the psychiatrist Cesare Lombroso’s influential 1864 study Genio e follia, which found connections between lunacy and genius and argued that hereditary insanity caused artistic creativity.

This phase of physical illness is followed (with some overlap) by a more realistic treatment of insanity in psychoanalytic opera. Madness goes from being a form of beautiful freedom (exemplified by the stunning coloratura of most bel canto mad scenes) to a living hell of painful atonality. Insanity is no longer necessarily confined to a particular scene; characters slowly descend into it rather than suddenly “snapping.” This shift coincides with the rising popularity of Freudian psychoanalysis. As individual psychology becomes a widespread topic of research and discussion, librettists and composers (as well as artists in other media) become more concerned with accurately portraying it. Strauss’s Elektra (1909) and Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) serve as perfect specimens of this phase. Janáček’s operas also contain psychoanalytic portrayals of insanity, usually as a protest against social prejudice. In his Jenůfa (1904), Kostelnička madly drowns Jenůfa’s illegitimate baby to enable her to marry Laca, and in Káťa Kabanová (1921), the title character gradually goes insane and commits suicide after confessing publicly to an assignation with her lover.

Insanity as a Gendered Problem

We tend to associate mad scenes with female voices, but mad scenes exist for castrati, tenors, and baritones as well. In a letter to the Annales Médico Psychologiques, R. Ropert reminds readers that madness in literature was originally a primarily masculine problem, especially in classical and medieval texts. This is reflected in early operas that adapt these works, such as versions of the Roland/Orlando story (composed by Lully, Handel, Vivaldi, and Haydn) and adaptations of Orestes’ story (such as Glück’s Iphigénia en Tauride).

By the late 1700s, insanity becomes an almost exclusively female affair. Donizetti’s Maria Padilla contains (as far as I can tell) the only bel canto mad scene for tenor, in contrast to at least half a dozen famous soprano mad scenes. Why is the soprano voice favored? Ropert suggests that the supposed celestial quality of high voices plays on the idea of religious ecstasy, so mad sopranos best express the liberation that accompanies madness in bel canto plots. Of course, the fact that female characters are the ones going mad also reflects the social constraints women historically suffered from. The women are the ones who stand in need of the freedom madness can offer. Insanity also conveniently puts troublesome women out of the way by removing them from the male world into which they may have transgressed.

The nearly exclusive focus on female madness ends with the bel canto era. Once we reach the psychoanalytic phase of opera, men have a chance to go mad in operas again, although women still predominate. This is in part due to the role that insanity can play in protesting social prejudices (of which women are usually the victims).

How Realistic are Operatic Portrayals of Insanity?

Clearly, insanity has a lot of symbolic weight to carry. But that’s not necessarily incompatible with a realistic portrayal of madness. Crazy people obviously don’t usually sing coloratura arias, but if we ignore such meta-theatrical considerations, the mad characters’ behavior and symptoms could be consistent with diagnosable mental illnesses. It would take far more than a single magazine article to explore this character by character, but we will look at the most famous of all insane heroines, Lucia di Lammermoor, as a case study.

In an article in the Annales Médico Psychologiques, J. Verdeau-Pailles catalogues Lucia’s symptoms and arrives at a diagnosis. The intensity and sudden onset of her symptoms point to a “spectacular psychotic crisis,” with delirium serving as a response to intense mental stress. Key symptoms include “sudden onset, precipitation by an external event, depersonalization, affective perturbation, intellectual inhibition, anxiety and depression, aggressive impulses, disorientation, [and] amnesia of a short and definite duration.” According to Verdeu- Pailles, “The disorganization of her psychological life follows a ‘downward spiral’ that becomes irreversible, leading to her psychological and physical death.” He insists that this is in accordance with what Janet and Freud classify as “hysterical delirium” and what Follin calls “hysterical psychosis.” He admits that modern diagnostic manuals do not recognize this condition, but insists that it is a clinical reality and cites a literature review to that effect.

Lucia has been assigned a rather outdated diagnosis which, even if it is accepted, is not perfect. That hysterical psychosis would lead to death, especially as quickly as it seems to in Lucia’s case, is unlikely. However, we should make some allowance for Donizetti and other mad scene composers. Given the dramatic, musical, and symbolical functions insanity already fulfills in opera, it would be a bit much to demand clinical accuracy as well. Besides, realism in general has never been one of opera’s selling points.


Since the earliest operas, insanity has played a musical and dramatic role in the art form. However, portrayals of insanity have shifted with the centuries, losing popularity after a mad scene phase and then experiencing a resurgence with a more pessimistic and socially oriented bent in the psychological opera phase of the early twentieth century. There were some crazy men in the earlier and later years, but the bel canto high point of madness belonged almost entirely to women. The portrayal of their insanity may not have been strictly realistic, but it was undoubtedly dramatically compelling.

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