Opera? What's Love got to do with it?
Opera? What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Operas are by nature dramatic and many of today’s most recognizable operas are centered around themes of love: everlasting love, betrayal, lost love, and love and sacrifice. Given that it is the month of February, this is the perfect time to explore a few operas that touch on the theme of love (and romance).
Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers) by Georges Bizet
The story takes place on the island of Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) and explores the friendship between two pearl fishermen and their mutual love for a priestess.
The opera introduces Zurga, the elected village leader of the pearl fishermen. Zurda is reunited with his long-lost friend, Nadir. The old friends reminisce about falling in love with the same woman, a mysterious priestess, at a temple in the city of Kandy. This rivalry nearly destroyed their friendship so they both agreed to renounce their love for the stranger for the sake of their friendship. Having reunited, Zurga and Nadir reaffirm their friendship and promise to stay true to their friendship and to cherish one another as brothers.
Unfortunately for these men, the mysterious priestess, Leila, arrives on the beach. She has been chosen to perform rituals to protect the local fishermen from the dangers at sea. At first, Zurga and Nadir do not realize that the veiled priestess is the mysterious woman from Kandy, though she recognizes Nadir. Later that evening, Nadir realizes who Leila is and they renew their passion for each other. It turns out Nadir never stopped loving Leila and he returned to his village upon hearing a rumor that Leila might be found there.
Although we see the men torn between their loyalty to one another and their love for the same woman, Leila also has a conflict of her own: duty versus love. As a woman, she loves Nadir. However, as the priestess, she took an oath to perform the sacred rituals, and breaking the oath is punishable by death.
We won’t reveal the ending but we will say that it is an opera that has a love triangle, forbidden love, unrequited love, and a test of loyalty and brotherhood. Here is an amazing rendition of “Au fond du Temple Saint” (The Pearl Fishers’ Duet), sung when Zurga and Nadir reminisce about falling in love with a beautiful priestess and then reaffirming their loyalty to one another.
Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde) by Richard Wagner
This opera is based on the chivalric romance from the 12th-century legend of Cornish knight Tristan and Irish princess Iseult (Isolde). Princess Isolde is promised to King Marke of Cornwall in marriage, and Tristan who happens to be King Marke’s nephew is tasked with escorting Isolde and her handmaid by ship to meet her future husband.
We learn that Isolde and Tristan have a complicated backstory. Isolde once stumbled upon a mortally wounded stranger and used her healing powers to help him narrowly avoid death. After he recovered, Isolde discovered that the wounded stranger is Tristan and that he was responsible for killing Isolde’s previous fiance. Her intention was to kill Tristan and avenge her fiance’s death but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead, She let Tristan live as long as he promised never to return. That brings us to the ship where they meet again and Isolde is furious because Tristan broke his promise.
Isolde shares with her handmaid her intention of inviting Tristan to have a drink and to use that opportunity to poison him. Isolde announces that she refuses to meet King Marke unless Tristan agrees to meet with her and have a “drink of atonement”, after all, she saved his life and he broke his promise to her. He is aware that it might be poisoned but still takes the drink. Isolde also ingests the “poison”. Unbeknownst to them, the handmaid switched out the poison with a love potion which incites their passion for one another.
If you are wondering about the fate of these lovers, look no further than the final aria Liebestod (which means “love death” in German), and is sung by Isolde. Here is another hint: Liebestod was used at the end of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Have a listen to the powerful singing of Liebestod by Nina Stemme and you will get music chills around the 4:30 mark.
I’m not convinced that Tristian and Isolde were “in love”. Their actions were committed under the power of a love potion. However, I included this opera in this list because people have classified this story as romantic for more than 900 years.
La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
La Bohème is set in Paris where we are introduced to a group of bohemians (people who are artistic and don’t follow societal norms), one of which is Rodolfo, the poet. The friends are struggling to pay rent but are fond of going out to the Latin Quarter for the evening. Rodolfo stays behind and is interrupted by Mimi, a seamstress who lives in the same building, who asks Rodolfo if he could light her candle since she does not have any matches. He lights her candle but Mimi loses her key and both their candles go out. They search for the key in the dark and Rodolfo finds the key but is eager to spend more time with Mimi so he pockets the key. He uses that opportunity to shares about his life as a struggling poet and they fall in love.
A few months later, Mimi contracts tuberculosis. Rodolfo is too poor to provide for Mimi so Rodolfo, out of love for her, treats her unkindly in the hopes that she will abandon him to find a wealthy suitor who can take care of her needs. She discovers his plan and agrees to amicably part from him.
We will leave the story right there, just in case you don’t want to know the ending. I should mention though that La Bohème influenced the Broadway musical Rent.
Here is Pavarotti in the role of Rodolfo, singing “Che gelida manina” (“What a frozen little hand”) when he touches Mimi’s hand in the dark while “searching” for her key.
Larger-than-life storytelling paired with passionate and emotive singing, supported by elaborate costumes and backed by an expertly conducted orchestra, makes opera one of the best art forms for expressing love and romance. We hope this post inspires you to listen to a few of our favourite arias and duets and we wish you a “Happy Valentine’s Day”.