Sudden Death in Opera: Love, Mortality and Transcendence on the Lyric Stage

An aspect of dying in opera, rarely observed or commented on, is Sudden Unexpected Death. There are many deaths in this melodramatic genre: most follow expected causes like murder, suicide, or old age. This book explores those deaths which occur without obvious natural causes. These are often central to the overall drama of the opera, representing denouements forming the epiphany of the story and the apotheosis for the audience. The book identifies 50 operas where such events occur, exploring the role of the dramatis personae, the circumstances of their dying, and specific themes that emerge. These include a preponderance of females, especially in the 19th century, who die mainly at the end of the operas, often in the context of tragedy.

It charts the growing awareness in the medical sciences of the unconscious forces driving human behaviour, including liminal mental states and trances, which influenced these operas and continue to affect human behaviour to the present day. In addition, the changing philosophies that are intertwined with operatic narratives, in particular stemming from Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, are important in the book’s exegesis, as is the special role of Wagner’s compositions. This leads to the exploration of recurrent concepts such as the Liebestod, the ewig Weibliche and redemption itself.

Michael Trimble is Emeritus Professor of Behavioural Neurology at the Institute of Neurology, Queen Square London. His clinical and research areas include the relationship between the brain, language, creativity and the arts, especially our emotional responses to music and opera. His recent publications include The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language Art and Belief, Why Humans Like to Cry: Tragedy Evolution and the Brain, and The Intentional Brain: Motion, Emotion and the Development of Modern Neuropsychiatry.

Robert Letellier is a Lecturer and author attached to the universities of Cambridge, Salzburg and the Maryvale Institute. He has specialised in the Gothic novel and Sir Walter Scott, the Bible, and European culture, with acclaimed publications on Meyerbeer, Auber, opéra-comique and the operetta, as well as Ludwig Minkus and the Romantic ballet.

Dale Hesdorffer is Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Her main research interests are epilepsy and head injury and crying in response to the arts, with a particular focus on the relationship between music composition, epilepsy and psychiatric illness.

“This book draws on a wealth of experience, knowledge, understanding and, not least, love of opera, aptly defining this our most plural and complete form of artistic creation and expression, to explain the romantic themes of love and death, recurring throughout the operatic canon, and to provide brilliant insights and fascinating forays into the overlapping fields of culture, neuroscience, medicine, philosophy, history and religion.”
Ian Ritchie
Artistic Director, The Musical Brain

“The nature of, and reasons for, Isolde’s collapse and subsequent demise at the end of Tristan go to the heart of this extraordinary book on love and unexplained death in opera. It is a wonderful journey through the emotional landscapes of our cultural history, as expressed in the most empathetically communicative of our art forms - opera.”
Nigel Osborne

“Why are there so many unexplained deaths in opera? Sudden Death in Opera takes the question seriously, and so fills an important gap in the study of opera and indeed all of music. Fascinating, insightful, and with meticulous, sharp readings of some of the nineteenth century’s most important operas, the authors utilize their wide and varied knowledge in the fields of music, medicine, and epidemiology to provide us with a refreshingly new and philosophical perspective on the operatic experience. All opera lovers will find something with which to nourish the soul and provoke thought in this beautifully written book.”
Žak Ozmo
Music director and scholar

“This is a beautifully produced book and a heroic attempt to explain the ultimately unexplainable. The mysteries of life and death remain, and the contribution of these authors is to show just how pervasively and chronically operatic art has dealt with them rather than to render them any less mysterious by applying the biomedical gaze to understand pathways to the grave or the cultural historical analytic approach to reconcile what death may signify […] There is much scholarly food for thought here, and the art will be in the intelligent, critical reading of it.”
Edward and Paula Bortnichak
The Wagner Journal, Volume 16, Number 2, 2022

“As this volume reminds us, opera has been obsessed with mortality from its origins onwards […] The authors—a neurologist, a neuro-epidemiologist, and a cultural historian—have chosen sudden unexpected death as their focus for a wide cultural study (quantitative and thematic) of 50 operas (finally listed in Chapter 13), primarily 19th- and 20th-century, with Richard Wagner’s featuring prominently. Therefore, themes of transcendence, altered mental states, and love-death, especially in the Romantic period, come to the fore.”
Linda and Michael Hutcheon
Wagner Notes, Wagner Society of New York

Buy This Book

ISBN: 1-5275-7276-5

ISBN13: 978-1-5275-7276-8

Release Date: 19th October 2021

Pages: 641

Price: £99.99


ISBN: 1-5275-9795-4

ISBN13: 978-1-5275-9795-2

Release Date: 22nd April 2023

Pages: 641

Price: £49.99