Opera's love stories: 3 reasons they're doomed

Opera's love stories: 3 reasons they're doomed

Jenna Simeonov

Happy Valentine’s Days, readers!

Since there’s no shortage of love-related topics surrounding opera, we figured we wouldn’t do the day justice without a shout-out to the tragic, doomed romance in our favourite shows. Sure, there are happy endings; those usually come out of everybody taking a time out and telling each other the truth.

But why do all our preferred operatic love stories fall apart? The specifics are unique to each show, of course (mutual death by poison, general insecurities on both parties, etc.), but we think we can boil the problems down to three big categories:


We’re mostly talking here about women dying of consumption, hysteria, or some form of self-sacrifice for their lover. Violetta in La traviata and Mimì in La bohème are perfect pictures of women who would be ideal, had it not been for their poor life decisions that result in their bodice-ripping illnesses that ruin everything.

Thought perhaps not as glamourous as tuberculosis, the ailments of the mind do tend to get in the way of happily ever after. Take Lucia di Lammermoor, for example. Now, Lucia certainly was provoked out of her sanity, with the whole brother-making-her-marry-a-stranger thing; but regardless of the reason, she dies of her crazy, leaving her poor Edgardo to weep and kill himself in her family’s graveyard.

The illness factor isn’t even limited to the frail health of women in opera. Tom Rakewell of The Rake’s Progress got his come-uppance, following the logic of folks like Mimì and Violetta: if you behave like a cad, you will end up going crazy, singing about Venus and boats.

To be fair, one could argue that insanity gets you that great first kiss, just like Salome did with the head of John the Baptist. I suppose it’s all about perspective.


Ah yes, the most frustrating sad ending of all. There’s Tosca in Tosca (not to mention Cavaradossi), or Aïda in Aïda, or Norma in Norma; all these title roles seem to invent some higher-up rule or hurdle that prevents them from doing what they and everyone else want them to do. It’s likely a God of some sort, or some indirect God-like factor like preserving honour or virginity or whatever. “I’ll be unnecessarily unhappy, but I’ll have my pride/the gods will forgive me/I’ll be with him or her forever in Heaven,” or some equally vague promise.

Then there’s Manrico in Il trovatore, who instead of paying attention to his lovely Leonora, is caught up in some generations-old vendetta of his mother’s and gets himself killed.

Maybe it’s the bored, feminist-leaning part of me, but characters like Tosca and Aida are frustrating; not simply because of what they do, but largely because of the grand music they’re given while they make these annoying decisions. Puccini in particular certainly loves him a self-sacrificing lady who knows where she stands with God.

At least with Tristan und Isolde, the music is awesome because they died for the right reasons…?

Someone’s a jerk

Finally, the prevalence of “one of you two is a jerk” seems to be a pretty good way of squashing long-term plans of love. Examples include Don José in Carmen, the Duke in Rigoletto, Bluebeard in Bluebeard’s Castle, and the king of all operatic jerks, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly.

Now, to be subtler: Carmen is kind of a pain herself, so it’s not all on Don José (although he’s the one that does the murdering in the end). And one could easily argue that Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith, is nosey to a fault. Gilda in Rigoletto and Cio-Cio San in Butterfly are decidedly naïve, but that doesn’t lessen the jerk factor in their respective love interests.

I think we can also throw Tom from The Rake’s Progress into this mix, plus probably a bit of Octavian from Der Rosenkavalier.

Is it unfair to call Orpheus a jerk, too?

What are your favourite doomed operatic love stories? Let us know in the comments below!

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