War in opera

As November 11th comes around for the 94th time since the guns were, very temporarily, silenced I thought it might be interesting to look at how war has been seen by librettists and composers over the years. Very early on we get a very gritty take on the subject in Monteverdi’s extremely compact Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda but not so long after the path for the next three centuries is set with Purcell’s broadly comic King Arthur.  As far as I can see from Purcell to 1945, with very minor exceptions, the message is largely “war is fun”.  War is an excuse for a big parade (Aida; unless Tim Albery is directing!), an excuse for a drinking song (Faust), just plain comedic (La Fille du Regiment), a plot device (Cosí fan tutte) or a background event (Tosca, various versions of the Armida story).  The only opera, pre 1945, that I can think of that deals with the horror of war is Les Troyens, and that of course takes place in a distant, mythical, past.

Only after 1945 do composers start treating the subject more seriously.  First up is Prokofiev with War and Peace; a perfectly reasonable response to what the Soviet Union had just suffered.  Then, perhaps unsurprisingly, we get contributions from Britten and Tippett.  In Billy Budd Britten explores the cruel choices between conscience and duty that war forces before going on to explore pacifism directly in Owen Wingrave.  Tippett takes the horror and loss of war head on in King Priam.  Henze too looks at war through a lens of violence and madness in We Come to the River.  Finally, John Adams returns to the themes of duty and conscience in Doctor Atomic.

I realise there are a few more operas where there’s some sort of rebellion or conflict but usually it’s just an incidental backdrop to a love story.  Have I missed any really good examples of operas in some sense “about war”?

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9 thoughts on “War in opera

  1. I thought of Giulio Cesare but that’s probably one of those where the military activity is primarily a backdrop to a love story – although it might also fall into a “war is glorious and grand” narrative as well. But it is set in the past, like les Troyens (although a more historical past).

  2. I think war is shown in its darker guise in La Forza del Destino, particularly the bit where Alvaro get wounded and thinks he might die. But it’s still just an excuse for the whole Alvaro/Carlo friendship unravelling.

  3. I’m leading a class about war in opera in about a week, and I’m showing Aida, with emphasis on what she does for her country, War and Peace, Giulio Cesare, which is really a love comedy, but my gang hasn’t seen a Baroque opera in my company before, Billy Budd, and then Satyagraha, an opera about radical nonviolence. I like your ramblings and I’ll quote you if I may. Thanks!

  4. The first one that comes to mind is “Idomeneo.” Mozart also uses the thematic material to violently approach opera seria, compositional form. It’s violent and the ramifications of war are throughout: separating parent/child, prisoners of war, etc.

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