Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • Opera in the Real World: The historical figures behind some of opera's greatest characters

Opera in the Real World: The historical figures behind some of opera's greatest characters

Composers have often looked to the real world for operatic inspiration – though their real-life subjects often undergo some operatization on their way to the stage.

By Kate Hopkins (Content Producer (Opera and Music))

5 January 2015 at 2.13pm | Comment on this article

Emperor Nero and Poppaea Sabina in Monteverdi's L’incoronazione di Poppea

Emperor Nero (37–68 AD) was a tyrant famous for his sexual appetites and tendency to execute anyone who challenged him (including his mother). The beautiful Poppaea Sabina became his mistress in around 58 AD. Nero made Poppaea’s husband Otho divorce her; he then divorced Octavia (whom he later had assassinated) and married Poppaea. Monteverdi keeps many of these sordid details, and follows the Roman historian Tacitus in depicting Poppea as a scheming minx and Nerone as a hedonistic bully. However, the couple’s exquisite duets (including ‘Pur ti miro’) add a romantic, even tender element to their relationship.

Gustav III of Sweden and Jacob Johan Anckarström in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera

Gustav III of Sweden (1746–92) was an enlightened (if autocratic) monarch and a strenuous political reformer. On 16 March 1792 Jacob Johan Anckarström, a military captain, shot him at a masked ball. Verdi used this dramatic incident as the basis for Un ballo in maschera. However, the only ‘true’ elements of the opera are Gustav’s liberal patriotism, the foretelling of his death by the clairvoyant Ulrica Arfvidsson and the conspiracy between Anckarström and two noblemen. Gustav was no romantic, was never friends with Anckarström and likely never even met Anckarström’s wife. Nor did Gustav die immediately – he survived his assassination for nearly a fortnight before succumbing to septicaemia.

Hans Sachs in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Hans Sachs (1494–1576) was a German shoemaker, playwright and Meistersinger – a member of a guild that organized competitions in poetry and song. He was extraordinarily productive, and wrote more than 6,000 literary works. Wagner stays true to life in making his Sachs a champion of the arts and leading Meistersinger. But Wagner’s Sachs is more pensive, less bawdy in humour and much more melancholy than the real Sachs – who was a widower for less than a year before taking a young second wife. Wagner also omits Sach’s love of animals: a contemporary portrait depicts him playing with a cat, with a dog asleep at his side.

André Chénier in Giordano's Andrea Chénier

André Chénier (1762–94) was a French poet and one of Robespierre’s last victims. His literary career was not particularly illustrious; he published just two poems in his lifetime and only became famous some twenty-five years after his death with the first edition of his collected poems. Though Chénier was a monarchist, his arrest was actually an accident (the officials believed they were arresting a marquis) and apparently he was only guillotined because Robespierre happened to remember a venomous political poem of his. Giordano and his librettist Luigi Illica transformed Chénier into a liberal idealist, and invented the character of Maddalena in order that he should have a great romance and a glorious, transfiguring death.

Elizabeth I, Robert Devereux, Robert Cecil, Walter Raleigh and others in Britten's Gloriana

Britten’s great historical opera explores the last years of Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) and her close relationship with the young, brilliant and unstable Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (1565–1601). Inspired by literary biographies by Lytton Strachey and J.E. Neale, Britten and his librettist William Plomer stick fairly close to history, including such details as the Queen’s love of music and dancing and Essex’s unreliability as a military leader. The famous incident in Act III when Essex surprises the balding Queen dressing was also based on fact. However, in the interests of time they condensed Essex’s troubles on his return from Ireland, his rebellion and its aftermath.

Chairman Mao, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and others in Adams's Nixon in China

Richard Nixon (1913–94) considered his 1972 visit to China to meet Mao Tse-tung (1893–1976) as ‘the week that changed the world’. John Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman based many details in their opera on fact: Mao’s charisma, at odds with his physical fragility; the premier Chou En-lai’s skills as a diplomat. But they also emphasize the most sympathetic aspects of the Nixons. Pat Nixon is gentle and idealistic, while Adams and Goodman came to see Richard Nixon as ‘a sort of Simon Boccanegra… self-doubting, lyrical’. By contrast Mao remains enigmatic, while his ambitious wife Chiang Ch’ing and Nixon’s advisor Henry Kissinger are the opera’s villains.

Un ballo in maschera runs until 17 January 2015. Tickets are sold out, but there are 67 day tickets for each performance and returns may become available.
The production is a co-production with Theater Dortmund and Scottish Opera and is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

Andrea Chénier runs 20 January–6 February 2015. Tickets are still available, and there are 67 day tickets for each performance and returns may become available.
The production is a co-production with the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, and San Francisco Opera, and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, Mrs Susan A. Olde OBE, Simon and Virginia Robertson, Spindrift Al Swaidi, Mercedes T. Bass and Mrs Trevor Swete.

Comment on this article

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional