Operas featuring horror and the supernatural

Engraving representing La barbe bleu, one of operas featuring horrorHorror is no stranger to the world of classical music, particularly when it comes to the stage, and is present from the earliest days of opera. It was the rise of the Romantic movement in music in the early 19th century, however, when spooky themes really took off, similar to the popularity of Gothic novels around the same time. As the late Romantic movement fed into Modernism in the first few decades of the 20th century, composers began exploring more lurid, expressionistic themes. Contemporary operas find inspiration in everything from Japanese Noh to silent horror films to Stephen King.

Operas in the 1600s

L’Orfeo — by Claudio Monteverdi (Italian libretto by Alessandro Striggio), premiered 1607. Based on the myth of Orpheus and his descent into the Underworld.

Giasone — by Francesco Cavalli (Italian libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini), premiered 1649. Based on the myth of Jason and his sorceress lover Medea.

Dido and Aeneas — by Henry Purcell (English libretto by Nahum Tate), premiered 1689. Based on the tragic legend of two monarchs from Virgil’s Aeneid, but adds a coven of witches to the plot.

Operas in the 1700s

Rinaldo — by George Frideric Handel (Italian libretto by Giacomo Rossi), premiered 1711. A story about the Crusades featuring magicians, mythical creatures, and efforts to free a captive lover.

Don Giovanni — by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte), premiered 1787. Based on the legend of Don Juan, dragged down into hell by a ghost.

Operas in the 1800s

Der Freischütz — by Carl Maria von Weber (German libretto by Friedrich Kind), premiered 1821. Based on a story by Johann August Apel and Friedrich Laun about a young forester who finds himself unwittingly in league with the Devil.

Robert le Diable — by Giacomo Meyerbeer (French libretto by Eugène Scribe and Germain Delavigne), premiered 1831. Based on medieval legend of Robert the Devil.

The Flying Dutchman — by Richard Wagner (German libretto by Wagner), premiered 1843. Based on the maritime legend of a ghost ship.

Macbeth — by Giuseppi Verdi (Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and additions by Andrea Maffei), premiered 1847. Based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Un ballo in maschera — by Giuseppi Verdi (Italian libretto by Antonio Somma), premiered 1859. Concerns the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden while attending a masked ball (attendees include a fortuneteller accused of witchcraft).

Faust — by Charles Gounod (French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré), premiered 1859. Loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, Part One.

Hamlet — by Ambroise Thomas (French libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier), premiered 1868. Based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Mefistofele — by Arrigo Boito (Italian libretto by Boito), premiered 1868. Based on the legend of Faust and Mephistopheles.

The Demon — by Anton Rubinstein (Russian libretto by Pavel Viskavatov), premiered 1875. Based on a poem by Mikhail Lermontov.

The Tales of Hoffman — by Jacques Offenbach (French libretto by Jules Barbier), premiered 1880. Based on three short stories by E.T.A. Hoffman about strange loves.

Operas in the 1900s

Salome — by Richard Strauss (German libretto by Hedwig Lachmann and Strauss), premiered 1905. Based on Oscar Wilde’s stage play about the Biblical story of Salome, King Herrod, and John the Baptist.

The Fall of the House of Usher — by Claude Debussy (French libretto by Debussy), uncompleted score from 1917, reconstructed by other composers in 1977, 1979, and 2004. Based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe.

Bluebeard’s Castle — by Béla Bartók (Hungarian libretto by Bartók), premiered 1918. Based on a French folk tale about a wealthy serial killer who murders his wives.

Lulu — by Alban Berg (German libretto by Berg), premiered in an incomplete version in 1937, then completed posthumously by others in 1979. Based on plays by Frank Wedekind about a young woman who spirals downward from a well-kept mistress to a street prostitute, eventually bringing home Jack the Ripper.

The Medium — by Gian Carlo Menotti (English libretto by Menotti), premiered 1946. A phony psychic deceives clients, leading to a tragedy.

The Fiery Angel — by Sergei Prokofiev (Russian libretto by Prokofiev), completed 1927, premiered 1957. Based on the novel by Valery Bryusov about sorcery and love.

The Turn of the Screw — Benjamin Britten (English libretto by Myfanwy Piper), premiered 1954. Based on the short story by Henry James.

The Ghosts of Versailles — by John Corigliano (English libretto by William H. Hoffman), premiered 1991. Based on a 1792 play La Mère coupable about ghosts from the court of Louis XVI.

Witches of Venice — by Philip Glass (Italian libretto by Beni Montresor), premiered 1995. A whimsical fairy tale about a boy who encounters skeletons, ogres, fairies, and witches.

Operas in the 2000s

The Minotaur — Harrison Birtwistle (English libretto by David Harsent), premiered 2008. Based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Matsuzake — by Toshio Hosokawa (German libretto by Hannah Dübgen), premiered 2011. Based on 15th century Noh play about two spirit sisters haunted by the loss of their love.

The Shining — by Paul Moravec (English libretto by Mark Campbell), premiered 2016. Based on the novel by Stephen King.

Cesare, Child of Night — by Jonathan Beard (English libretto by Michael Cramer), premiered 2021. Based on the 1920 silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

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