Operapedia: Scary Opera
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Operapedia: Scary Opera 

Henry Stewart scares up some vocal music appropriate to the Halloween season.

On Background  

“Scary classical” is the subject of countless Spotify playlists and themed CDs—my favorite is Mephisto & Co.—but it’s also become a programming attraction for ensembles of all sizes, who will perform autumn-appropriate works such as Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho Suite or Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre to fill seats as the days shorten. Is there a corresponding canon for opera? Works that tackle supernatural subjects or evoke mysteriously autumnal fears? Works that companies can perform at the end of October?  

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Wagner often wrote for gods and those who worship them, eschewing the material world for something grander—and more terrifying. The opera of his that best fits into the horror genre is Der Fliegende Holländer, adapted from the legend of the cursed flying dutchman, giving the spirit and his saga an entrée into popular culture; they’ve since popped up everywhere, even Spongebob Squarepants. The overture is intensely stormy, as much of Wagner’s scariest writing could be, particularly in Die Walküre—from the rhythmically choppy and dynamically exhilarating prelude to the swirling strings of the “Ride of the Valkyries.”

At the Movies  ▶︎

Dario Argento, one of the great horror-movie directors, made Opera in 1987, which features a killer targeting the opera house in Parma, Italy, where a production of Verdi’s Macbeth encounters problems: the star is run over, the seamstress is stabbed, etc. The soundtrack features original works by Brian Eno and others, but also classic Italian opera selections, from Macbeth and more. In 2013, Argento directed the Verdi opera, in Novara, Italy—which was gory, OPERA NEWS reported in 2015: “Macduff decapitates [Macbeth], the head hits the stage, and a three-foot geyser of blood shoots from the torso.”
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© Anchor Bay/Photofest 

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Go to Hell 

Opera begins with Orpheus, and stories about Orpheus almost always involve a trip to Hades. Musically, Monteverdi’s Orfeo doesn’t evoke much horror in the Underworld, just the hero’s melancholy and longing. In contrast, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice is filled with music of much anxiety and dread, especially in Act II, as Orfeo approaches Hades; scene 1 concludes in the 1774 version with the “Dance of the Furies,” an orchestral swirl of heebie-jeebies. Mozart’s 1787 Don Giovanni ends with a trip to hell; the title cad is dragged there to explosive music, as the gates are thrown open. Lucifer’s minion, the demon Méphistophélès, appears in Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mefistofele. Surely both parts were never played more menacingly than they were by Feodor Chaliapin at the Met in the early twentieth century.  



Horror in Song

If there were many more lieder like Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” there’d already be an established canon of classical Halloween song. The pattering piano part is terrifying, perfectly matched to Goethe’s text, about a father and son riding home through the woods. The Elf King promises the boy myriad pleasures, while his father dismisses the sounds as typical forest noises. The music is warm as the Elf King tempts his prey, then frenzied to reflect the boy’s terror. A short film on YouTube, directed by Jeremy Bidgood, animates the song with paper cutouts and shadows; it’s hauntingly simple, the ideal accompaniment to this perfect piece of music. 

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Entertainment Pictures/Alamy

Scarier in Numbers 

Often, the scariest vocal music is choral, because the sound can be so big it becomes assaultive, like a Frankenstein. Requiems are especially overwhelming, as they also evoke the central subject of all horror—death. The “Dies irae” seems to scream in both Mozart’s and Verdi’s versions: the former is impossibly urgent, while the latter pounds and thrashes. The most famous scary-choral work is Carl Orff’s 1937 cantata, Carmina Burana, set to medieval poetry. Its opening, “O Fortuna,” is horrifying in its insistent melody and crashing percussion; it literally sounds like the apocalypse, so effective that by now it has become a cliché, often employed ironically, as in Jackass: The Movie.

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© Beth Bergman

Pique Dame Will Make You Jump, Jump

Opera directors do not often employ “jump scares,” but director Elijah Moshinsky had audience members leaping out of their seats when his production of Queen of Spades made its debut at the Met in 1995. Leonie Rysanek played the elderly Countess, who in Act II is frightened to death by the mad gambler, Gherman; her ghost appears near the end of the opera to gloat over her revenge—a losing hand for Gher­man in a high-stakes card game. But Rysanek did not merely appear: she came crashing out of the floor, arms first, as if a real ghost were interrupting the performance!

Where It Is This Season  

This month, Dallas and Houston do The Flying Dutchman, while Seattle performs The Turn of the Screw. The Met rings in Halloween with a new opera, Marnie, based on a novel that inspired a Hitchcock movie—though not a scary one!

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© Laurie Lewis/Bridgeman Images

Spooky Spirits

No canonical opera has more supernatural characters than Verdi’s Macbeth, with two fierce choruses for witches and an Act II that ends with the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at a royal banquet; the specter doesn’t sing, but its presence produces howls from the title character. Singing ghosts figure prominently in Britten’s 1954 adaptation of Henry James’s gothic Turn of the Screw. Korngold’s 1920 Die Tote Stadt also features a ghost: the hero’s dead wife, like a cross between Lenore in “The Raven” and Madeleine in Vertigo, who sings to him in visions. 

The Performance We Wish We’d Seen   ▶︎

You’d think Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle , from 1918, would be especially gruesome: the original Perrault fable ended with a roomful of dead wives hanging from hooks. But librettist Béla Balázs took a Symbolist retelling as his source, and the ending is more poetic. Film director William Friedkin, of Exorcist fame, staged the work in 2002 at LA Opera, turning the castle into the main character. “He emphasizes the ghost-story quality of the opera,” Variety reported. “Everything is bathed in darkness…. The doors are projected onto a scrim downstage, giving them a spectral feeling … [and] Bluebeard’s three previous wives appear as flying ghosts, not corporeal beings.” 

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AKG-Images/De Agostini Picture Lib./J. L. Charmet

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