Is opera morbidly suicidal? Should certain works carry a health warning?

A study for the Medical Journal of Australia finds dangerously self-destructive tendencies in the art of opera. Four researchers examined a canon of 337 operas, written over four centuries. Their findings:

tosca jump


In 112 (33%), there was completed suicide alone, non-fatal suicidal acts or suicidal thoughts alone, or both. There was at least one suicide in 74 operas (22%); female characters accounted for 56% of these. Non-fatal suicidal acts or suicidal thoughts were found in 48 operas (14%); male characters accounted for 57% of these. Suicide, non-fatal acts and suicidal thoughts always followed an undesirable event or situation. Cutting or stabbing was the most common method of suicide (26 cases). Other methods included poisoning (15 cases), drowning (10 cases), hanging (four cases), asphyxiation (four cases), “supernatural” methods (four cases), immolation (three cases), jumping from a height (two cases), shooting (one) and blunt trauma (one). Mass suicide occurred on two occasions…

In conclusion, the representation of suicide in opera is too prominent to be ignored. While many opera buffs may focus on the musical elements rather than the action and libretti of this art form, the depiction of suicide in operatic works adds to our understanding of the cultural dimensions of suicide over time, and thus to our overall understanding of this tragic outcome.

Read the full report here.

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  • But you can’t really count Seneca in Poppea since suicide is ordered by Nero. Khovanschina is one of the mass suicides (Old Believers) but what’s the other?

  • I wonder if Lithuanian composer Vytautas Klova’s “Pilėnai” is among the 337 sampled works. It’s centered around the mass suicide of 4,000 Lithuanian soldiers in 1336. Other than that, I can’t think of another operatic mass suicide. Is there a Jonestown opera out there?

    • It should definitely be a welcome subject for modernist opera composers. Maybe someone will turn-up writing a jihad suicide squad opera, to update operatic suicide to more contemporary mores.

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