In the arts, it’s incredibly common for one work to be based on another work from a different genre (which is then based on another work, and another, and maybe even another!). Opera is a great example of this; we all know that many of our beloved operas have been based off of other works. Do we all know which ones though, or what they were based off of?
The most common resource for adapted operas are books. There are new operas coming out all of the time based on modern books, and we’ll get to some of those later this week. Other operas have become standard in the repertoire, but their book counterparts may have become more obscure. Today, let’s talk about some of these famous operas that were originally books.
This charming Benjamin Britten opera of the town who crowned a May King was adapted from a short story entitled “Le Rosier de Madame” by Guy de Maupassant. Originally in French, the opera was changed to English, and some English translations of the short story are available today.
Benjamin Britten didn’t stop at Albert Herring when it comes to adapting books to opera. His famous and tragic Billy Budd was originally a novel of the same title by Herman Melville. The author’s fascination with the sea served the operatic world well as we can tell from this opera and one that will be on our next list.
It is well known amongst opera fans that the musical Rent is an adaptation of this beloved opera. It is perhaps less well known that this opera is an adaptation of the book Scènes de la vie de bohème or The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter by Henri Murger.
The only thing that may be more tragically beautiful than Russian opera is Russian literature. A combination of the two, therefore, has led to wonderful works like Eugene Onegin. The book by the same title was written by Alexander Pushkin. It is also possibly the most loved book on this list by its own accord.
Lucia di Lammermoor
Although this story of a bride gone mad seems so uniquely operatic, it was in fact a novel first. Written by Sir Walter Scott, the events documented were apparently based on an actual incident. It hard to say how much of those historical events made it all the way through to Donizetti’s opera though.
Another opera that seems distinctly operatic, the tale of the young geisha, was first told through the novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti. The opera is a very loose adaptation of the novel though, namely due to the American nationality of the naval officers. A more direct operatic connection to the novel can be found through André Messager’s composition of the same name, where the naval officers remain French.
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Both Puccini’s opera and Massenet’s opera Manon are based on the Abbé Prévost’s scandalous and popular short novel of the same title. Although readers only learn about Manon through the perspective of Des Grieux in the novel, she takes on a life of her own in both of these famous operas.
French stories seem to be the favorite when looking at operas that were originally books, and Thaïs follows suit. This book with the same name, written by Anatole France, is perhaps not Massenet’s best known work, but it is one of the few books on this list which kept its original language for its operatic counterpart.
Tales of fallen females make for popular books and operas alike, and La traviata certainly exemplifies this. Based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ novel and then play, this fallen heroine is based on the real life of courtesan Marie Duplessis, whom Dumas fils’ wished to immortalize through his writing.
The only opera on this list to be based on a German novel, Die Geier-Wally or The Vulture Wally by Wilhelmine von Hillern was hugely successful in its time. Similar to many other operas that were originally books though, this opera by Alfredo Catalani was written in Italian.
Although we knew that this list could not possibly every book that has found further success through an opera, one of our readers did note that Massenet’s Werther would make a great addition to this list. Based off of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, the relationship between book and opera is discussed in A History of Western Music by Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca.
This list by no means exhausts all of the operas that were originally books. In fact, we’ll be back soon with famous books that were turned into operas. This list worked to feature operas that are famous on their own but based on somewhat lesser known books, whereas the next list will be the opposite. In this way, we hope to merge the wonderful world of literature and music just a little bit more and create new audiences for each medium.
What are your favorite operas that were originally books, either on this list or off of it?
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