The scariest operas: how the supernatural world has inspired opera composers

Ashutosh Khandekar explores how the supernatural in opera has served to express both our deepest fears and darkest desires

Scariest operas

From its very beginnings in the Italian Renaissance, opera was an attempt to recreate a form of Classical theatre that might help us, through storytelling and music, to understand the nature of our existence in a terrifying and limitless universe.

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Mythical gods, sorcerers, ghosts, monsters, things that go bump in the night: the world of the supernatural is woven into the fabric of opera, heightened by music that colours and guides our emotional and psychic response.

The operatic voice itself is, in a sense, ‘super-natural’ – an extreme form of expression that projects the inner lives of characters onto a vast canvas, providing a perfect vehicle for inspiring awe and terror. In many Romance languages, the word for singing is derived from the Latin ‘cantare’, whose origins lie in casting of spells, or incantations. Some of the earliest examples of the supernatural in opera revolve around the subversive qualities of witchcraft and sorcery.

In Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the witches who lure Aeneas away from Carthage represent what was regarded in 17th-century England as the pernicious, destabilising influence of Roman Catholicism. Handel’s opera Alcina warns of the malignant effects of the supernatural on Enlightenment ideals: luring men to her island, the eponymous sorceress turns them into beasts. Witches and sorcerers continued to fascinate composers into the 19th century. In Rossini’s Armida, the protagonist is an infidel temptress who uses magic to try to steer the knight Rinaldo away from his Christian mission in the Crusades.

Who are opera’s greatest witches?

Perhaps the most famous of all operatic witches are those that appear in Verdi’s Macbeth. In a departure from Shakespeare’s Three Weird Sisters, Verdi has a large female chorus of witches divided into three parts, singing music that veers from the grotesque to the ribald. Verdi himself wanted the Witches to appear ‘trivial, yet extravagant and original,’ but many commentators have regarded them as a failure to capture the fantastical and fatalistic atmosphere of Shakespeare’s apparitions.

The late Verdi scholar Julian Budden wrote that the jaunty music in the first Witches’ Chorus ‘does not add up to anything very terrifying’ though it ‘at least captures the essentially childish malice of the witches in the play’. For modern stage directors, Verdi’s witches have provided fodder for ironic commentaries on what constitutes the notion of terror among an opera-loving public. In his 2007 production of Macbeth, Richard Jones memorably portrayed them as working-class single mothers living in a trailer park, bursting out of their caravans to scare the living daylights out of a mild-mannered Glyndebourne audience.

How did the supernatural world influence opera?

For Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, the supernatural world was full of irrational elements that held humanity back in the pursuit of a progressive, morally driven world. In Mozart’s The Magic Flute, opposing forces of darkness and light are expressed in the musical extremes of the writing for voice. The Queen of the Night’s stratospheric, otherworldly coloratura sets the heart racing with alarm; in contrast, Zorastro’s deep, calm, almost soporific arias draw us back into a world of order and reason. Music’s role in a world of discord is to restore a sense of harmony. Hence Tamino’s flute and Papageno’s bells, which can banish evil spirits, tame wild beasts and overcome terrifying ordeals.

So much of Mozart’s music embodies the ideals of the Enlightenment – a world of reason and order in which man is at peace with his gods. So whenever supernatural forces intrude into his operas, Mozart is prompted to explore extraordinary soundworlds that shake us to the core.

The ominous chords that reverberate from the orchestra at the start of Don Giovanni come back to haunt us, quite literally, as the plot unfolds. Mozart’s rare use of trombones in each of Don Giovanni’s terrifying encounters with the Commendatore’s statue are instances in which the composer conjures a supernatural world through cataclysmic shifts in harmony and strange, jangling orchestral textures and colours.

The influence of the supernatural on the development of orchestral and choral colour is at its most remarkable in Weber’s Der Freischütz, premiered two centuries ago this year and considered to be the first Romantic opera. At the end of Act II, we are plunged into one of the most celebrated scenes of supernatural horror in all opera. Lured into the Wolf’s Glen at night, our hunting hero Max enters into a Faustian pact with the evil Kaspar who is in league with devilish Samiel as they forge magic bullets that never miss their mark.

Weber sets the scene with tremulous strings underpinned by chromatic chords descending as if into the depths of hell. Forbidding incantations from the male chorus are punctuated with horrifying shrieks from the women. This dark, turbulent sound world is familiar to modern audiences by way of a thousand spooky scenes on TV and in horror films; but to audiences in 1821, this was a highly original and quite terrifying theatrical musical account of supernatural forces in action.

Both Mozart and Weber supplied musical templates for supernatural scenes in operas throughout the 19th century. In Verdi’s Don Carlos, sombre trombone-heavy brass chords, shifting uneasily from major to minor, evoke an atmosphere of fear in the haunted monastery where the hapless Carlos is dragged to his death by the ghost of Charles V.

The netherworld of Don Giovanni is palpable in Verdi’s orchestral writing in this terrifying scene. Tchaikovsky, meanwhile, spoke of both Don Giovanni and Der Freischütz as being among his favourite operas, models for the eerie, fatalistic scenes featuring the Old Countess in The Queen of Spades. In his review of the Russian premiere of Der Freischütz, Tchaikovsky recognised a mighty creative force’ in Weber’s depiction of ‘The Fantastic’.

Meyerbeer, one of the most popular opera composers of the 19th century, was a close friend of Weber – the two had studied composition together in Darmstadt. His opera Robert le Diable was premiered in 1831, a decade after Der Freischütz. A massive hit with the public of the day, it took the theatrical staging of the supernatural to a new level.

Establishing the tradition of ‘Grand Opera’ in France, Meyerbeer’s opera includes a ballet in which a group of deceased nymphomaniac nuns rise from their tomb to perform an infernal dance. The scene caused a sensation at its Paris Opera premiere, not least because it showed off the theatre’s new gas lighting– a technological innovation that transformed the way the supernatural could be presented on the stage. Edgar Degas, for one, was transfixed by the haunting quality of light in the scene, painting it several times.

Der Freischütz, meanwhile, made a profound impact on Wagner, who saw the opera as a nine year-old in Dresden, conducted by Weber himself. You can hear Weber’s influence throughout Wagner’s works, and especially in his evocation of otherworldly terror when he deploys deep brass and woodwind resonances together with chilling vocal ‘sound effects’ such as the shrieking of the Valkyries in the Ring cycle or the haunting wailings of dead sailors on the ghost ship in The Flying Dutchman.

Terror doesn’t always, of course, come in noisy blasts. The supernatural world can be as seductive as it is frightening, and music’s devilish power to seduce is a frequent theme in opera. In Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, a catalogue of strange and sinister supernatural events, Antonia (a singer) is lured by the voice of her mother’s ghost to sing herself to death.

An even more unsettling example of the seductive power of singing can be heard in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Here, the ghost of Peter Quint sings in soft, melismatic, quasi-erotic whisperings that simultaneously attract and repel the ill-fated young Miles. Britten’s opera is a masterpiece in psychological horror, surpassing the creepiness of Henry James’s novella on which it is based.

The suspense is sustained from start to finish, as Britten winds the musical structure of his score tighter and tighter around a tortuous 12-tone row that ascends in the first act and descends in the second. The masterly use of the celeste and harp evokes the exotic, sensual appeal of the two ghosts, Quint and Miss Jessel, in their quest to seduce the souls of the two young children.

In a world before Freud and psychoanalysis, one way that the subconscious could be expressed was through the supernatural. Ghosts can be explained as cathartic manifestations of unresolved psychic conflict. It seems no accident that Mozart wrote Don Giovanni, an opera in which the protagonist’s bad behaviour is met with severe punishment, shortly after the death of his father Leopold, a manipulative and judgemental presence in the composer’s life.

And Britten’s Turn of the Screw, though written in a post-Freudian world, is addressed to a society in post-war Britain in which sex was still essentially repressed and many forms of sexuality were taboo. In this opera, the supernatural represents the fear of confronting who we really are: the story of the Governess’s unfulfilled infatuation is played out in the form of a supernatural struggle between good and evil. The resolution comes through the sacrifice of innocence.

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The idea of a supernatural world challenges man’s sense of agency over his own destiny. Ghost stories and scenes of paranormal terror remind us how helpless we are in the face of things we cannot control. Indeed, being drawn to the supernatural is a very natural part of being human – a way of addressing life’s abundant mystery. Opera, with its playful relationship with reality and its love of extremes, is an ideal artform for transporting us into worlds that lie in our imagination and beyond.