Music and the Words That Inspired It: Compare These Operas With Their Literary Sources

Robert Anderson, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Collage of great operas adapted from classic books
Great operas adapted from classic books

Many of the world’s great operas have been adapted from or inspired by, classic and popular works of fiction, poetry, and drama. In some cases, an opera’s librettist follows the source material’s plot closely, while other adapters take considerable liberties with the story as originally written. Let’s look at some famous operas and their sources—all available for online listening and reading through the Los Angeles Public Library. Spoiler alert: many crucial plot points will be revealed in this article.

Be sure to check out the hundreds of other opera recordings available for free through hoopla with your library card.

  • Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) is one of the most successful and popular operas by Italian bel canto composer Gaetano Donizetti. Donizetti and his librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, based the opera on Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor but made several significant changes to the plot. In Scott’s story, inspired by an actual incident that took place in 17-century Scotland, Lucy and Edgar fall in love, though they are from feuding families. Lucy is forced by her mother to marry the Laird of Bucklaw, but on their wedding night, she stabs him in the bridal chamber and then goes insane and dies soon after. The groom recovers from his wound but refuses to say what happened that night. Edgar, on his way to meet Lucy’s brother in a duel, falls into some quicksand and is killed. The opera’s plot makes several changes that add to the drama and provide opportunities for some lovely arias, duets, and a much-praised sextet. Lucia’s and Edgardo’s romance is thwarted by her brother, not her mother, providing a lead baritone role that was a must for Italian opera of that era; and in the opera version, the bridegroom is killed, not just wounded, which adds to the horror of Lucia’s ensuing mad scene. And since a fall into quicksand would be something of an anticlimax, and difficult to stage without descending into farce, Edgardo stabs himself in the final scene when he learns Lucia is dead. There are dozens of recordings of Lucia available; some recommendations include those featuring Joan Sutherland/Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas/Giuseppe di Stefano, or, much more recently, Diana Damrau/Joseph Calleja. Or read or listen to Scott’s book first.
  • The Bride Of Lammermoor
    Sir Walter Scott

  • La Traviata (1853) is certainly Giuseppe Verdi’s most frequently produced opera, and among the most popular two or three in the entire operatic repertoire. Unlike most Verdi operas, it takes place around the time it was written. Its source is a novel published just five years earlier: La Dame Aux Camélias, often referred to as Camille in its English translations, by Alexandre Dumas fils. Dumas, the son of the author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, based his book’s central character, Marguerite Gautier, on courtesan Marie Duplessis, who had died of consumption the previous year at age 23. The young Dumas was one of her lovers, along with various noblemen and composer Franz Liszt. The novel, which told of Marguerite’s ill-fated love affair with Armand Duval, a young man whose wealthy father puts an end to their relationship, was such a success that Dumas adapted it as a play that proved to be just as popular. Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, retained most elements of Dumas’s plot, but the central characters became Violetta Valery and Alfredo Germont, and the title was changed to one that translates as “the woman who strayed”. Censors insisted that early productions be staged in costumes from a century before, so it was not until the 1880s that La Traviata became a “modern” story. There are dozens of recordings of the opera available through hoopla; among the featured performers are Anna Netrebko/Rolando Villazon, Kiri te Kanawa/Alfredo Kraus, and Cheryl Studer/Luciano Pavarotti. The Dumas novel is available for online reading or listening.
  • Camille or, the Lady of the Camellias
    Alexandre Dumas

  • Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of doomed love, has been the source material for at least two dozen operas, the most successful and enduring of which is Romeo et Juliette (1867) by French composer Charles Gounod. Shakespeare’s play, written in the mid-1590s, was based on earlier Italian sources, but he added or developed several characters, including Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Juliet’s would-be husband, Count Paris. Gounod and his librettists, Jules Barbier and Michel Carre retained most of Shakespeare’s characters and plot elements. The focus, as it should be, is on the title characters, and Gounod gives them four beautiful duets to sing. French operas of the era tend to have a supporting “trouser role” for a mezzo-soprano, and this one has Stephano, Romeo’s young page, who gets to sing a taunting aria that precipitates the duel in which Tybalt kills Mercutio. Shakespeare’s nameless Nurse is given the name Gertrude by the librettists. Another operatic version of the same story that’s worth exploring is Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti et i Montecchi (1830), which is based on the original Italian sources and not on Shakespeare. In Bellini’s opera, both leading parts are sung by women; Romeo is a mezzo-soprano. Two recommended recordings of Gounod’s opera star Roberto Alagna/Angela Gheorghiu (a couple themselves at the time) and Mirella Freni/Franco Corelli. An excellent recording of the Bellini version features Anna Netrebko/Elina Garanca. And here’s a Simply Shakespeare version of the play to read online, with Shakespeare’s original text on the left pages and a modernized version on the right, plus an audio recording featuring Claire Bloom and Albert Finney.
  • Gounod: Roméo Et Juliette
    Various Artists

  • Carmen (1875) by Georges Bizet shows up on most major opera companies’ schedules every three or four years. It's very tuneful score and colorful characters (a feisty gypsy, a lovesick soldier, a swaggering toreador) make it an audience favorite. Sadly, it was Bizet’s last completed composition; never in strong health, he died at age 36 just three months after the premiere. The inspiration for Carmen was a novella of the same name by Prosper Mérimée, published in 1845. The opera was adapted from the Merimee tale by two librettists: Ludovic Halévy, who wrote the verse portions, and Henri Meilhac, who wrote the sections with spoken dialogue. They made a number of additions and deletions to the Mérimée story: eliminating Carmen’s husband, making the toreador Escamillo a more important character, and adding the key role of Micaela, a young woman from the soldier Don Jose’s hometown. In addition, the two central characters, Carmen and Don Jose are more sympathetic and complex in the opera libretto, and Bizet’s music reflects those changes. Notable recordings include those featuring Grace Bumbry/Jon Vickers, Teresa Berganza/Placido Domingo, and Agnes Baltsa/Jose Carreras. You can read the original Merimee story in English, or listen to an abridged audio version in Spanish.
  • Bizet: Carmen
    Various Artists

  • Eugene Onegin (1879), by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, is probably the Russian opera that gets performed the most outside Russia. Tchaikovsky based his opera on the 1833 verse novel of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, and he put together his own libretto, using many of Pushkin’s own words and closely following the novel’s plot. Pushkin’s book is primarily composed of 389 14-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter; an example of this meter in English is Christopher Marlowe’s line “Come live with me and be my love”. The stanzas are often referred to as “Pushkin sonnets” because they follow a unique rhyme scheme. The story’s title character (a baritone in the opera) is a wealthy, cynical young man who travels to the country, where he befriends Lensky, a naive young poet, and meets a neighboring family, including teenaged Tatiana Larina, who falls in love with him and writes him an impassioned letter. Onegin coldly rejects her and, after killing Lensky in a foolish duel, he goes abroad. Years later, he re-encounters Tatiana, now the wife of a wealthy older man, and realizes that he loves her after all. Tchaikovsky’s music includes a passionate “letter aria” for Tatiana, a moving “duel aria” for Lensky, and a dramatic final scene for the two central characters. Recommended recordings feature Thomas Allen/Mirella Freni, Dmitri Hvorostovsky/Nuccia Focile, and, with an all Russian cast, Tamara Milashkina/Yuri Mazurok As for the Pushkin novel, you can read a bilingual English/Russian edition or an English translation by Charles Johnston or listen to an audio version in English or in Russian.
  • Falstaff (1893) is Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, written as he was approaching 80, forty years after La Traviata. Arrigo Boito, Verdi’s librettist on his previous opera, Otello, approached him about collaborating again, and Verdi, though hesitant because of his age, said he might be open to working on a comic opera. Boito knew that Verdi (though he did not speak English) was a great admirer of Shakespeare, so he decided to write a libretto based on The Merry Wives of Windsor but incorporating a few elements of Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays that also featured Sir John Falstaff. The Merry Wives of Windsor has always been considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser comedies and shows signs of being hastily written—perhaps to fill a demand for more of Falstaff after the two earlier plays. The plot involves the two wives of the title—Alice Ford and Meg Page, who receive identical love letters from Falstaff. When they literally compare notes, they decide to play a series of tricks on him in revenge. There are subplots involving Alice’s jealous husband and Meg’s daughter Ann, who has three suitors clamoring for her hand in marriage. Most commentators feel that Verdi’s and Boito’s adaptation is superior to the original. Verdi himself indicated that his version of Falstaff was based more on the complex character from the two Henry IV plays than the silly buffoon of The Merry Wives. Among the changes made to the story, Ann (Nannetta in the opera) became the daughter of the Fords, not the Pages, and Meg Page turned into more of a secondary character; her husband was entirely eliminated. Verdi and Boito both regretted that Shakespeare’s scene in which Falstaff dresses as a woman to escape the jealous Ford had to be cut to keep the opera at a reasonable length. Some excellent recordings of Falstaff feature Bryn Terfel/Adrianne Pieczonka, Renato Bruson/Katia Ricciarelli, and Geraint Evans/Mirella Freni. You can read the Shakespeare original online or listen to an audio recording.
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor
    William Shakespeare

  • Madama Butterfly (1904) was Giacomo Puccini’s follow-up to his extraordinarily popular operas La Boheme and Tosca, but for various reasons, its opening night was not successful, and he made a number of subsequent changes, resulting in five different versions over the next three years and eventual popular and critical acclaim. Its tale of a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl who marries an American Navy lieutenant bears his child after he leaves Japan, and is deserted by him for an American wife, originated in an 1898 novella, “Madame Butterfly”, by John Luther Long, a lawyer who also wrote fiction and plays as a sideline. Long based his story on incidents he had heard about from his sister, who visited Japan as the wife of a Methodist missionary; he was also influenced by the 1887 French novel Madame Chrysantheme by Pierre Loti, which tells a similar story and is also set in Nagasaki. Long’s tale was turned into a one-act play by David Belasco in 1900, and it made a big impression on Puccini when he saw it that year in London, even though he understood very little English. The opera libretto by Puccini’s frequent collaborators Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa retained most of the names and characters from the Long story: Cio-Cio-San the heroine, spelled Cho-Cho-San in the story, whose name literally means “butterfly”; her maid Suzuki; Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton; the American consul Sharpless; Goro the marriage broker; and Cio-Cio-San’s suitor Yamadori. The American Mrs. Pinkerton, who comes off less well in the story than in the opera, had her name changed from Adelaide to Kate, and Long’s ending is less tragic than Puccini’s. Among the many recordings of Puccini’s opera, three recommended versions feature Angela Gheorghiu/Jonas Kaufmann, Renata Scotto/Carlo Bergonzi, and Mirella Freni/Jose Carreras. You can compare Long’s novella by reading the electronic version.
  • Puccini: Madama Butterfly
    Various Artists

  • Salome (1905) was the first successful opera by German composer Richard Strauss, who up to that point had been best known for his orchestral music. Strauss based his opera on a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome that he saw in Berlin in 1902. Wilde had originally written his play in French, producing an English version a couple of years later. The plot of both play and opera is taken from very brief accounts in the New Testament books of Matthew and Mark of Salome’s request for the head of John the Baptist after dancing for her stepfather, King Herod. In fact, the Biblical accounts never even mention the stepdaughter’s name; Salome is named as Herod’s stepdaughter by the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The references in Matthew and Mark indicate that it was Salome’s mother, Herodias, who instructed her to ask for the Baptist’s head, but Wilde and Strauss both make it clear that Salome herself wanted the head. The dance that Salome did for Herod and his guests is only mentioned in passing in the Bible, but Wilde and Strauss both turn it into a central event of the story; in fact, the phrase “dance of the seven veils” originated in the English version of Wilde’s play. The dance, featuring varying degrees of nudity, has proved to be controversial in many performances, and a number of the early sopranos who starred in the opera employed dancing doubles for that scene, but most present-day Salomes tend to do their own dancing. Three excellent recorded versions of the opera feature Malin Bystrom/Evgeny Nikitin, Cheryl Studer/Bryn Terfel, and Birgit Nilsson/Eberhard Wachter. You can also read Wilde’s play or listen to a recorded version.
  • Salomé
    Oscar Wilde

  • Wozzeck (completed 1922, first performed 1925) by Austrian composer Alban Berg is considered to be the first major atonal opera. Berg based his composition on the play Woyzeck by German author Georg Büchner, which has a very complicated publication history. Büchner worked on his play in late 1836 and early 1837 but died of typhus at age 23, leaving it in fragments. It was finally published in heavily edited form in the 1870s and became a major influence on avant-garde German expressionist writing around the turn of the twentieth century. Because of its fragmentary nature, subsequent editions have varied widely in content and even in the order in which the scenes take place. The variant spelling of Berg’s opera title reflects the fact that it was not discovered until the 1920s that Büchner very loosely based his story on an actual soldier named Woyzeck who killed the woman he was living within 1821; the author’s handwriting was misread by earlier editors. Berg saw the play’s first Austrian production in 1914 and immediately decided to write an opera version, but World War I delayed his plans. He selected fifteen brief scenes from the play that tells the story of the soldier Wozzeck, his troubled relationship with Marie, the mother of his child, and the dehumanizing effects of doctors and the military on his life, and turned them into a musical theatre piece that generally runs about 90-100 minutes. Three recommended recordings of the Berg opera feature Bo Skovhus/Angela Denoke, Franz Grundheber/Hildegard Behrens, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau/Evelyn Lear. You can also read an English translation of the Büchner play, or a modern adaptation by American playwright Neil LaBute.
  • Berg: Wozzeck
    Various Artists

  • Billy Budd (1951), like most other operatic work by British composer Benjamin Britten, has its origins in a work of literature. As with Woyzeck described above, Herman Melville’s short novel Billy Budd has a complicated history. In the final years before Melville’s death in 1891, he started work on a story set aboard a British naval vessel in the late 1790s, during the wars with France. Melville’s widow tried unsuccessfully to organize various manuscript versions he left behind, and it was not until nearly thirty years later that Billy Budd was rediscovered among his papers and finally published in 1924; an authoritative edition did not appear until 1962, ten years after the opera. The book was brought to Britten’s attention by novelist E. M. Forster, and they agreed that Forster would work with frequent Britten collaborator Eric Crozier on an opera libretto. The opera is unusual in having no female characters; the three central roles are the naive, idealistic young sailor Billy Budd; the sinister master-of-arms John Claggart, who envies Billy his popularity; and the ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, who must decide what to do when Billy accidentally kills Claggart. Britten nearly always wrote a vocal part in his operas for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears, and since Pears, at 40, was a bit old to play Billy, he made Vere a tenor and Billy a baritone. Composer and librettists also made Vere the story’s narrator and added a scene that’s not in the book where the British ship chases a French vessel, and the crew all sing a rousing chorus. Listen to this outstanding recording of the opera, with Nathan Gunn as Billy and Ian Bostridge as Vere. You can also read the novel online for comparison or listen to a recorded version.
Billy Budd
Herman Melville

Be sure to check out the hundreds of other opera recordings available free through hoopla digital with your LAPL library card.