Here’s a fun fact for you. Did you know that two different conductors have died while conducting Tristan und Isolde? Ok, so not exactly a fun fact, but you can’t deny that it’s interesting. I’m sure the conductors Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth would disagree, but you have to admit that death is a fascinating subject. If you can’t then chances are you’re not a fan of opera; opera is full of death. When it comes to death, opera has been killing off major characters in unique and unexpected ways for hundreds of years before George R.R. Martin was even born. None of these deaths are the result of a massive CGI dragon, but they are epic nevertheless.
1. Don Giovanni – Mozart
No list of opera’s best deaths would be complete with Don Giovanni’s fiery entrance to hell. Don Giovanni certainly earned his death by killing the Commendatore, trying to seduce Zerlina, and even inviting the statue of the Commendatore to dinner after it told him he was going to die before morning, which justifies the dramatic climax.
Sure, it’s dramatic watching Don Giovanni choose to not repent in the face of the Commendatore, but the rubber meets the road once Mozart’s music kicks in and the sinner is surrounded by a horde of demons. Don Giovanni is then carried off kicking in screaming to hell, leaving the ensemble to tell the audience, “the death of a sinner always reflects his life.”
How’s that for dramatic?
2. La Wally – Alfredo Catalani
To say that La Wally will shock you is an understatement.
In the first act, Wally is a woman torn between who her father wants her to marry and her own will. She even goes as far to say that she would rather risk her life in the Alpine snow than marry her father’s choice, Gellner.
Unfortunately, Wally’s boast becomes a reality.
After saving Hagenbach, the man she loves, Wally learns that he is in love with another woman. In despair, she climbs to the top of a mountain. If you’re assuming that Wally’s life ends by her throwing herself off of this cliff, buckle up because you’re in for a rollercoaster ride. First Wally is warned about the danger of avalanches, then she learns Hagenbach is in fact in love with her. Wally is thrilled, but only for a moment, because Hagenbach yelling his professions of love triggers an avalanche that wipes him off the mountain. In her despair, Wally’s original threat comes to fruition when she throws herself into the abyss and to her death in the snow below.
Just when you think you’ve avoided disaster, La Wally hits you with a 1-2 punch of sorrow that will leave you startled and wondering how someone could come up with such a sad ending.
3. Lakme – Leo Delibes
If you haven’t guessed from La Wally that lovers don’t fare well in opera, then Lakme will convince you.
Lakme is the story of a woman who shows undying love for her lover Gerald. Set in mid 18th century India, Lakme is a young woman who falls in love with one of the British officers helping enforce colonial rule over her and her fellow Hindus. Unsurprisingly, her father, a Hindu priest, does not approve of her choice. He immediately stabs Gerald when he discovers that he is his daughter’s love. Lakme tends to Gerald until he recovers, but when she asks him to drink waters that will promise them eternal love he is unable to decide between her and his duty to his country. Realizing his inevitable choice, Lakme decides it is better to die than to return to the society that she scorned for a man who doesn’t love her enough to leave behind his duty. In a beautiful final scene, she eats a poisonous Datura leaf and dies peacefully.
The tragedy of Lakme is moving and unforgettable.
4. Tristan Und Isolde – Richard Wagner
The story goes that the stress of conducting this opera is what killed prominent conductors Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth. Both conductors met their demise during the second act of the show, dying before any of the characters on stage did. Who knows how much the opera is to blame, but you can’t deny that this show has a strong theme of death.
Tristan kills Isolde’s husband and is then forced to escort her to his king, and uncle so that she can marry him. While on the ship, they’re both tricked into drinking a love potion and that’s where this story really kicks off. After the king reads Tristan’s actions as an act of betrayal, Tristan is mortally wounded. Isolde finds Tristan and catches him and he dies in her arms. In her grief, Isolde dies from grief despite a pardon that would’ve saved them both laying literally on the other side of a gate.
If that wasn’t enough, this is a Wagner opera and an immensely influential Wagner opera. The music of Tristan Und Isolde influenced countless composers and changed opera forever, making it a must see even if you can’t stand the morbid ending.
Watch the epic end of Tristan here at Cennarium. We promise no conductors were harmed in the making of this production!