Voices from the depths
George Bernard Shaw once famously sought to explain many an opera plot by asserting a simple axiom: ‘Opera is when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone’. Indeed, this is true of many masterpieces in the canon — from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor to Verdi’s La traviata and Il trovatore and Puccini’s Tosca.
Beyond the masterly humour, Shaw’s words point to the assumption that in opera, specific voice types, both male and female, are associated with certain types of characters. The soprano is the young heroine — and she often dies. The tenor is the hero — and he often dies too. And so on. To be sure, such an assumption, reasonable though it may be, is also commonplace, and to be taken with more than a grain of salt. If one moves both within and away from the bulk of today’s operatic canon, one will find many exceptions to Shaw’s rule. A look at Rossini’s opera serie, for example, will reveal that a tenor can sometimes be a father or a villain. A contralto needs not be to be a mother, an antagonist, or a psychologically complex figure; in numerous nineteenth- century Italian and French operas, male roles (young persons, heroes, and indeed lovers) are assigned to this female voice. And so on.