Five moments of fear in opera

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What frightens you? Whether it’s illness, war or something altogether less tangible, opera shares your fears and amplifies them as only this extraordinarily potent, powerful art can – giving voice not only to all our darkest terrors, but also to our best and worst selves in the face of that fear.

Ghosts, murderers, madness, disease and death all play their part in opera’s nightmarish cabaret of horrors, but often it’s those fears that lie within ourselves – weaknesses, temptations and emotional torments – that prove most horribly pervasive.


Turn of the Screw (Benjamin Britten) – ‘She is here, in my own room’

Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is one of literature’s most chilling ghost stories, and in Benjamin Britten’s adaptation the tension is ratcheted up still further by music that brings the shadowy figures of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel to horribly vivid life.

A governess has taken a role in a remote house as governess to two young children. But she hasn’t been there long before she realises all is not well. Are the menacing man and woman that appear to her and the children really ghosts, or just the product of her own hysteria? In this haunting episode, the governess returns from church to find Miss Jessel seated at her own desk in the schoolroom.


Falstaff (Verdi) – ‘C’e. Se t’agguanto’

Tragic operas don’t have a monopoly on great moments of fear. Verdi’s Falstaff – one of the most joyous, riotous comedies in the repertoire – has some brilliantly choreographed episodes of tension, including the farcical finale to Act II.

Incorrigible old fool Falstaff arrives to seduce (or so he hopes) the beautiful Alice Ford. But unbeknownst to him, Alice and her friend Meg Page (who has also received a love letter from Falstaff) have conspired to punish him and prick his monstrous ego.

Falstaff’s visit has been timed to coincide with the return of Alice’s jealous husband, who arrives filled with murderous rage. The women conceal the cowardly Falstaff in the laundry basket, where he hides in fear until the women suggest throwing the ‘laundry’ out of the window and into the river. Fear soon turns to soggy humiliation and anger.


Don Giovanni (Mozart) – ‘Gia la mensa e preparata’ (‘Supper is ready’)

There’s no more famous ghost in all opera than the Commendatore from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Murdered by the Don in the very first scene while trying to protect his daughter from attack, he gets his revenge in horrifying fashion in the opera’s finale – inspiring abject terror in the usually unflappable Don.

Joking around with his servant Leporello, the Don invites the marble statue of the dead Commendatore to dinner. Having issued the invitation he then orders food and music and waits. What makes this episode so deliciously, painfully tense is the faux-jollity and humour of its music, as the Don mocks Leporello, desperately trying to conceal any trace of fear.


Hamlet (Brett Dean) – ‘Angels and ministers of grace, defend us’

The ghost of Hamlet’s dead father arrives in the throbbing pulse of percussion, a shiver of tubular bells and a crash of brass – a figure at once physically threatening and other-worldly. An unseen chorus of voices – tormented souls, perhaps – add to the chilling atmosphere of the scene, giving way to ghostly flickers in the strings.

Brett Dean’s orchestration intensifies the claustrophobic horror of one of Shakespeare’s most memorable scenes, capturing both the queasy fear of young Prince Hamlet, forced to confront the figure of his dead father, and the elemental power of this alien presence.


The Cunning Little Vixen (Janáček) – ‘Pust’te mě’ (‘Let go of me!’)

This moment of fear is intense, but short-lived – a prelude to some much happier emotions. Pretty young Vixen Sharp-Ears is resting in a clearing in the forest one day when the handsome Fox Golden-Fur suddenly appears. She’s immediately attracted, but also wary of this confident stranger.

At first his approaches are very gentlemanly – offering to protect her from any hunters, giving her a rabbit he has killed – but, overcome by his passion, he suddenly throws himself upon her. Terrified, the innocent Vixen fights him off, confused by this change of mood. But when the Fox confesses that he loves her, that his ferocity was passion not violence, she quickly softens and admits her own feelings. Fear quickly turns to joy and excitement.