Don Pasquale students

You’re about to go to the theatre to see Don Pasquale. It’s a great opera and has been pulling in audiences for about 170 years.

Like all operas, you can just turn up on the day and enjoy the show but, if you haven’t been to an opera before, or don’t know anything about Don Pasquale, you’ll find it helpful to read about the story and the characters below.


Opera is a stage show in which people sing the story as well as act it.

Opera singers spend many years training their voices, so they can sing without microphones and be heard over a whole orchestra.

There are two sorts of opera:

  • Serious opera , which can end up with a pile of corpses.
  • Comic opera, which ends with everyone forgiving each other and the lovers getting married.

Don Pasquale is a comic opera, written by the Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti in 1843.

The Characters

The opera is about a young man, Ernesto,

who is in love with Norina.

Norina loves Ernesto as well but, unfortunately she’s poor, and the young pair get into immediate trouble with Ernesto’s rich uncle,

Don Pasquale is used to bossing Ernesto about and, just before the opera starts, he tells his nephew that he’s found him a nice rich bride. Ernesto says that actually he’s in love with someone already, and Don Pasquale is so furious that he decides to get married too.

This is serious for Ernesto because, if Don Pasquale gets married, all his money will go to his new wife when he dies. Up to now Don Pasquale has promised it will go to Ernesto.

Fortunately there’s a fourth member of the cast, ready to spring into action, the crafty Dr Malatesta.

The moment you see Dr Malatesta, you just know he’s the sort of man to have a cunning plan – and sure enough he comes up with one immediately. You’ll find out what that is in the story section.

But, before we get going on the story, we need to work out what all these people sound like. The cast is made up of singers and they have very different voices.


In an opera you can often tell what a person is like by their voice.

So, Ernesto and Norina have a high voices. In opera that means they’re young and are the hero and heroine. Ernesto is a tenor, Norina is a soprano.

Dr Malatesta has a middling sort of voice, which makes him a baritone. In opera that means you can trust him – baritones are usually nice chaps – but Ernesto isn’t so sure…

Don Pasquale has a deep voice and is a bass. In a serious opera the bass is either an old man or a villain but, in a comic opera – like this – the bass isn’t bad, he’s just a problem. He gets in the way and messes up the plot. Fortunately he’s always outwitted.

There are many other musicians in Don Pasquale, but you won’t see them on stage. They are the players in the orchestra pit and start the opera with the overture.

Read the Don Pasquale story

The Composer of Don Pasquale

Gaetano Donizetti was an Italian composer. He was born in 1797 – in a cellar – in Bergamo, where his dad looked after the local pawnshop. He had five brothers and sisters and his parents were desperately poor, so it was a lucky break for everyone when nine year old Donizetti got a free place in the Bergamo music school.

The school was run by an opera composer, Johannes Mayr, who recognised Donizetti’s talent at once. He also liked the boy, another stroke of luck for Donizetti as his behaviour was so terrible that a less patient man might have expelled him. Donizetti loved and admired Mayr for the rest of his life, he called him his ‘second father’.

Being a musician in 19th century Italy meant working for the opera. Italians watched opera the way we watch television and, when the opera houses were open, people went every night. There was a huge demand for new operas and Donizetti ended up writing 69 before his health forced him to retire. He died in 1848.

Life was tough for Italian musicians. The demand for new shows meant that Donizetti had to write his operas at immense speed, and get them into rehearsal almost immediately. He said it took him 11 days to write Don Pasquale – this is probably an exaggeration, but it shows what the pressure of work was like. Opera life was exhausting and composers and singers often crashed and retired early. But most people thought it was worth it.


Text and Illustrations by Sarah Lenton.