“Every theatre is an insane asylum, but an opera theatre is the ward for the incurables.”

— Franz Schalk

As the database of Musical Representations of Disability reveals, the changeable yet pervasive notion of ‘madness’ has been a common trope in opera narratives since the 1600s. It has been housed in both comic and tragic frameworks, attached to minor characters, heroic protagonists, and their principal antagonists, and has even been used as a temporary narrative ‘problem’.

In many cases, opera’s mad characters reflect their historical and cultural context, whilst ‘mad scenes’ echo associated contemporary attitudes towards mental/psychological/behavioural difference from the time in which a work was composed. 

Owed largely to the development of psychology as an independent scientific discipline during the 19th century, the Romantic movement provided a provocative backdrop for some of the opera’s most shocking and poignant mad scenes.

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) contains an iconic example of the 19th-century mad scene. The protagonist has been coerced into an arranged marriage, despite her love for another man. After stabbing her new husband to death on their wedding night, Lucia emerges in a bloody wedding gown, wandering among horrified guests as she sings ‘Ardon gli incesi’ and ‘Spargi d’amaro pianto’, before collapsing to her death in typical opera heroine fashion.

Lucia’s ‘mad scene’ performed by Natalie Dessay at the Metropolitan Opera (2011), directed by Mary Zimmerman. Access: subtitles in French (burned in), English, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian.

Like many operas depicting madness around this time, Donizetti’s opera offers a form of cultural commentary on the steps being made in the burgeoning field of psychology. When considered in conjunction with the emergence of humanitarian psychiatry, Lucia’s madness, her murderous actions, and ensuing death can be understood as a means through which she breaks the shackles of confinement in a cruel, male-dominated society.

As insanity was no longer thought to have supernatural origins, madness was considered to be a disease like any other. The associated ‘medicalisation’ of madness coincided with asylum reform, the birth of moral management, and the emergence of humanitarian psychology.

An antique engraving shows a vista with old building surrounded by a lnadscape, with a small figure and donkey in the foreground. Text reads, Original building of the retreat, York. Insituted 1792. From a painting by Carve.
York Retreat original building c.1796, Gemälde von Carve. An antique engraving shows a vista with old building surrounded by a lnadscape, with a small figure and donkey in the foreground. Text reads, Original building of the retreat, York. Insituted 1792. From a painting by Carve.

After the establishment of the York Retreat in 1792, treaties concerning moral care were implemented throughout Europe. The new-fangled approach challenged the punitive, physical approach of previous years, and instead, minimal restraint and constructive activity prevailed. The emergence of ‘moral therapy’ emphasised the classification of individual patients into diagnostic groups, and communication was encouraged as a possible antidote.

Under the ‘Lunacy Act of 1845, patients were recognised as human beings in need of care and compassion, and as such, were afforded a degree of ‘freedom’.

Charles Rosen draws upon William Blake’s summary of the Romantic attitude towards insanity as ‘a refuge from unbelief’, and in this sense, Lucia’s mad-scene can also be viewed as an exhibition of her ‘withdrawal from the distress of everyday life, a protest against intolerable social conditions or against a deliberating philosophy’ (646).

Certainly, Lucia’s madness allows her to experience an alternative reality – one in which she is happily married to Edgardo, and able to relish the love that she was denied. Her madness is ecstasy. 

Despite the humanitarian methods now prevalent in asylums, many patients (typically women) were disempowered by moral treatment. As well as securing better treatment for some, the Lunacy Act augmented the power of (male) doctors, as psychology placed increasing emphasis on the ‘problem’ of women.

Lucia, a soprano with long red hair, kneels on the ground in a bloody wedding gown with her arms outstretched and a wide smile. She is surrounded by red flowers.
Elena Mosuc as Lucia at Teatro Regio (Turin), directed by Damiano Michieletto. A soprano with long red hair kneels on the ground in a bloody wedding gown, surrounded by red flowers.

Just as many real-world explorations of human behaviour at this time adopted a gendered view of psychological difference, the era’s ‘mad’ characters were mostly heroines. Like many Romantic operatic madwomen, Lucia largely reflected the popular belief that all women were prone to ‘nervousness’, ‘hysteria’, and mental breakdown.

In this sense, Lucia’s role in the history of operatic madness is dualistic. As well as allegorising humanitarian psychology and its associated freedoms, she also symbolises the 19th-century view of insanity as a distinctly female phenomenon, which Elaine Showalter calls ‘The Female Malady’.

At the time of Lucia’s composition, madness was represented musically by virtuosic vocal excess and florid coloratura. Since these features were generally restricted to the soprano voice, they also came to represent the link between madness and femininity.

As the stereotype of the madwoman grew to pervade the genre of Romantic melodrama, the operatic ‘diva’ became synonymous with the notion of insanity. Ethan Morden has suggested that ‘demented’ was the highest accolade to be bestowed upon the performance of the operatic prima donna soprano. This sensationalisation of madness in popular culture only solidified the link between femininity and insanity.

The aim here has been to show how, by widening the lens of our explorations, we can trace how science and culture collide in opera to create passionate and often problematic depictions of the extremes the human behaviour. Where opera’s mad characters are concerned, there are countless more avenues to explore.



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