In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classics and Opera

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Catalogues
  • Encyclopedias and Source Readings
  • Twenty-First-Century Opera

Classics Classics and Opera
Robert C. Ketterer, Jon Solomon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0264


The more than four hundred years of the operatic genre have produced thousands of works involving Greco-Roman plots, characters, and themes. The musical drama labeled with the imprecise term “opera” maintained an intimate relationship with the classical tradition since its inception. Late Renaissance Italian scholars and artists who created the first operas (drammi per musica) studied and imitated ancient Greek music theory and practice, mistakenly thinking that ancient poetic drama had been sung in its entirety. The result was a wholly new dramatic form. The plots of these earliest productions for the courts of north Italy (Daphne, Euridice, Orpheus, Ariadne) derived from ancient mythological literature, as did most of the lavish French lyric “tragedy” at Versailles such as Phaeton, Perseus, or Theseus. As opera developed and spread throughout Europe, it also incorporated plots and characters from ancient Greek and Roman history and epic. The Habsburg court in Vienna produced titles like The Elements of Epicurus, and The Clemency of Titus, while the commercial productions in Venice for carnival premiered Jason and Agrippina. The tension between box-office appeal of musical spectacle and a desire for effective drama on the Greek model generated an Italian operatic reform around 1700 and the resulting librettos of Metastasio on subjects like Cato in Utica, Dido Abandoned or Artaxerxes defined serious opera for two generations. The second half of the 18th century saw another reform with Gluck’s settings of Euripidean tragedies (Alcestis, Iphigenia in Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris), and with Cherubini’s Medea, all of which remain in the modern repertoire. In the 19th century, Hector Berlioz adapted Virgil’s epic Aeneid for his Les Troyens (The Trojans), Richard Wagner infused the tragic dramaturgy of Aeschylus in his Ring tetralogy, and the setting for Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was derived from Greco-Egyptian literary, historical, and archaeological sources. The 20th century saw the von Hofmannsthal/Strauss Elektra, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (in Latin), Carl Orff’s Prometheus (in ancient Greek), William Walton‘s Troilus and Cressida, and more than a half dozen operas based on the story of Medea. The new millennium has begun with ambitious stagings of Aeschylus’s Eumenides for the 2004 Athens Olympics and Europa Riconosciuta (Europa Identified) for the reopening of Teatro alla Scala.

General Overviews

A relatively small number of classicists and musicologists have focused on classical reception in opera. Nonetheless, there is a modest but growing list of book-length works and anthology chapters that survey the reception of classics in opera across chronological horizons. Of the book-length works, an early example is Ewans 1982 (cited under German Opera) followed by Questa 1989 and more recently by McDonald 2001, Ewans 2007, and Manuwald 2013. Chapters in anthologies, which allowed for non-mainstream studies, include such additional offerings as McDonald 1994 (cited under Pre–World War I) and McDonald 2007. Brown and Ograjenšek 2010 collects eighteen reception studies on most periods of operatic production. Volume 23 of Syllecta Classica collects essays discussing musical reception of Greco-Roman literature from the Renaissance to Heavy Metal, including three on opera. Ketterer 2010 reviews and amplifies on four studies relevant to Classical reception in early modern and modern opera.

  • Brown, Peter, and Suzana Ograjenšek, eds. 2010. Ancient drama in music for the modern stage. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An anthology that is broad-ranging in subject and chronology, this contains nineteen essays on the Greco-Roman theater and the development of opera, works featuring Phaedra, Alcestis, Andromache, Oedipus as well as the Bacchae and the Oresteia, and individual studies of librettists, composers, Aristotle, and the deus ex machina. Includes illustrations, musical examples, extensive bibliography, and a detailed index.

  • Ewans, Michael. 2007. Opera from the Greek: Studies in the poetics of appropriation. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

    Eight case studies on the process of dramatization of Greek epic and tragedy (Homer, Sophocles, Euripides), featuring Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, early-18th-century adaptations of Iphigeneia Among the Taurians, the tradition leading to the Hoffman/Cherubini Médée, and five 20th-century works: Elektra, Oedipe, King Priam, The Bassarids, and Greek. Most useful for the modern period. Limited bibliography.

  • Ketterer, Robert. 2010. Opera and the uses of the classical tradition: Four studies. International Journal of the Classical Tradition 17.1: 60–86.

    DOI: 10.1007/s12138-010-0165-8

    A review article discussing three monographs and a long article on early modern and modern operas. The article reviews and offers supplemental analysis from the perspective of a classicist for Rosand 2007 (cited under Epic and Tragedy), Feldman 2007 (cited under the Arcadian Academy and Metastasio), Ewans 2007, and a substantial article on Handel’s Admeto (on the Alcestis story) by Wendy Heller.

  • Manuwald, Gesine. 2013. Nero in opera: Librettos as transformations of ancient sources. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110317510

    Chapter 2 discusses twenty-two operas, originating in the argument that Octavia was their prototype. Each entry includes useful information about the librettist, scene-by-scene synopsis, URLs for online versions and recordings (where available), brief analysis, and bibliography. The two appendices that include tables indicating the distribution of key motifs and the historical or fictional background of the main characters, serve as an index. All Italian, German, and French titles are translated into English.

  • McDonald, Marianne. 2001. Sing sorrow: Classics, history, and heroines in opera. Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance 62. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    A “Prelude” argues for the study of opera by classical scholars. Subsequent chapters focus on eight individual operas, from Monteverdi’s 1640 Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria to Theodorakis’s 2001 Medea. Each chapter offers an introduction on historical and cultural background, a detailed synopsis with running analysis. A ninety-six-page “Partial List of Operas and Demi-Operas Based on Classics, Including Historical Topics,” includes several thousand titles arranged chronologically by composer.

  • McDonald, Marianne. 2007. The dramatic legacy of myth: Oedipus in opera, radio, television and film. In The Cambridge companion to Greek and Roman theatre. Edited by McDonald and Michael Walton, 303–326. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521834568.017

    McDonald argues that music is the most important element in translating the ancient texts for the operatic stage, allowing that the inclusion of music necessitates cutting some of the drama while enhancing the experience for the viewer. She focuses on Julie Taymor’s Japanese production of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex in 1992.

  • Questa, Cesare. 1989. Semiramide redenta: archetipi, fonti classiche, censure antropoligiche nel melodramma. Urbino, Italy: Quattro Venti.

    A pioneering anthropological and literary approach by a classicist to the Italian dramas, and especially operas, on the Semiramis legend. The main text treats dramatic presentations from the first spoken drama by Manfredi in 1593 to Rossini’s 1823 Semiramide. Chapters study the classical and late antique sources, catalogue the dramas, summarize important librettos, and examine the cultural, dramatic, and musical transformations of the legend. Appendices list librettos, composers, and singers.

  • Re-Creation: Musical reception of classical antiquity. Syllecta Classica 23 (2012). Project Muse.

    This volume of Syllecta Classica on the broader issue of musical reception of Greco-Roman antiquity includes three essays connected with Orpheus in opera: a survey of Orpheus operas from Jacopo Peri (1600) to Harrison Birtwhistle (1986); classical parody in Offenbach’s comic operas Orphée aux enfers and La belle Hélène; and Orpheus in Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown. A print version of the volume was issued.

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