Opera characters who practised social distancing before 2020
By Daniele Foti-Cuzzola
2020 has many of us experiencing uncertain times like never before and while we may only be a few weeks into social distancing, some of our favourite opera characters have long practised degrees of social distancing with varying results. From star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliette to Princess Turandot, let us know which characters method of social distancing you prefer.
Romeo and Juliette (Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette)
The Story: If you’re struggling to socially distance from your significant other than spare a thought for Romeo and Juliette. These star-crossed lovers’ love story was doomed from the start as they were children of opposing families. It’s instantly a case of love at first sight for both Romeo and Juliette when they meet at a party held at Juliette’s home. When Juliette returns to her chamber, Romeo sneaks out near her balcony where he hears her declare her love for him and he, in turn, makes himself known and declares his love for her. The two serenade each other with love songs from an acceptable social distance but when the two decide to get closer complications ensue.
The lovers enlist the help of Friar Laurence to marry them in secret and he agrees with the hopes of reuniting their feuding families, but then Juliette’s family announce they have promised her to Count Paris. To avoid marrying Paris and revealing her marriage to Romeo, the Friar gives Juliette a potion that will put her in a deep sleep that will last for several hours but will make her family and Paris think that she has died. Once she has awoken Romeo will be able to join her and they arrange for a messenger to notify him.
However the messenger never arrives, Romeo breaks out of his isolation too soon and finds Juliette before she has awoken and believes she is dead. He is so overcome with grief that he takes his own life. Juliette eventually awakens and upon discovering Romeo is dead takes her own life too.
The Social Distancing Consensus: Had Romeo and Juliette followed the strict social distancing rules that were placed upon them the outcome to their love story could have been very different. The balcony serenades showed a promising start to a blossoming relationship at a safe distance and had Romeo waited a few moments longer to visit Juliette, he would have found she had already recovered from the potion. We can all learn from these two that patience is key when it comes to blossoming relationships during social isolation.
The Aria: The Balcony scene where Romeo and Juliette declare their love for one another but from a safe distance.
Anthony Hope and Johanna Barker (Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)
The Story: Like Romeo and Juliette before them, Anthony Hope and Johanna Barker had to make do with loving glances and sweet serenades from balconies during the initial phase of their relationship. Johanna is forbidden by her guardian, Judge Turpin from leaving her house and the Judge is determined to have Johana for himself so he threatens Anthony if he ever comes near her. In order to keep Johanna and Anthony apart, Judge Turpin locks Johanna away in a private lunatic asylum. Anthony discovers the truth and seeks the help of Sweeney Todd (who he doesn’t realise at the time is Johanna’s biological father) to free Johanna. Anthony ends up rescuing her from the asylum but when they are caught, he can’t bring himself to shoot the asylum owner but Johanna does. In the end after plenty of bloodshed the two are safely reunited.
The Social Distancing Consensus: Unlike Romeo and Juliette, Anthony and Johanna mostly followed the strict social distancing rules that were imposed on them. And when Anthony decided to take matters into his own hands, he confided in his plan with Johanna’s biological father (though he didn’t know it at the time) and had a well thought out plan. Our consensus from this relationship is that serenades at a distance are a great way to keep the love alive while in quarantine.
The Aria: “Johanna”, Anthony sings of his love for Johanna from a safe distance and declares that they will be together one day.
Rodolfo (Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème)
The Story: Puccini’s Rodolfo is arguably one of Opera’s most hopeless romantics. The poet is instantly smitten when he meets the beautiful Mimì, a seamstress who comes to his door on Christmas Eve after running out of matches. The two instantly fall in love and begin a relationship.
At the start of Act 3, a few months later, Rodolfo ends their relationship rather abruptly. Mimi believes it is because of Rodolfo’s jealousy, but she overhears Rodolfo admit to his friend Marcello that he didn’t end their relationship over Mimi’s flirtatious nature, but because he fears she is dying and because of his financial status he won’t be able to help her. He hopes their break up will lead her to seek a wealthier suitor who can provide for her.
Rodolfo’s selfless sacrifice comes to fruition and he isolates from his true love. Eventually, Mimi begins a relationship with a wealthy viscount, but just before she succumbs to her disease she asks her friend Musetta to bring her back to Rodolfo. The two lovers are briefly reunited before she dies.
The Social Distancing Consensus: While Rodolfo’s heartbreaking decision made no difference to Mimi’s tragic fate, his determination to isolate from her is nothing but selfless. We can all learn a little from Rodolfo’s commitment to isolating and determination to protect the vulnerable.
The Aria: Donde Lieta Uscì (“From Here She Happily Left”) Mimi and Rodolfo sing goodbye to each other as she unwillingly agrees to Rodolfo’s isolation.
Princess Turandot (Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot)
The Story: Puccini’s heroine, Princess Turandot is arguably the most disciplined of all opera characters when it comes to social distancing. Many potential suitors including the handsome Prince of Persia have fallen for the beautiful Princess and have subsequently asked for her hand in marriage, but the strong-willed Turandot will only marry a suitor who can correctly answer three secret riddles and if they fail they will be sentenced to death.
The Princess’ strong will stems from a fear of suffering the same fate as her ancestress of millennia past, Princess Lo-u-Ling, who reigned over her kingdom “in silence and joy, resisting the harsh domination of men”, until one day she was raped and murdered by an invading foreign Prince.
The Princess’ riddles have never been successfully answered until Calaf, the Prince of Tartary comes along. Turandot begs her father to not force her to marry Tartary, but her father, The King insists that a promise is a promise. Calaf, in turn, has a riddle for the Princess, if she can tell him his name before Sunrise he at dawn will die. Eventually, the two kiss and Calaf who wants the Princess to love him tells her his name before dawn, bravely placing his life entirely in her hands and giving her the option to sentence him to death. The kiss and this selfless action moves the Princess and instead, she declares her love in return.
The Social Distancing Consensus: The Princess’ strict rules prevented her from being forced into a marriage to someone that may have wanted to marry her for the wrong reasons and Calaf’s own riddle proved that he genuinely loved Turandot and was respectful towards her social boundaries. Our consensus from Turandot is that true love is worth the wait.
The Aria: In Questa Reggia ( “In This Palace”) Princess Turandot sings of the tragedy that befell Princess Lou-u-Ling and her decision to avenge her death by imposing it on all men who fail in their attempt to marry her and subsequently live in isolation.
Violetta and Alfredo (La Traviata)
The Story: As a famed courtesan, Violetta was used to living a luxurious lifestyle, regularly throwing lavish parties from her Parisian salon. In fact, as soon as she recovers from a mysterious illness Violetta celebrates by throwing another grand party at her home, is this during this fateful party where Verdi’s beloved opera begins and where the stunning Violetta becomes reacquainted with Alfredo Germont, a young bourgeois from a provincial family who has long been infatuated with her.
Alfredo is forced to admit his feelings to Violetta but the courtesan who is a lover of the wealthy Baron Douphol initially dismisses him. During the party, Violetta begins to feel unwell and the smitten Alfredo checks in on her. His concern moves her and after he leaves she wonders whether he could, in fact, be the one.
By the start of Act Two, it is revealed that Violetta has since abandoned her lavish lifestyle and party-going ways for a tranquil lifestyle with Alfredo in a country house outside of Paris. The two lead a happy lifestyle in what is practically social isolation.
Their happiness is short-lived when Alfredo’s father, Giorgio comes unannounced to their home and tells Violetta that her relationship with his son has brought shame to their family and she needs to cut ties with Alfredo. Violetta’s love for Alfredo is so strong that she agrees and leaves their happy yet simple lifestyle in isolation for the glitz and glamour of Paris. In the end, the couple reunite moments before Violetta succumbs to her tuberculosis and she dies in the arms of her lover, Alfredo.
The Social Distancing Consensus: While social distancing in the French countryside would not have prevented Violetta from her untimely death, had she not let Alfredo’s overbearing father, Giorgio into her home; the two lovers could have spent her final days together. Our consensus from La Traviata is that Violetta and Alfredo seemed quite happy to exchange their fast-paced for a simpler life where they were at home together in isolation. If a partygoer like Violetta was able to resist the temptation of a lavish party then we can too.
The Aria: De’ Miei Bollenti Spiriti / Il Giovanile Ardore (“The Youthful Ardour Of My Ebullient Spirits”). Alfredo sings of his simple yet happy life with Violetta in isolation in the French countryside.