Five courageous moments in opera

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Thusday 19th October 2017 is #OperaPassion Day – with opera houses from around the UK coming together to celebrate this unique artform.

Each opera house is exploring how opera creates different emotions, and Glyndebourne is examining courage and fear. Here, we take a look at five courageous moments in opera…


Physical; moral; emotional; spiritual: courage in opera takes many forms. Yes, there are the inevitable battles and duels between rival kings and lovers – heroes that risk their lives in all-or-nothing combat – but there are also many more complicated situations.

There are those who must protect or defy their family or faith, others whose emotions must be mastered or released, while some must summon the courage to tell unpleasant truths to the world or, harder still, to themselves. Here are just some of opera’s most memorable moments of courage.


Giulio Cesare (Handel) – ‘Cara Speme’

Traumatised by the violent murder of his father, and with his mother threatened and imprisoned, the teenage Sesto is suddenly the head of the family. In a single bloody second he goes from a carefree boy to a man capable of action, taking revenge on the wicked Tolomeo. We watch him come to terms with the murder he must commit, first full of confidence and rage, but here in his heartbreaking aria ‘Cara speme’ he begins to understand the full implications of his action.

In music that’s shockingly sweet, gentle, Sesto soothes his fears, making peace with the terrible deed he must commit. Setting aside his innocence he courageously embraces manhood, with all its responsibilities.


Billy Budd (Benjamin Britten) – ‘And farewell to thee, old Rights o’ Man’

When innocent, exuberant young seaman Billy Budd is pressed into service by the British navy, he starts a new life aboard the HMS Bellipotent. But his shout of goodbye to his former ship (‘Farewell, old Rights ‘o Man’) is mistaken for an attempt to incite dissent and mutiny, attracting the unwelcome attention of Master-at-arms Claggart, who is determined to crush this troublemaker.

Claggart’s witch-hunt provokes Billy into a sudden act of violence, accidentally killing his accuser. Sentenced to death, here he faces his fate with extraordinary calm, and the same open-hearted directness that he has shown throughout the opera. This astonishing aria, free from bitterness or regret, reflects the courage of one of opera’s great heroes as he awaits his execution.


Così fan tutte (Mozart) – ‘Come Scoglio’

While Fiordiligi’s emotional conflict doesn’t rank among opera’s most high-stakes situations (lives don’t exactly hang in the balance in Mozart’s sunny comedy), it’s nevertheless a brilliant example of fortitude and courage in the face of emotional temptation and uncertainty.

Fiordiligi and her sister Dorabella have been abandoned by their fiancés, who have gone off ‘to war’ (really, they have disguised themselves as Albanians in order to test their lovers’ fidelity). Faced with the persistent attentions of two handsome new suitors, melting under their flattery and charm, Fiordiligi swears that she will remain faithful – like a rock, immoveable against stormy waves. In this demanding aria, whose virtuosity reflects the extremity of the heroine’s emotions, Fiordiligi not only rejects her would-be-suitor, but seems to convince herself of her own resolve.


La traviata (Verdi) – ‘Dite alle giovine’

Courtesan Violetta has left Paris with her young lover Alfredo, hoping to start a new and happy life in the country. But when Alfredo’s father finds them he begs Violetta to spare his son the shame of the alliance, pleading that he has a young daughter whose planned marriage would be destroyed by it.

Resolute at first, tender-hearted Violetta eventually gives in to Germont’s persuasive, manipulative pleas, promising to give up Alfredo, even as it breaks her heart. In a duet charged with emotion, she begs Germont to tell his daughter of the sacrifice she has made for her, while Germont urges her to have courage and faith in her selfless and courageous decision.


Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (Mozart) – ‘Martern aller arten’

Konstanze and her maid Blonde have been kidnapped by pirates and taken prisoner by Pasha Selim, who intends to add the two beautiful English women to his harem. He orders Konstanze to submit to him and become his lover. But despite his threats of torture she refuses to yield, unwilling to betray her beloved Belmonte. Summoning all her courage, she defies the Pasha in this blistering display of vocal fury, vowing that whatever torment he inflicts upon her, she will remain steadfast.


On Thusday 19th October 2017 Glyndebourne is celebrating #OperaPassion Day with a look at how Brett Dean’s opera of Hamlet conveys emotion in comparison to the original Shakespeare play. Join us on Facebook Live from 12.30pm as we ask ‘To sing or not to sing?’ with performances from actor Samuel West and singers David Butt Philip and Jennifer France.