“We are all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

Those are the words of the Cheshire Cat, and probably one of the most famous quotes in the book Alice in Wonderland. It has been made as ubiquitous, from memes to tea towels, as the “mad scene” is to 19th century Bel Canto opera. Some have argued that the emergence of mad scenes in operas is directly related to the newfound interest in psychiatry and clinical psychology–along with the emotional aspects of music–during the beginning of the 19th century. Many scholars discuss Romantic music as related to mental illnesses; essentially, Bel Canto composers were trying to translate their understanding
of psychopathology and trauma by musical means.

There has been a tremendous amount of writing about the concept of the mad scene in opera. I will do my best to round it up for you a bit, given the massive amount of information available!

One thing often springs up: the direct correlation between the mental derangement of the characters and composers’ own neurobiological illness. For example Gaetano Donizetti, who penned some of the most quintessential mad scenes in works such as Lucia di Lammermoor or Anna Bolena, died in a state of mental derangement due to neurosyphilis. “Insanity” or madness has been important to opera since the genre’s inception. For 400 years, operas have featured characters driven “mad” by a bevy of emotions such as love, jealousy, even shame. During this lengthy time period, however, the cultural understandings of what it means to be insane have changed many times. In operas such as Gian Carlo Menotti‘s The Medium or Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and many more, the modern understanding of mental illness contends with a centuries old heritage of operatic and theatrical madness.

Renowned Soprano Natalie Dessay, who has been well known for embodying a great number of ladies who went “mad” onstage wrote the following:

“Opera being, as we all know, an art form of great extremes, naturally has loads of mad scenes. And the composers seem as if they are all really fascinated by what they think of as feminine hysteria. But for me as a performer, a mad scene is always a puzzle. What is madness, anyway? And in any case wouldn’t each character’s madness be different, and unlike any other’s? The madness of romantic heroines like Lucia, Elvira, Dinorah and Ophelia is always caused by a profound feeling of abandonment, betrayal, disappointed love. But for all of them, including Cunegonde, madness is the result of suffering that can only completely find an outlet in a parallel world to that of reason. The real world having become intolerable, there is only one way out for them: escaping into an imaginary, more kindly world, where everything is perhaps as it was before, or even better still, as it was in the days where they were happy, because they were loved and protected. For me, these descents into madness often seem like alternations between moments of intense suffering and the desire to be in another place, where everything
might yet be possible…”

Those are the thoughts of a well-established proficient performer, who did a tremendous amount of deep dives to connect her own personal experiences and their ties to the experiences of her characters. Many performers familiar with these roles might agree or disagree with Natalie’s statement, as there are many different possible takes on these characters, but most of us agree having had a profound connection to the mental states of the characters while “living” with them. We are honored to give voice to the person, victim, condition, even abuse behind the character’s beautiful lines. As performers, most take this role very seriously since it is our responsibility to bring awareness to some extremely real situations that we feel duty-bound to cathartically expose.

It makes these performances treacherous and often extremely painful depending on how deeply into the mental state of the character one is able to go…which leads me directly to the next important bit of information. The parallel aspect of the mad scene, some even say primary aspect, is the creation of a way to offer the Prima Donna or Devo an opportunity to show off their abilities. These scenes are often the pinnacle of difficulty and technical treachery especially in the context of the performing the full role. Depending on the bravery of the performer, add to this any deep acting exploration towards realism of the particular “madness” affecting the character, and you can get an almost impossible task. Balancing the vocal and musical difficulties of the role, with a certain level of “method”-like acting rigor that is widely recognizable to the general public, is pursuing the unicorn of operatic performative ability.

In any case, it was very prevalent during the romantic period to portray extreme torment, anguish, severe mental or physical pain, grief, sorrow, desolation, extreme disease leading to total mental and physical collapse and possible death as madness. In psychological terms, suffering from psychosis or a personality disorder would be referred to as madness (at least in operas and ballets) in the 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous mad scenes of the Bel Canto era are probably (other than the aforementioned Donizetti masterpieces) in Bellini’s I Puritani, Il Pirata, and La Sonnambula. You can add to the list of operas with mad scenes just about anything adapted from Shakespeare, in any time period, like Verdi’s Macbeth and Otello, or Thomas’ Hamlet, for example. Though the convention of writing mad scenes largely died out after the Bel Canto era, as composers sought to inject more realism into their opera, they have evolved for dramatic effect. Some returned subsequently with a deeper and more medical understanding of the subject, providing sometimes partially medicalized portrayals of madness, demonstrating the growing influence of the medical perspective, while others rewrote madness as ecstasy. Examples of these post Bel Canto operas, along with The Medium and The Rake’s Progress, mentioned above, are Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Berg’s Wozzeck, Strauss’ Electra; and Salome, Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and Corigliano’s The Ghost of Versailles. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Madness is such an recurring theme in opera that we can only skim the surface for our purpose here today; there is truly enough material to fill several volumes on the subject.

So now, I spoke a lot about the mad scene as part of the Bel canto tradition (and touched on its return in post-Bel Canto as well as in more recent works), but I would be remiss if I did not note that despite their popular association with Bel Canto, mad scenes have roots in much earlier works (themselves influenced by works of theater and epic poems) such as Handel’s Orlando and Mozart’s Idomeneo, to name a couple. There are many many more early examples from composers Cavalli to Gluck, but I was told that mad scenes truly entered opera in 1641, with Giulio Strozzi and Francesco Sacrati’s Finta Pazza, in which the character of Deidamia pretends to be insane in order to prevent her lover, Achilles, from joining the Trojan war.

Since we are talking about a character who pretends to be insane, I must bring up the use of parodies of mad scenes throughout the operatic repertoire as well, such as in Offenbach (Le Pont des Soupirs), Gilbert and Sullivan (The Grand Duke), Britten (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Bernstein’s (Candide). It cannot be all doom and gloom all the time after all! Another thing worth mentioning is the influence of the operatic mad scene on the modern musical theater, such as Sweeney Todd and Sunset Boulevard.

Whether it is madness, suffering, or even ecstasy, the concept of mad scenes as explored through opera and many other artistic mediums is definitely a fascination held deep in the story teller’s mind since the dawn of time. With the coming of age of psychology and modern medicine, mad scenes have taken on a greater social responsibility directly connected to the greater need for awareness of human suffering and condition.

I hope this was fun and informative, and hopefully, I will see you all at the theater!

-Alexandra Deshorties