There comes a time in many thespians’ lives when they say, “Hey, I think I’ll look into a dramatic work about an opera.” Okay, maybe that doesn’t actually happen. Okay, maybe it’s just me. But regardless, my dilettantes, it got me thinking about opera singers who’ve found their way onto the decidedly non-musical world of playwrights. Obviously, there are many musical theatre works that cross the operatic line- Sweeney Todd, Show Boat, Candide, and West Side Story all come to mind. But there aren’t as many plays about operas, or even dramatic adaptations of opera stories. Personally, I think it’s because the music of an opera is so tied to the story that to transpose it into dialogue would remove much of the juice. Plus, the lives of many opera stars were so colorful that they make for richer storytelling in a classical theatre setting. As a result, dear friends,we have the following works in the canon…the plays about opera…and not vice-versa.
Master Class by Terrence McNally. In this dramatic tour-de-force for a woman, a master class presented by Maria Callas serves as a framework for the diva telling the story of her life. Fascinatingly, only the course’s pupils tackle any opera; the actress playing Callas herself doesn’t have to sing a note. Pictured is Barbara Walsh in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of the show.
Souvenir by Stephen Temperley. Perhaps the most famous tone-deaf “singer” in classical music history is Florence Foster Jenkins. This play is a dive into her psyche, exploring her phenomenal life from selling out Carnegie Hall to great arts philanthropy. Pictured is Judy Kaye in the show’s original Broadway production.
Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. In what is perhaps the definitive play about opera, the story focuses not on Mozart himself but on his lesser-known rival, Antonio Salieri. Over the events of this drama, Mozart composes some of his greatest work, while Salieri is left to stew in his own resentment. Pictured is Tom Hulce as Mozart in the Academy Award-winning film adaptation of the play.
The Other Mozart by Sylvia Milo. Interestingly, there’s another play about a lesser-known figure in Mozart’s life- his sister- but the structure of this piece couldn’t be more different. An avant-garde one-woman show set entirely on an enormous period gown, Nannerl Mozart tells her story with a hodgepodge of theatrical devices. Pictured is the author of the show and its star, Sylvia Milo.
Living on Love by Joe DiPietro. Closing our segment with a bit of a joke, this play is not actually about a real opera figure, but it did mark the Broadway debut of Renee Fleming as a random soprano in a stressful marriage. Critically panned and commercially disastrous, the show closed in less than three months. Pictured is Renee Fleming, Douglas Sills, and Anna Chlumsky in a promotional photo for the production.