In times like these, we learn just how important it is to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues. Whether that means giving your best friend a quick Facetime, calling your mother and reassuring her that you’re being safe and cautious, or having a group Zoom “party” with friends across the country—connecting and engaging with members of our social circle is harder now than usual.
In opera, librettists often have to find creative ways to move the story along and to show the characters communicating with each other. Prior to the late nineteenth century, telephones didn’t even exist—much less video-conferencing. Let’s explore three forms of communication: a cannon, a letter, and—eventually—a telephone.
I can think of few gestures larger or more decisive than a loud, resounding cannon shot heard off in the distance. While most people think first of Tchaikovsky’s use of the cannon in his famous 1812 Overture (listen here), operatic composers also employed the explosive effect quite a few times.
- Roberto Devereux (Donizetti) – Queen Elizabeth I has sentenced her beloved Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, to be executed for high treason—after also discovering his affair with her close friend Sara. In the final scene, Sara rushes to the Queen with a ring she had given to Devereux to promise his safety. Elizabeth hurries to call off the execution, but at that same moment, we hear a cannon shot in the distance, signaling the falling of the axe and Robert’s death. (The cannon shot occurs at 0:14 in this clip.)
- Madama Butterfly (Puccini) – Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) has been abandoned by her American husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton, for three years. After learning that he may never return for her and their three-year-old child, Butterfly is distraught. Just then, a cannon sounds from the port, signaling the arrival of Pinkerton’s naval ship. Butterfly and Suzuki are overjoyed. (Hear the cannon shot at 1:32:22 in the video below.)
Before email and text messages, letters were a crucial way to deliver messages of love, war, and sacrifice. Countless operas contain letters, either as a full, grand scene where we see a character pouring their emotion onto the paper, or as a quick “plot accelerator,” where a messenger rushes in with a quick announcement.
- La traviata (Verdi) – One of the most emotional moments in this piece comes during Act 3, when a dying Violetta reads a letter from Giorgio Germont, her beloved Alfredo’s father. In the letter, Germont tells Violetta that he and Alfredo are coming soon to reunite with her and to say a final goodbye.
- Eugene Onegin (Tchaikovsky) – Probably the quintessential letter scene, here we see Tatyana gathering her feelings and emotions toward a young man she has just met, Onegin. She assembles them into a letter in one of the most romantic, beautiful arias in all of opera.
During the twentieth century, as use of the telephone became more common and widespread, it made its way into opera plots. Two well known operas revolve entirely around telephone conversations: Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Telephone from 1946, and Poulenc’s 1958 La voix humaine.
- The Telephone (Menotti) – In this one-act, 25-minute miniature opera, Ben struggles to hold the attention of his beloved Lucy, who is too preoccupied in various phone conversations throughout the piece. At the end of the opera, Ben leaves without carrying out his planned marriage proposal, only to call Lucy from a payphone and pop the question remotely.
- La voix humaine (Poulenc) – We only see one end of the conversation in this 40-minute, one-woman opera, as Elle speaks with her lover on the phone for the last time. Her now ex-lover has recently begun a new relationship, and we see Elle here in her dramatic, confrontational farewell.