Opera - the revenge of the mythological heroine

Ariadne abandoned, Eurydice reduced to silence, and Cassandra discredited... Et si l’opéra vengeait les grandes figures féminines de la mythologie ?

Opera - the revenge of the mythological heroine
Opera - the revenge of the mythological heroine, © Getty / Universal History Archive

The book Opera, or the Undoing of Women (originally in French: L’Opéra ou la Défaite des femmes) published by philosopher Catherine Clément in 1979, reveals how we, the public, derive great pleasure from the sad fate of those female operatic figures that are abandoned and downtrodden, but also from those that are completely idealised.

Yet, amongst these musical caricatures of the fairer sex, some appear to have emerged victorious, namely the heroines of Greek mythology. Born in the heart of ancient patriarchal societies, in which women were neither citizens nor even educated, these heroines served only two purposes: heralding danger, and dying.

Opera, however, does not seem content with these simplistic figures: the states of mind of these female characters may have inspired composers, but the genre itself also echoed the modern re-writings of the legendary myths, thereby revealing another facet of these mythological heroines.


Gentle princess abandoned on an island by her lover (Theseus).

The Renaissance reignited a passion for Antiquity, and artists increasingly drew inspiration from Greek and Roman mythology. Musically, Claudio Monteverdi composed the first operas in the history of music, drawing upon ancient culture: L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses) but also l’Arianna (Ariadne), a musical tragedy of which remains today only a lamento, a lament in which Ariadne sings "Lasciatemi morire" ("Let me die"). 

Change of tone and of scenery. In the 18th century, Baroque composers preferred showing a victorious and, most importantly, enamoured Ariadne. Not only does she help Theseus in escaping the Labyrinth (with the use of her famous thread) but she also leaves the stage wrapped in the arms of her lover. However, idealised, the beautiful Ariadne is no less destined to her abandonment, a tragic end...

In 1912, in Stuttgart, Ariadne's destiny finally took a different turn. In the opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the mythological heroine is confronted by a new, more modern and libertine character, Zerbinette. This new female character cannot accept that a woman would allow herself to die out of amorous desperation.

Zerbinette intervenes without hesitation during Ariadne's long lament. Other women have shared the same fate, she says to the princess. Others have been abandoned and betrayed, and it is high time for her to move on to other things. Strauss's opera thus finishes with a new couple: Ariadne and the god of wine, Bacchus, walking into the distance, arm in arm...


Wife of the poet Orfeo, twice exiled to the depths of Hell

Eurydice represents first and foremost one thing: silence. In the ancient texts by Virgil and Ovid, the story is centred on the adventures of her husband Orpheus, who ventures bravely and valiantly into Hell to save his beloved. She, however, does not say a word. 

On the opera stage, however, every character must be heard, or at least be a part of the score. Therefore, when the librettists and composers addressed the myth of Orpheus, his beloved Eurydice was finally heard. In 1607, Monteverdi afforded the female character two short interventions in his Orfeo

"Che fiero momento!" ( "What a proud moment!"): in 1762, Eurydice finally has her own air. Through the music of Christoph Willibald Gluck, the heroine was finally able to express the injustice of her fate. Once bitten by a snake, she had already been sent to the depths of Hell before returning yet again because her beloved Orpheus was incapable of respecting the rules for her freedom...

The composer to truly rewrite and overturn the myth of Orpheus was Jacques Offenbach: the impertinent and irreverent Offenbach who, in his operettas, took great amusement in depicting and highlighting the flaws and errors of the 19-century bourgeoisie, and the games of power and hypocrisy of the "greats" of his time. 

So as not to depict too explicitly his subjects, Offenbach often disguised his criticisms behind well-known tales of mythology. However, on the stage of the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, few cared of the scrupulous respects for the ancient texts. Thus, in Orphée aux Enfers, it is Eurydice that we hear last, with the final words: "Do you believe that I will pass my young days listening to your classical dreams?", remarks Eurydice coldly to her husband Orpheus. 


Prophetess accused of being crazy and condemned to never be believed.

The god Apollo has fallen in love with the beautiful Cassandra and offers to her, in an attempt to seduce her, the gift of divination. The princess, however, has the misfortune of refusing his advances and, out of vengeance, Apollo condemns her to never be believed. Though Cassandra is always right, capable of predicting the future, none pay attention to her words. Her prophetic trances are even considered proof of her madness. 

It is precisely this madness, these feverish and tormented episodes, that strongly influenced and inspired composers, notably Hector Berlioz, the quintessential romantic and a great literary spirit, who opens his grand opera Les Troyens (1863) with the air "Malheureux roi" by Cassandra.

Berlioz's musical creation is long: almost 4 and a half hours in total. For the opera's premiere in 1863 at the Théâtre-Lyrique in Paris, the first two acts were not performed and the prophetess Cassandra did not, therefore, appear on stage, much to the regret of Berlioz: "Ah, my noble Cassandra [...] I must then resign myself: I shall never hear you", wrote the composer in his Mémoires.

Was the curse cast by Apollo still in effect? The fate of Vittorio Gnecchi's Cassandra would lead one to think so… In 1905, Gnecchi performed the premiere of his grand opera Cassandra, a modern work resembling in many ways Elektra by Richard Strauss. And though Elektra was premiered four years later in 1909, Gnecchi was the one accused of plagiarism… An absurd and anachronic accusation. 


Sorceress abandoned by her lover Jason who kills their two children out of vengeance.

Here is a character that has long sparked debate and leaves nobody indifferent. Medea, a powerful sorceress in love with the hero Jason, flees with her beloved to a kingdom that is not her own. When Jason eventually falls in love with another and rejects his wife, Medea decides to exact revenge by killing both their children.

Medea is the perfect character for a tragedy. In antiquity, she inspired Euripides and Seneca, and later in the 17th century, whilst Pierre Corneille triumphed with his great classical tragedies, his brother Thomas drew inspiration from the myth of Medea. He produced an operatic libretto, a tragedy put to music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier in 1693.

"Flight, exile, death, even, all is sweet with those that we love", writes Thomas Corneille through his sorceress Medea. The librettist created a complex and tortured character, torn between her love for Jason, their two children, and her desire for revenge. And yet, it is not Medea's torment or cruel thoughts that make her menacing or monstrous but rather her independence. To her confident Nérine who asks what Medea has left in the face of so many enemies, the sorceress replies: "Myself [...], and that is enough".

Medea may well be considered as the first "heroin", at the heart of the story's intrigue: a heroin but nonetheless vengeful and uncontrollable... "Medea is the first female tragedy, and it is a tragedy about femininity [...] a work that will carve a decisive space for the representation of women", explained the professor and Greek mythology specialist Alain Moreau in 1994 in the French publication Revue de Belles-Lettres. 

An unflattering and Manichaean representation that women have progressively questioned. The rehabilitation of Medea began early, in the Middle Ages, instigated by the avant-garde feminist Christine de Pizan. In La Cité des Dames (1405), a work that describes an ideal and imaginary society, the name Medea is associated with intelligence. 

In 1940, Madeleine Milhaud wrote an opera libretto for her husband Darius. The text describes a tenderness by Medea, her hear in the face of her own thirst for vengeance. Almost 50 years later, the German writer Ursula Haas published Acquittement pour Médée, [Medea's Acquittal], a work in which she erases the character's troubling infanticide and turns Medea into a victim of rape, powerless against her aggressor. In 1992, the text was put to music by the composer Rolf Liebermann.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the opera Midea by Oscar Strasnoy with a libretto by Irina Possamai overthrew completely all conceptions of the myth. Medea is no longer the incarnation of a feminine duality, mother or lover, but rather the Western representation of the stranger: sorceress and pagan, associated with a primitive culture, cast out by her people and rejected by her new kingdom, as already described by Euripides in his tragedy: 

"Where am I to turn now? [...] This is how things stand: my own family at home now have cause to hate me, while, to please you, I have become hated by the very people who should have had kindness from me, not harm."

Medea rehabilitated, Eurydice capable of speech, and a new importance given to the prophetess Cassandra: this is but a start, new paths of composition and writing.