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Ending It All In Massenet's 'Werther'

Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann as the star-crossed lovers in <em>Werther</em>.
Michael Pöhn
Wiener Staatsoper
Sophie Koch and Jonas Kaufmann as the star-crossed lovers in Werther.

Type the words "music and suicide" into an internet search engine and you'll quickly find any number of theories about the types of music most likely to encourage suicidal tendencies — ranging from country to heavy metal to opera — with the music at times accused of romanticizing suicide.

It may be heavy metal that's most frequently cited as a musical inspiration to end it all. Fans of the genre have even come up with lists of the "best heavy metal suicide songs" — which include tunes such as "Don't Close Your Eyes" by Kix, "Fade to Black" by Metallica and Megadeth's "A Tout le Monde." Yet most of those songs hardly make the prospect of ending one's life seem attractive. Instead, they dwell on the dire emotions that lead to the act — feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and desperation — and the songs hardly seem steeped in romance.

In opera, suicidal characters express those same emotions, but they most often arise from a single, root cause: love. Lost love, unfulfilled love, forbidden love. So while many kinds of music have been said to portray suicide as a romantic act, it may be opera in which that tendency is most pronounced — and there are few better examples than Jules Massenet's Werther.

The opera is based on a 1774 novel by Goethe that was inspired by an actual event: the suicide of a young man who was in love with a married woman. The novel, called The Sorrows of Young Werther, was an early influence on the Romantic literary movement, and its wide popularity made Goethe an international celebrity.

Massenet composed his operatic version of the story in 1887. He hoped it would be premiered by the Opera Comique in Paris, but the company was looking for something more cheerful, so the opera was shelved until its premiere finally took place in 1892 in Vienna, where it was an immediate hit.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Massenet's Werther from that same city, in a production by Vienna State Opera. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann gives a brilliant and moving performance in the title role, with mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as Charlotte.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.