13 Operas Adapted From Famous Novels
We’re all accustomed to our favorite books being made into movies. From 2015 Oscar nominees like Carol and Room to Sherlock Holmes and Dracula adaptations dating back more than a century, filmmakers have been bringing books to screen since the dawn of cinema. But you might not know that opera composers also love a good novel adaptation.
While centuries-old classics by the likes of Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi continue to be performed, 20th and 21st century composers have created their own operas, frequently drawing inspiration from modern novels rather than the fairy tales, Ancient Greek myths, and classic dramas that were once traditional opera fodder. There’s something fascinating and a bit surreal about seeing a familiar book set to music, its story sung in the distinct style of opera. From beloved classics to contemporary bestsellers, here are 13 famous novels that have been transformed into operas.
1. THE GREAT GATSBY
The classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of wealth and excess in the Jazz Age was adapted in 1999 by John Harbison and opened at the Metropolitan Opera to mixed reviews. Though the opera diverged from the novel in a few ways (for instance, changing the ending slightly), it hewed closely to the plot and tone of its source material, even using 1920’s style pop music interludes. The New York Times called it “too respectful of Fitzgerald for its own good.”
2. ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Unsuk Chin’s 2007 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland mimics the dreamlike qualities of the original novel. Simultaneously dark and whimsical, the opera (which can be viewed in full here) sets much of the original dialogue from the novel to music, including the famous riddles from the Mad Hatter’s tea party above.
3. THE GRAPES OF WRATH
John Steinbeck’s story of a depression era family’s migration to California in search of work and new hope is certainly epic in scope. And, according to The New York Times, its operatic adaptation, written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie in 2007, is similarly ambitious, telling the story of the Joad family in a musical style that takes its inspiration from American balladry and Hollywood musicals.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita makes for a strange, and strangely fitting, operatic tale. Like many classic operas, the novel tells a story of forbidden love. But the novel’s unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert isn’t the opera's average ill-fated lover, and his disturbing obsession with the 12-year-old object of his affections veers into pretty dark territory. Written by Rodion Shchedrin, who is also known for his adaptations of Russian novels like Anna Karenina and Dead Souls, the opera premiered in Stockholm in Swedish (because, according to the Associated Press, Hollywood had the rights for an adaptation in a major language) in 1994. It later played in Moscow, where it was nominated for Russia’s Golden Mask Award.
5. DEATH IN VENICE
Like Lolita, Thomas Mann’s 1912 book Death in Venice centers on an older man’s romantic obsession with a pre-teen—in this case, a young boy named Tadzio, who the main character sees, but never speaks to, on a trip to Venice. The opera, written by Benjamin Britten in 1973, solved the problem of having a primary character who does not speak by casting Tadzio as a silent dancer, rather than a singer. The opera was released as a movie, shot on location in Venice, in 1981.
6. LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS
Based on the 1994 novella Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this opera adaptation was composed by Peter Eötvös and premiered in 2008. Critics lauded Eötvös’s score but complained that the libretto by Kornel Hamvai almost completely erased the novella’s 18th century Latin American context. The opera can be heard in its entirety here.
7. THE LITTLE PRINCE
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s book about the adventures of a lost pilot and an other-worldly prince was adapted into an opera by Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright, and premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003. Then, in 2004, the BBC re-created the opera as a televised movie, which can be seen in full above.
Lorin Maazel’s opera of George Orwell’s dystopian novel premiered in 2005 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In the scene above, a crowd sings its hate for enemies of Oceania before a photo of Big Brother.
9. THE HANDMAID'S TALE
Based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, the opera adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was composed by Poul Ruders and premiered in 2000. Like 1984, the novel is set in a dystopian future ruled by a totalitarian regime.
10. THE SECRET GARDEN
Composed by Nolan Gasser with a libretto by Carey Harrison, The Secret Garden premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2013. It tells the story of the orphaned Mary Lennox and the sickly Colin Craven as they stumble upon adventure and friendship.
Using computer graphics and elaborate staging to tell its story, Jake Heggie’s adaptation of Moby-Dick was designed to make Melville’s famously dense novel more accessible to audiences. The opera premiered at the Dallas Opera in 2010, and followed the same overarching plot as the original novel, though it streamlined Melville's lengthy story and changed Ishmael’s name to Greenhorn.
12. DOLORES CLAIBORNE
Based on the 1992 thriller by Stephen King, composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchey’s Dolores Claiborne tells the tale of an elderly servant accused of the murder of her wealthy socialite employer in a small Maine town. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2013, Dolores Claiborne was the first opera adaptation of a Stephen King novel ever performed. However, there's at least one more Stephen King opera on the horizon: An adaptation of The Shining will be premiering at the Minnesota Opera this May.
13. SHALIMAR THE CLOWN
A story of romance, betrayal, and revenge, Rushdie’s 2005 novel Shalimar The Clown seems like it’s practically begging to be made into an opera. A lyrical novel about a Kashmiri village of acrobats, actors, singers, and dancers, and the external forces that begin to threaten their way of life, the novel has both the heightened emotions and love of elaborate performance that characterize many great operas. It also addresses the ways new media like television and movies threaten traditional performance arts—an issue that has, of course, plagued opera in recent decades. Set to premiere this June at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, Shalimar The Clown was composed by Jack Perla and written by Rajiv Joseph with Rushdie’s blessing. Perla's score blends European opera techniques with the tabla drums and sitar of Kashmir’s traditional music, and promises to be an interesting blend of two musical and performative traditions.