On Suicide in Opera
Time is often the unspoken main character in opera. The drama of “Don Giovanni” stems from the plot unfolding in just one day. Orpheus’s tragic downfall is being unable to avoid gazing at Eurydice until they’ve left the underworld. And the plot of “Der Fliegende Holländer” is cut short if Daland doesn’t seek shelter from a storm on the same day that the Dutchman’s ghost ship is granted its once-every-seven-years shore leave.
Seven years is also the amount of time it takes to declare a person dead in absentia. I know this because it’s exactly what happened with my father after he took his life in September of 1992. September was also originally the seventh month in the Roman calendar.
I was seven when my father left his 1985 Chevy pickup at the Wonderland MBTA station in Boston, along with a note stating that he was entering the Atlantic Ocean with the intent of ending his life. Where his body wound up remains uncertain nearly 25 years later. I learned all of this shortly before my 14th birthday, when a copy of his suicide note was sent to me. It ended with the line “Maybe now the hurt will stop and I can rest.”
At the time my mother feigned ignorance about my father’s death, perhaps in an effort to spare me. It was never discussed beyond logistical purposes. Yet while the topic was settled, my mind was anything but. Like the Dutchman, it seemed fated to forever sail in search of an unknowable truth.
Seeing “Der Fliegende Holländer” live for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this spring, I found myself in the midst of an emotional breakdown. The overture is an archer’s release of potential energy, with the Dutchman’s ghostly theme bolting from the bow. It stands in for the whole of Wagner’s composition, beginning with the tumultuous pitches of a restless sea and ending in a gleaming theme of redemption. The leitmotifs that Wagner would come to be known as the father of with the “Ring” are nascent here, and with each repetition of these trademark themes my emotional synapses were firing with unexpected pining and grief.
Suicide clouded Wagner’s biography in a similar way. The composer was 41—the same age as my father in 1992—when he wrote to Franz Liszt: “Not a year of my life has passed recently without my finding myself at least once on the very brink of a decision to end my life… I no longer have any faith, and only one hope remains: to sleep, to sleep, so deeply, so deeply—that all sensation of life’s anguish fades.”
Wagner would soon begin writing to Cosima Liszt—his future wife and Franz’s daughter—in the same tone. In fact, part of the attraction that the pair initially felt towards one another came from their mutual symptoms of depression and suicidality (during her first marriage, Cosima entered into a suicide pact with Wagner’s friend Karl Ritter). And while “Der Fliegende Holländer” is one of Wagner’s earliest works, soon to be superseded by such titanic opuses as “Tristan und Isolde” and the “Ring Cycle,” its melancholy title character never seemed to be far from the composer’s thoughts. “How happy I should be to die in a storm at sea,” he wrote to Liszt in 1853, 10 years after the work’s premiere.
What is it about this call-and-response of mental illness and opera? Google “opera and depression” and you’re greeted with 6.8 million results, a number that almost doubles when you search for “opera and suicide.” The top result is a 2013 study in the Medical Journal of Australia titled “Four centuries of suicide in opera,” which reveals 112 suicides or suicide attempts in 337 works written between 1607 and 2006, a rate of 33 percent.
The four authors of the study go beyond the data to suggest that opera’s depiction of suicide onstage may have impact in the real world offstage. “It may be too adventurous to suggest that the portrayal of suicide in opera will directly contribute to self-harming behaviour of members of the community on a large scale,” they write, “Nevertheless, it is staggering to contemplate that a full third of operas written over a period of 400 years have featured completed suicide, non-fatal suicidal acts or suicidal thoughts. Might not these depictions affect the behaviour of a vulnerable member of the audience or a brittle person who can nowadays view opera in DVD and other formats?” In either case, they conclude that “the representation of suicide in opera is too prominent to be ignored.”
The recent Netflix-produced series “13 Reasons Why” has prompted similar debate, with critics of the show arguing that its detailed and romanticized depiction of the main character’s suicide is likely to be a tipping point with vulnerable audiences. In 1974, American sociologist Dave Phillips termed this form of imitation the “Werther Effect,” a reference to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which resulted in a spate of suicides over a period of 50 years. “God keep me from ever again finding myself in the situation of writing a Werther,” Goethe remarked in 1779.
Just over a century later, Goethe’s work inspired an opera, Massenet’s “Werther.”
Of the Werther Effect, Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, tells me that the social instincts we have on a primal level mean that any work can be viewed as a mixture between the prevention and elevation of suicide risk. “Human beings are social creatures by nature, even on a primal, biological level,” she explains, though adds that one of the AFSP’s areas of survivor-focused work is “promoting a connection to others who have had a loss: a series of other things can happen when that connection is made.” Perhaps here’s where the communal aspect of the opera house or concert hall can have an upper hand over a solo Netflix binge.
Shortly after learning about my father, I noticed myself having stronger responses to the suicides I saw in operas and in theater. I could feel my heartbeat quicken as Olivia Hussey stabbed herself at the end of Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” in my high school English class. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up during Othello’s final moments.
Your run-of-the-mill operatic deaths from consumption had their intended effects as well, but they were a 3 on the Richter Scale compared to the 8.5 finale of “Lucia di Lammermoor” or “Madama Butterfly”’s hara-kiri.
Was I, I wondered, falling victim to my own tipping point? My own Werther Effect? Would the hereditary mental illness on my father’s side of the family be my own undoing, as unavoidable as the fates of the gods in “Götterdämmerung”?
It wasn’t until I was 21 that I saw my first therapist and received my first prescriptions for what was diagnosed as a double-bill of generalized anxiety disorder and clinical depression. In the ensuing years, I felt myself outracing the issues that had plagued my father. I met the man who would, seven years ago, become my husband. I bettered myself through countless combinations of SSRIs and SSNRIs, as I meditated and journaled and ate well and exercised and established a pattern of normalcy in my life.
As much as we hope that, for once, Werther can survive the end of his own opera—emerging on the other side with a prescription for Zoloft, the name of a good shrink, and a Tinder account—no opera character can outrun their fate. More than anything else, I came to realize this while in a red velvet seat at the Met (a house that had been the real-life setting for the death of Bantcho Bantchevsky in 1988, believed by many to be self-inflicted).
From this seat during “Der Fliegende Holländer,” I could clearly see my father in Senta’s refusal to work at her spinning wheel with the other women. I can see his interior world ring out with Senta’s ballad, a ballad that shines in dark contrast to the simple female chorus that precedes it. I can see in him what Wagner described as the “primeval trait of man’s essential nature…the longing for peace from life’s storms.”
I can also see myself in Senta and her white-hot hope of being the one to rescue the Dutchman from himself. How many times had I thought I could have saved my father if I had known then at seven what I now know at 31.
Poke around on YouTube and you’ll find countless stagings of the “Holländer” finale, in which Senta flings herself from the fjord into the sea and is then seen ascending to heaven with the Dutchman, finally free from his curse. The one that strikes me most, however, is last year’s webcast from Madrid’s Teatro Real. Director Alex Ollé transposes the work to what he terms “an industrial surrealism desert” that begs the question, “Can life be of such little value that when death stands besides him, that option doesn’t seem like such a bad idea?
“Der Fliegende Holländer”’s boat, haunting, is the space where the memory of a legend lives, a presence that, while the opera advances, will suffer a process of scrapping,” Ollé has written. “In this version the circularity of time breaks and the main characters live a hell with no end.”
Key in this rereading is that Senta, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t actually die. When she pledges her undying loyalty, the waves rise and churn for the first time, restoring a natural balance to a place poised on the precipice of hell. Our hero sinks into the water while she works some sort of paint over her skin that resembles both the Dutchman’s own makeup and a lighter version of Dead Sea mud. In a way, she and the Dutchman have enmeshed with one another, two outsiders finding the reflection of themselves and experiencing a genuine connection. Senta has an upper hand, however, a level of agency that seemingly spares her from the Dutchman’s same fate, demystifying the romanticism of redemption through suicide without negating the validity of her love.
Reading Ollé’s notes after watching the webcast, I feel the familiar tingles and shortness of breath. My shoulders hunch up at the onset of convulsions. It swells in dissonance like the haunting chorus of the Dutchman’s crew. And then, like a passing wave, I’m left standing again as the emotions and trauma subside into nothingness.
Sound enters the brain through the temporal lobe, via cranial nerves that begin in the ear and connect to the auditory cortex. The brain receives the sound waves and processes them into something meaningful. Where sound strikes us emotionally, however, is in the limbic system—our receptacle of memory, emotion, and behavior.
“We have very deep inbred responses to music. That’s just the nature of the beast,” says Wendy Young, who has spent the last 20 years on the music faculty at Princeton University and is currently working on a curriculum for the school’s first undergraduate class on the effects of sound and music on emotions and the physical body.
Young adds that our experience of music can go beyond having a cathartic experience. “You can actively do ‘work,’ ” she explains when I ask her about the therapy-on-steroids experience I have during Wagner. “You can talk specifically to your father. When you’re in the context of listening to the music, you can do that, and you can hear his voice speaking back to you. And here’s the beauty of it: your brain doesn’t know the difference between really talking to your father and pretending to talk to your father.”
Moreover, the music acts as a containing environment, a safe space with a predetermined end. Young describes this as a waking dream. “When you let yourself really move into it, the music can hold you in such a way that you can really allow for deep work to be done that can have a lasting effect.”
Young notes that the difference between traditional music therapy (in this case, a subset known as Guided Imagery and Music) and my informal encounter with it is that I’m working with both words and music. The emotional intent of opera is coded into both media with a plot and structure that, in Young’s explanation, creates something more of a pre-made painting for me to be in versus a blank canvas for me to both paint and inhabit.
For now, I may be better off letting someone else do that painting. In speaking about the grieving process following the suicide of a loved one (even 25 years after the fact), Dr. Moutier brings up the burgeoning field of study around Complicated Grief. It’s estimated that 20 to 30 percent of suicide loss survivors experience this syndrome, which makes grief a much less fluid process that becomes halted in the inability to accept the loss.
“We don’t think of suicide loss as something you ‘get over,’ but rather something you continue to heal and grow from and have movement with over a number of years,” explains Dr. Moutier. “It’s not to say that grief is normally a smooth or comfortable process, but there’s normally a movement that is impeded in Complicated Grief.”
In turn, the dramatic element of opera may be as useful as the musical element—at least according to my experience, a sample size of one. The plot and libretto provide a framework that is something akin to drama therapy. The story merges the feeling tone with the intent of the composer and librettist, and in viewing one opera that so thoroughly blends with my own experience of loss, I’m suddenly witnessing my own father’s story. Unlike real life, there’s also a beginning, a middle, and an end. Closure.
The 19th century still problematically saw suicide as a form of insanity. The French psychiatrist Claude-Étienne Bourdin stated in 1845 (the year in which Wagner premiered “Tannhaüser” and began work on “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”) that suicide “is always an act of mental alienation.” The solution, it would then seem, is to connect. Both connecting with one another and connecting with what scares us the most—as Georges Minois puts it, “an imagined fate we all know will ineluctably be ours.”
And perhaps that’s where opera really comes in. As an art of radical change, it also embodies what Gestalt therapists call the Paradoxical Theory of Change: True change occurs when we become who we are versus what we are trying to be. As radically changed as I feel after “Der Fliegende Holländer,” what I am really experiencing through opera is simply what I am, who my father was, and how our relationship is.
It’s amazing how revolutionary reality can be. ¶