Opera is understood broadly as a staged, sung drama with instrumental music. The genre is traditionally said to have emerged at the turn of the seventeenth century from the attempts of a group of humanists, gathered under the patronage of Giovanni de’ Bardi in Florence and now known as the Florentine Camerata, to recreate the style of ancient Greek drama at court. The earliest known works deemed representative of the genre emerged from that circle: Dafne (1597), with libretto by Jacopo Peri and music by Ottavio Rinuccini (now lost), and Euridice (1600), with libretto by Peri and music by Giulio Caccini. The humanists’ interest in mythology and antiquity is apparent in their subject matter, and opera has remained largely secular in subject matter, venue, patronage, and function.

Nevertheless, a longer, broader view of its origin story acknowledges that the genre gathered impetus and influence from all manner of stage works that featured music in song, dance, and instruments, including medieval religious genres such as liturgical drama and the rappresentazione sacra. Among the oldest material in the DNA of any Western theatrical form that includes music is the liturgical drama, whose origins lay in the Quem Queritis (whom do you seek) dialogue tropes from the introit of Easter Mass, dating from the tenth century. Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum from the twelfth century represents an extraordinary leap forward in the genre and is believed to be the first morality play of its kind by at least a century. As the genus “morality play” implies, these pieces are not necessarily scriptural, although they are religious and didactic. Ordo virtutum appears to have drawn on the performers available in her Rupertsberg convent, as it contains 17 female solo parts and one male: 16 personified virtues and the devil do battle for one human soul, Anima, in 82 melodies, most of which are plainchant. That it was meant for performance and not just for meditation is supported by rubrics in the text, which could be construed as performance instructions for the singers, and Hildegard’s detailed descriptions of costumes (Dronke, 1994, p. 154). The devil does not sing but only speaks, as he is unable to produce divine harmony (Davidson, 1992 p. 12). Some six centuries later Carl Maria von Weber would characterize his personification of the devil, Samiel, in the same way in his German Romantic opera Der Freischütz (1821), but by the twentieth century these markers could be inverted. In Arnold Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron (begun 1926; unfinished at his death in 1951 but since performed in a truncated version), the character closest to God (Moses) communicates in speech only, while Aron’s beautiful tenor singing voice is a marker of his sensuous worldliness. Rappresentazioni sacre were grand spectacles with music, based on biblical or hagiographical stories and organized by the confraternities in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—also, not coincidentally perhaps, cultivated primarily in Florence. The most famous of these is Rappresentatione di Anima, et di Corpo (Rome, 1600) by the Florentine composer Emilio de’ Cavalieri on an Italian libretto by Agostino Manni, in which Body and Soul debate other allegorical figures and angels. Siglind Bruhn (2003, p. 3) claims that “a straight line of development links the most significant manifestations” of Christian allegory from Hildegard and Cavalieri to some twentieth-century opera, specifically Bohuslav Martinů’s The Greek Passion (1959) and Sándor Szokolay’s Ecce Homo (1984), both derived from Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel Christ Recrucified.

Even once the unstaged oratorio had essentially replaced staged religious drama with music, at least outside of school settings, some patrons continued to cultivate drama for private liturgical use. The sepolcro, for example, was a sacred dramatic work with an Italian libretto written for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, performed at the Habsburg court chapels in Vienna between the 1660s and 1705. As the title and occasion suggest, the theme was always either the Passion or a story from the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) thought to auger that event. The sepolcro was staged with costumes, action, and scenery, the sepulcher being its most characteristic feature. And quite apart from liturgy, there have been historical moments during which sacred—if not necessarily biblical—opera flourished in which its generic identity was never in doubt, most notably in seventeenth-century Rome, late-seventeenth-century Hamburg, and seventeenth- and nineteenth-century Paris, under the auspices of the Jesuit seminary and the Paris Opéra, respectively.


The Bible has been more closely associated with the genre of the oratorio, a near relative of the opera. It tends to emphasize the role of the chorus but is otherwise virtually indistinguishable from its operatic contemporaries in any given period where musical form and style are concerned; the main difference is that oratorios are unstaged in performance (although of course history does offer instances of staged oratorio as well as unstaged opera, so that the relationship between the two genres, particularly in religious contexts, is a symbiotic and murky one). The roots of the sacred oratorio have traditionally been traced to Filippo Neri (1515–1595) and the Congregazione dell’Oratorio in Rome, although recent research suggests that it emerged from “the pan-Italian tendency towards greater emphasis on the dramatic element in sacred music” (Smither, 2004). Nevertheless, it clearly flourished under Neri, who began hosting informal prayer meetings with music in the 1550s, which eventually grew so large that they required their own space: an oratory (from the Latin oratio for “prayer”), or prayer hall. By the 1660s oratorios could be heard not only in oratories throughout Italy but also in noble palaces, where they acted as substitutes for opera, particularly when the theaters were dark during Lent. The development of oratorio is inevitably linked to simultaneous developments in opera. Italian opera ruled the European stage into the eighteenth century, but as Londoners began to lose interest in the 1730s, the ever-savvy businessman George Frideric Handel switched to composing English-language oratorios instead. His Esther (1732) was the first in English, followed by Deborah (1733), Athalia (1733), Saul (1738), Israel in Egypt (1738), Messiah (1741), Samson (1743), Joseph and His Brethren (1743), Judas Maccabaeus (1746), Joshua (1747), Susanna (1748), Solomon (1748), and Jephtha (1751), all meant for unstaged concert, rather than liturgical, performance. As expected, the music is quite similar to that of his operas, although the role of the chorus is much more prominent in the oratorios. Messiah, far and away the most frequently performed, is atypical of Handelian oratorio in that it is more a meditation on Christ than a plot-driven narrative.

Biblical Subjects in Opera.

Religious communities naturally seized upon the most important event in the Christian liturgical calendar for musical dramatization, but opera librettists have drawn little from the New Testament. And with only a handful of exceptions (e.g., Johann Theile’s Die Geburth Christi of 1681, Franco Vittadini and Giuseppe Adami’s Nazareth of 1925), librettists and composers have declined to stage an operatic Christ. From the New Testament it is not the Holy Family that has gripped the operatic imagination but rather its antithesis: the dysfunctional unit of Herod, Herodias, and her daughter, who is nameless in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark but generally identified as Salome. Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905), based on Oscar Wilde’s play, is surely the most canonical of the Bible-themed operas. Otherwise, most operatic treatments have been based on stories from the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament). Robert Anderson’s “Bible” entry in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists operas whose plots are derived from the books of Genesis (Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Joseph), Exodus (Moses), Judges (Jephtha, Samson and Delilah, Deborah), Samuel and Kings (Saul, David, Jonathan, Solomon), Ezekiel (Nebuchadnezzar), Esther, Ruth, and Job. Judith, from the eponymous deuterocanonical book (considered apocryphal by Protestants, as is chapter 13 of the book of Daniel, which provided the basis for Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah in 1955), has been a perennial favorite in opera just as it has been in painting: a widow saves the Israelites by stealing into the enemy camp, seducing and then assassinating their leader Holofernes, and returning to Bethulia with his head as a trophy. A Freudian analyst would make much of opera’s fascination with biblical women whose reputations are based on male decapitation. The attraction of the story of Judith and Holofernes is obvious: it puts onstage a complicated heroine who is courageous and pious but also sexual, cunning, and ruthless. The librettist, composer, director, and singer determine which aspects of her character to emphasize and which to downplay. Judith was a popular and problematic subject in oratorios as well, for all the same reasons. Vastly different approaches to the title character are evident in Stefanie Tcharos’s study of two Guiditta oratorios produced under the cardinal-patron Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni in the 1690s, both with music by Alessandro Scarlatti but based on very different librettos. The text of La Giuditta (Naples) was written by the cardinal himself and “captures a strong, forceful Judith, who displays masculine and martial qualities,” whereas the text of La Giuditta (Cambridge) was written by his father Antonio Ottoboni and “tends to highlight the sly, coy Judith, who uses her feminine talent to fool a lust-stricken Holofernes” (Tcharos, 2011, pp. 72–74).

Seventeenth Century.

Operas at French and Italian courts during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were often deployed as symbols of their patrons’ status. The most elaborate such use of opera was at the court of Louis XIV, where the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully devised a French opera genre spectacular enough to represent the wealth, power, and taste of the nation and its Sun King (tragédie en musique). Italian rulers occasionally found it politically useful to commission Bible-themed operas for similar purposes. When Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici of Tuscany died in 1621, his eldest son, Ferdinand, was only 10 years old; until he came of age the regency was shared by his mother, the widow Archduchess Maria Magdalena of Austria, and his paternal grandmother, Christina of Lorraine—an extraordinary period in which two women ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany for the House of Medici in Florence. In 1626 the devout Maria Magdalena marked a politically delicate visit from Cardinal Francesco Barberini, nephew of Pope Urban VIII, by commissioning an opera. Relations between Florence and Rome had been strained since the pope began annexing Urbino to the Papal States, and Maria Magdalena considered Urbino to be Tuscan. According to Kelley Harness, she “needed a subject that could allegorize the cardinal’s recent diplomatic success but also bolster her own political position, both in the eyes of the Barberini family and to her own subjects. She and her advisors chose the biblical heroine Judith, the beautiful and devout widow of Bethulia who saves her people from the Assyrian general Holofernes” (2006, p. 112). Marco da Gagliano’s score is lost, but Andrea Salvadori’s libretto weaves together the biblical Judith with Roman mythology to position Giuditta as a clear stand-in for Maria Magdalena herself. This heroine is “the most active as well as [the] most controversial female protagonist depicted during the period of the regency. Judith was also the most multivalent of the regency’s vehicles of self-fashioning, having acquired multiple moral and symbolic implications in the preceding centuries,” and Harness argues that the opera’s political symbolism is heavily informed by the tradition of Florentine art and literature that treated her as a subject (2006, p. 113). On one hand, she was “a vanquisher of tyrants and emblem of civic virtue”; on the other hand, she could be portrayed as highly sexualized, “conflated with Salome, Delilah, and other ‘dangerous’ biblical women” (Harness, 2006, p. 119). Salvadori’s libretto largely eschews the erotic but permits both “allegorical and heroic interpretations: this Judith is at once the militant church decapitating heresy, the spirit of Florence protecting its interests, and a strong and clever young widow capable of defeating a seemingly more powerful man” (Harness, 2006, p. 128). In other words, Maria Magdalena was united with Rome in her faith and in armed combat against all enemies of the church, but she let it be known through this commission that she was not about to cede Urbino, even to the papacy, without a fight.

Once opera became commercial entertainment with the opening of the first public opera house in Venice in 1637, civic authorities determined who and what appeared on a city’s stages, as well as when. Therefore, the relationship between civic authorities and the church in any given geopolitical historical context must be regarded as determinative, since justification for regulations was frequently rooted in interpretations of scripture. In fact, literal interpretations of Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy that women should remain silent in church bear more than passing responsibility for one of opera’s most distinctive features: the castrato. Choirboys had long been trained to sing the soprano parts in church music, but in the mid-sixteenth century the music became so complex that boys passed into puberty before they could master it, and the Vatican had officially forbidden women to participate. Castrati therefore began to sing the high parts. Even though the procedure was forbidden by canon law, the resulting voice was much prized, and castrati could be found in churches all over Italy and parts of Germany (the French abstained from the practice). Long after the tenor voice supplanted the castrato on the opera stage in the early nineteenth century, castrati could still be found in the papal choir; Alessandro Moreschi retired from his position there in 1913 and died in 1922. The voice was characterized by the range of a woman, the stentorian power of a man, and extraordinary agility achieved through the finest training available. Castrati were often employed at court and participated in the earliest opera performances, but they really came into their own once opera became a commercial enterprise. Composers such as G. F. Handel wrote heroic male lead roles for castrati. Whenever women were forbidden to appear onstage in the Papal States female roles could be played by castrati, but the crowning glory of much seventeenth- and eighteenth-century opera is the castrato as heroic male lead.

Venice and Rome.

It is surely no accident that the first public opera house opened in Venice or that it emerged in the first half of the seventeenth century. An independent republic rather than a Papal State, Venice was some considerable distance from Rome both in terms of geography and theology. Under the auspices of the Accademia della Incogniti, it cultivated a brand of commercial opera that embraced extravagant sensuality and amorality on the stage and in the audience. This repertoire took the Venetian public by storm at a time when the Republic was feuding with Pope Paul V, and the Jesuits, under interdiction, were exiled from the city (1606–1657). Not surprisingly, Bible stories did not figure prominently in this repertoire (Muir, 2006). The fate of public opera in Rome waxed and waned depending on which pope was in power, although operatic events in private theaters were naturally less subject to papal proscription. Prominent Roman families supported sacred, if not necessarily biblical, opera in the seventeenth century. Beginning with Stefano Landi’s Sant’ Alessio at the Barberini palace in 1632, “Roman opera was dominated by the patronage of the Barberini, the family of Pope Urban VIII, and by the librettos of Giulio Rospigliosi” (Dixon and Taruskin, 2004); at the end of the century Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni took over, establishing his residence, the Cancelleria, as a cultural, secularized “branch of the papal court” (Tcharos, 2011, p. 62). In all cases the Romans tended to favor stories of saints’ lives and religious conversion, including that of Queen Christina of Sweden (Marco Marazzoli’s La vita humana, 1656), over biblical plots. Public opera flourished briefly in Rome under Pope Clement IX (r. 1667–1669), formerly known as the librettist Rospigliosi, but receded into court life when the conservative bishop Benedetto Odescalchi became Innocent XI and closed Rome’s first public opera house, Teatro Tordinona; it would remain shuttered until 1696. In the meantime lavish private theaters such as those in the palace of Queen Christina cultivated various strands of the genre, including operas on spiritual subjects, so that by the time Roman opera was public again a wide variety could be heard (Tcharos, 2011, p. 22).

France: The Jesuits in Paris.

The Jesuit order was among the first to recognize the role that school dramas could play in pedagogy—teaching Latin and memorization skills—as well as religious propaganda, inculcating values of grace and morality in students while appealing to a broader audience, including Protestants. The order received papal sanction in 1540 and was temporarily suppressed in 1773; in the interim it developed a very high level of “ ‘morally conscious entertainment’ good enough for even the high-minded Protestants and Cardinals,” although evidence suggests that spectacle and stagecraft were the main attractions (Park, 2010, p. 39). Budgets were lavish, and “the three theaters of the Lycée Louise-le-Grand in seventeenth-century Paris were even said to be ‘better equipped than that of the Comédie-Française and almost on a par with the Paris Opéra’ ” (Park, 2010, p. 39). Perhaps its greatest flowering came in the works of the composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who thrived among the Jesuits in seventeenth-century Paris while Jean-Baptiste Lully, the king’s favorite, dominated musical life at court and in public. Charpentier’s sacred opera David et Jonathas, based on a libretto by François Bretonneau, was produced for the Jesuit college Louis-le-Grand in 1688. It was a five-part intermède, meaning the acts of the opera were interspersed between the acts of a spoken drama—in this case, Pierre Chamillart’s Saül. The first performance made sophisticated use of intertextuality, as the two pieces tell the same story from different viewpoints and using contradictory means: Saül was spoken in Latin, while David et Jonathas was sung in French and “marshals the resources of opera (airs, ensembles, choruses, symphonies and dances) to different ends” (Powell, 2004). John S. Powell describes it as “virtually devoid of action and recitative,” offering instead “a dramatically static but emotionally vivid series of psychological tableaux” of the principal characters. Charpentier’s opera was performed frequently in Jesuit schools until 1773. Its most recent revival occurred in 2012, when the stage director Andreas Homoki worked with William Christie and his Baroque opera ensemble Les Arts Florissants on a new production for the Aix-en-Provence festival. It was subsequently performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013 to great acclaim. After Jonathas dies in his arms and David is crowned king, the opera ends with David’s mournful cry: “I have lost all that I love; all is lost to me.” To twenty-first-century sensibilities, the sensual, emotional music and the powerfully intimate relationship between the two men suggests that “David and Jonathas are clearly in love, however chaste their relationship may be,” as the music critic Anthony Tommasini noted in his review for the New York Times on 18 April 2013. Like Orpheus, a favorite subject of secular opera, David is closely identified with music and thus a logical choice for operatic treatment. Carl Nielsen’s Saul og David (1901) downplays the friendship between the young men and focuses instead on the antagonism between Saul and David.


In German-speaking Protestant regions Martin Luther’s educational reforms had been highly influential, and rectors took seriously his declaration that theater had a moral, didactic place in schools. Luther prescribed comedies, tragedies, and pious works for students, and these often included music, so that educated citizens developed a taste for musicalized drama. McCredie’s study of Christian Weise’s tenure as rector of the Johanneum in Zittau (1673–1708) has shown that Weise programmed three works per season with the following sequence of themes: a biblical story, a political or historical story, and “a freer creation, often a comedy,” and these featured music (1997, p. 887). The biblical subjects included Jephtha (1679), the sacrifice of Isaac (1680), Jacob’s marriages (1681), David’s persecution (1682), Nebuchadnezzar (1684), King Solomon (1685), Absalom (1685), Job (1688), and Joseph (1689)—all from the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Of the titles McCredie examined, only one stars a woman: Queen Athalia (1687), the only woman in the Hebrew Bible who is described as having reigned as a monarch. Second Kings and 2 Chronicles both portray her in a bad light, charging her with idol worship and exerting a negative influence on her husband and son, so presumably the pedagogical lesson here was a cautionary one.

The first public opera house in Germany opened in predominantly Protestant Hamburg in 1678, and its musicological claim to fame is that this company was the first to cultivate opera in the German language. It prospered over the objections of local clergy and, in an effort to placate Pietist authorities, the company produced numerous biblical operas in its early seasons. These include treatments of the stories of Adam and Eve (Johann Theile, 1678), Esther (Nicolaus Adam Strungk, 1680), David and the Maccabees (Johann Wolfgang Franck, 1679), and Cain and Abel (Johann Philipp Förtsch, 1689), as well as the birth of Christ (Theile, 1681). The Hamburg repertoire is consistent with the general operatic preference for stories from the Hebrew Bible.

Eighteenth Century.

There had been discussion of establishing a sacred opera for the public in Paris since at least 1696. Nevertheless, the first biblical opera to be staged in a French public theater was Michel Pignolet de Montéclair’s Jephté, a five-act tragédie en musique with a libretto by the Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin, in 1732. It appeared at the Académie Royale de Musique (later known as the Paris Opéra) and was warmly welcomed to the stage, where its subject matter allowed the house to remain open during Lent. Le Cerf de la Viéville declared it to be the first true sacred opera produced in France since those in Jesuit schools excluded women from their casts, although there is ample evidence that that rule was not always observed in practice. Jean-Philippe Rameau was inspired by its success and promptly began a tragédie en musique on the subject of Samson in collaboration with Voltaire, but they abandoned the project once it became clear that a libretto by such a notorious anti-cleric was sure to encounter difficulty with the censors.

Nineteenth Century.

Research on opera and censorship in the nineteenth century shows that censors across Europe were concerned with three issues: political, moral, and religious offense. And although the latter often had more to do with protecting the authority of the church than with protecting the Bible, they are frequently intertwined. Andreas Giger’s (1999) research on Giuseppe Verdi’s experience with Roman censors has shown that the composer enjoyed a degree of lenience there, although the apparently inconsistent application of rules can be understood within the larger political context. Roberta Montemorra Marvin’s work on Verdi’s operas in Victorian London demonstrates that scriptural plots were consistently altered, although the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was frequently satisfied with cosmetic changes: “change of title, names of characters, and temporal or geographical settings might suffice, as in the case of Verdi’s Nabucco”; therefore it was staged in 1846 as Nino and in 1850 as Anato, with the plots essentially unchanged: “Hebrews became Babylonians, the action was moved to ancient Assyria and Nineveh rather than taking place in Old Testament Jerusalem and Babylon, and God became the Egyptian Isis” (2001, p. 591). Changes required to I masnadieri pertained to theological issues and blasphemy (the role of the priest, the repentance scene) and proved more difficult to resolve. Verdi had ample experience with censors in Italy as well, where standards and procedures varied wildly depending on whether one was trying to get an opera staged in the Austrian territories, the Papal States, the Kingdom of Naples, or the duchies of central Italy. “Religious offences—that is to say not simply subjects or expressions which were regarded as heretical or blasphemous, but those which in any way trespassed upon the authority of the Church, its clergy or its liturgy” were taken seriously, although political threats were considered the most egregious (Kimbell, 1981, p. 24). And when the slave chorus from Nabucco was adopted as an anthem of the Risorgimento (not at its premiere, as was long claimed, but decades later), it marked an instance in which the biblical and operatic became political.

Nineteenth-century Paris fostered opera on biblical subjects in the wake of a religious revival that had been underway since the late 1790s as a backlash against the extreme anti-clericalism of the Revolution. The revival was bolstered in July 1801 when Napoleon signed the Concordat, an agreement with Pope Pius VII that restored Catholicism’s status as the majority (but not official state) religion, brought the church under the control of the state, and affirmed that others, such as Calvinists, Lutherans, and Jews, the latter of whom were now formally emancipated, were free to practice their religions as well. Among the earliest biblical operas in this period was Étienne Méhul and Alexandre Duval’s Joseph en Egypte, staged at the Opéra-Comique theater in 1807. (The designation “comique” indicates that the repertoire uses spoken dialogue instead of sung recitative; it does not pertain to subject matter.) Méhul had enjoyed tremendous success as an opera composer during the Revolution and remained close to Napoleon. He and Duval called their piece a “drame mêlé de chants” (mixed drama of songs) in three acts. The story is derived from the book of Genesis, but instead of recounting Joseph’s coat of many colors or his brothers’ betrayal, the libretto focuses on Joseph’s role as chief minister to the pharaoh and ends with reconciliation to his family. Stephen C. Meyer sees this opera as capitalizing “both on an Egyptian craze, stimulated in part by Napoleon’s campaign there (1798–99)” and by the aforementioned religious revival (2003, p. 59). It may also reflect contemporaneous preoccupation with the Jewish Question, as this was the same year in which Napoleon convened his Sanhedrin to find out just how far French Jews were willing to go in assimilation (Azous, 2006, p. 45). Joseph en Egypte was quite successful and was quickly taken up by opera houses in Germany. The Egyptian-biblical theme is also found in Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon, ou le Passage de la Mer Rouge (1827). This is a French revision of the Mosè in Egitto Rossini had composed for Naples in 1822, with a new libretto by Luigi Balocchi and Etienne de Juoy. The Italian version was an “azione tragico-sacra” (tragic-sacred action), apparently designed as biblical drama that could be staged during Lent (it has since been described as an “opera-oratorio,” further evidence of the blurry demarcation between the genres). In each version the biblical epic frames a story of forbidden love between a young Jewish girl and the pharaoh’s son.

The practice of embedding a tragic romance within large-scale historical narratives, many of them concerning religion if not the Bible per se, became part of the quintessentially Parisian genre of the nineteenth century known as grand opera. It was cultivated at the Paris Opéra, known at this time as the Académie Royale de Musique. Grand opera spared no expense and was characterized by the careful creation of spectacular tableaux incorporating state-of-the-art stage machinery, lighting, and sets; elaborate costumes; a large ballet corps; and an enormous chorus, not to mention an orchestra of more than 80 players and leading roles for up to seven singers. Plots were usually historical and unfolded over five acts; among the most successful and subsequently iconic were those that told stories of religious conflict and advocated tolerance and foregrounded a romance to convey the message on a human scale. State supervision ensured that the Paris Opéra adhered to the law as well as every detail of its contract and was far more focused on the appropriate representation of the authority of the Catholic Church, its representatives, and its rituals than on the portrayal of biblical characters and stories. Eugène Scribe was the librettist most closely associated with grand opera, and he was publicly anti-clerical. Libretti were carefully scrutinized, even though Louis-Philippe I (r. 1830–1848) took a more liberal view of religion than had his predecessor Charles X. Between 1835 and 1906 “preventive censorship” was in place “that required the texts of libretti to be submitted for approval before a new work could take the stage” (Ertman, 2012, p. 38). Jane Fulcher has argued that the Commission of Surveillance that operated between 1831 and 1847 was crucial to instrumentalizing the Opéra as a “subtly used tool of the state” (1987, p. 2), although Sarah Hibberd (2011) cautions against privileging plot over music and staging in such matters. Nevertheless there is no doubt that the state played a role in determining what was onstage, and under Louis-Philippe I it was favorably disposed toward grand operas that featured sweeping dramas of historical religious conflict with a message of tolerance.

The most famous of these are Fromental Halévy and Scribe’s La Juive (The Jewess) from 1835, in which the ill-fated love between a Christian man and a Jewish woman is set against the backdrop of the Council of Constance’s execution of heretics, and Giacomo Meyerbeer and Scribe’s iconic Les Huguenots (1836), which situates the forbidden love between a Catholic and a Protestant in the events of the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre of 1572, in which Catholics killed thousands of Huguenots in Paris. Brooks and Everist (2003, pp. 125–126) have noted that “almost all nineteenth-century treatments of the Saint-Barthélemy rely on a common historiographical tradition, largely fixed by Mézeray in the seventeenth century and further refined by Voltaire in the eighteenth. This tradition was generally sympathetic to the Protestants and saw the conflict as essentially political rather than religious.” Meyerbeer’s work is musically unified by the Lutheran chorale “Ein feste Burg” as a recurring motif. This is a curious choice, as Lutheran hymns appeared in the Chants chrétiens for the first time in 1837, but “Ein feste Burg” was not among them. Meyerbeer’s deployment of this hymn as universal emblem of the Reformation appears to have had more to do with his Prussian roots and contemporaneous interest in the movement’s tricentenary then the historical facts of music in the Protestant Reformed Church of France. He and Scribe followed this formula again with Le prophète (1849), which is also situated in the religious wars of the sixteenth century, this time focused on the Anabaptists in Germany. It was an enormous success, thanks in no small part to a ballet performed on skates and a sunset scene lit by the first use of electricity on the Opéra’s stage. Le prophète’s popularity appears to have been the trigger for Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic tirade against Meyerbeer, in which he framed the Jewish problem as an ethnic, cultural, and therefore national dilemma rather than a religious one.

A conspicuous exception to grand opera’s preference for religious history was Daniel Auber and Scribe’s L’enfant prodigue of 1850. It is noteworthy not only because it marked a rare return to biblical themes, replete with scriptural quotations in the libretto, but because its story is derived from the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke—a rare operatic foray into the New Testament. Both Le prophète and L’enfant prodigue flourished during the short-lived Second Republic (1848–1852). In 1872 the Opéra-Comique had great success with an opera on the same topic as Les Huguenots that has since been forgotten: Le pré aux clercs (The Clerks’ Meadow), with music by Ferdinand Hérold and a libretto by François-Antoine-Eugène de Planard. Like Les Huguenots, Le pré aux clercs enjoyed more than 1,000 performances in short order, suggesting that the theme remained resonant with Parisian audiences 40 years later. In 1956 the French composer Francis Poulenc would take up a similarly dark period in French religious history when he composed Dialogues des carmélites to his own libretto. It is based on events in northern France during the French Revolution, when the state seized church assets and the nuns of the Carmelite Order were guillotined. It features settings of Latin texts central to Catholicism, including the Ave Maria, Salve Regina, Veni Creator Spiritus—again, a story about religious conflict but not explicitly scriptural.


One French biblical work that has remained more or less in the canon for over a century is Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila (1876), a grand opera in three acts and four scenes with libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire based on Judges 16 from the Old Testament. It was apparently inspired by the abandoned Voltaire-Rameau project mentioned previously. French theaters were not interested, so Franz Liszt arranged its premiere in Weimar instead, and the opera eventually made its way back to France in the early 1890s. Saint-Saëns’s piece does not focus on Samson’s mighty deeds but showcases Dalila as femme fatale instead, and the love scene in her tent in Act II is a perennial favorite. This is entirely consistent with the times, as the fin-de-siècle saw another biblical femme fatale take France and then Germany by storm: Oscar Wilde published his play Salomé in the original French in 1893, and it was staged in Paris in 1896. The composer Richard Strauss saw the play in a German translation by Hedwig Lachmann, and his operatic treatment thereof was premiered in Dresden in 1905. As others had done before him, Strauss made much of the dance mentioned in the New Testament. Audiences were initially shocked by the music and titillated by the Dance of the Seven Veils, but today’s viewers are more likely to be disturbed by the necrophilia and murder of the opera’s closing moments. Salome sings a love song to the severed head of John the Baptist and kisses it; her stepfather, repulsed by the scene, orders the guards to kill her, and she is crushed beneath their shields. The curtain falls abruptly.

Twentieth Century.

Of the handful of biblical operas in the twentieth century (e.g., Luigi Dallapiccola’s Job, based on his own libretto in 1950; Ralph Vaughan William’s Pilgrim’s Progress of 1951, which is based on Bunyan and includes scriptural interpolations), Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron is perhaps the best known. Schoenberg was born a Jew in Vienna, converted to Protestantism as a young adult, and then reclaimed his Jewish faith in 1933 when he was escaping Nazi Germany en route to the United States. He developed the libretto in 1930, from two other works he had been writing in the 1920s, and composed the music for Acts I and II between 1930 and 1932. The music for Act III remained unfinished at his death in 1951, but the opera has been produced nonetheless. It is known that Schoenberg identified with the figure of Moses, and his biography as well as his difficult aesthetic have drawn the intrepid to this opera. It contains many effective dramatic features. The Voice from the Burning Bush is sounded by a six-part speaking chorus; Moses is ineloquent, and so his role is speaking only, while his mouthpiece, Aron, sings in a stentorian tenor voice. The debauched carnivalesque scene of the Dance around the Golden Calf is the most tuneful, accessible part of the opera. There is intractable tension between the chosen genre and the work’s agenda. Schoenberg chose opera—a genre defined by spectacle, melody, and beautiful singing—as the vehicle for spiritual condemnation of earthly spectacle, the deceptiveness of easy tunefulness, the siren song of beautiful singing, and idolatry. One understands that siding with God’s prophet Moses is the right choice, but it is difficult to side with a character that does not sing or participate in the spectacle within the context of a genre defined by those very traits. The most significant spiritual opera of the twentieth century is surely Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise: scenes franciscaines (1975–1983). Messiaen is the only devout Catholic among the leading composers of the twentieth century, and this is his only opera. Its enormous scale (150-voice chorus, 120 orchestra players) undergirds a nonnarrative series of scenes, often both static and ecstatic in nature, each dedicated to an event in the saint’s faith journey and culminating in an overwhelmingly loud scene of resurrection. The score is replete with Messiaen’s trademark birdcalls, perhaps the most apt use of such material in his entire oeuvre.




  • Anderson, Robert. “Bible.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove Music Online, 2004. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O009010. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera is the standard resource for opera research and is widely available in university libraries.
  • Azous, Paul. In the Plains of the Wilderness. Jerusalem: Mazo, 2006. Succinct summary of Napoleon’s dealing with French Jews on pages 42–50.
  • Brooks, Jeanice, and Mark Everist. “Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots: Staging the History of the French Renaissance.” In The Renaissance in the Nineteenth Century = Le XIXe siècle renaissant, edited by Yannick Portebois and Nicholas Terpstra, pp. 121–142. Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2003. The most detailed study of Meyerbeer’s use of the historical Reformation and Luther’s hymn in his landmark opera.
  • Bruhn, Siglind. Saints in the Limelight: Representations of the Religious Quest on the Post-1945 Operatic Stage. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Pendragon, 2003. A survey of relevant stage works, including operatic hagiography.
  • Davidson, Audrey Ekdahl. “Music and Performance: Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum.” In The Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard of Bingen: Critical Studies, edited by Audrey Ekdahl Davidson, pp. 1–29. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1992. Musical analysis and practical considerations for performance.
  • Dixon, Graham, and Richard Taruskin. “Sacred Opera.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove Music Online, 2004. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O007307.
  • Dronke, Peter, trans. and ed. Nine Medieval Latin Plays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Includes a translation of Hildegard von Bingen’s play by a leading medievalist. Dronke was the philological advisor for the 1990 Sequentia recording of Ordo Virtutum released on deutsche harmonia mundi.
  • Ertman, Thomas. “Opera, the State and Society.” In The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies, edited by Nicholas Till, pp. 25–52. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Insightful assessment of the role of the state and censorship in opera over time.
  • Fulcher, Jane. The Nation’s Image: French Grand Opera as Politics and Politicized Art. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987. A landmark in the literature on French opera; an early example of operatic cultural history.
  • Giger, Andreas. “Social Control and the Censorship of Giuseppe Verdi’s Operas in Rome (1844–1859).” Cambridge Opera Journal 11, no. 3 (1999): 233–266. Extremely thorough social and cultural history of Roman censorship as applied to Verdi.
  • Harness, Kelley Ann. Echoes of Women’s Voices: Music, Art, and Female Patronage in Early Modern Florence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. A textured, nuanced history of female patronage in Florence and the political symbolism attached to these women’s choices.
  • Hibberd, Sarah. French Grand Opera and the Historical Imagination. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011. A successor to Fulcher in terms of the cultural history of nineteenth-century French opera.
  • Kimbell, David R. B. Verdi in the Age of Italian Romanticism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Despite its age, this book remains a go-to source on its subject.
  • Marvin, Roberta Montemorra. “The Censorship of Verdi’s Operas in Victorian London.” Music & Letters 82, no. 4 (2001): 582–610. Verdi expert explores the reasons for and responses to censorship in nineteenth-century London.
  • McCredie, Andrew D. “Theatre-Song and Scenographic Music for the Schuldrama of Christian Weise (1642–1708) at Zittau: The Importance of the Biblically Based Dramas.” In Festschrift Christoph-Hellmut Mahling zum 65. Geburtstag, edited by Axel Beer, Kristina Pfarr, and Wolfgang Ruf, pp. 883–908. Tutzing, Germany: Hans Schneider, 1997. This source is difficult to locate. It is a valuable Protestant counterbalance to all the literature about Jesuit uses of theater.
  • Meyer, Stephen C. Carl Maria von Weber and the Search for a German Opera. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Definitive source on Weber’s operas; also insightful observations regarding French opera in Germany.
  • Muir, Edward. “Why Venice? Venetian Society and the Success of Early Opera.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36, no. 3 (2006): 331–353. A succinct cultural history of early opera in Venice and why it thrived there.
  • Park, Joohee. “Not Just a University Theatre: The Significance of Jesuit School Drama in Continental Europe, 1540–1773.” In Catholic Theatre and Drama: Critical Essays, edited by Kevin J. Wetmore Jr., pp. 29–44. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2010. Excellent summary of the cultural role of Jesuit school dramas that links its aesthetic to contemporaneous opera through shared patrons, composers, and librettists.
  • Powell, John S. “David et Jonathas.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove Music Online, 2004. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O007947.
  • Smither, Howard E. “Oratorio.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove Music Online, 2004. www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/20397.
  • Tcharos, Stefanie Stella. Opera’s Orbit: Musical Drama and the Influence of Opera in Arcadian Rome. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Opera and its entanglements with various musical and theatrical tributaries in Rome during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
  • Tommasini, Anthony. “The Love that Dares to Sing.” New York Times, 18 April 2013.

Further Reading

  • Freitas, Roger. Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage, and Music in the Life of Atto Melani. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009. One of two recent studies on the castrato phenomenon.
  • Howard, Patricia. The Modern Castrato: Gaetano Guadagni and the Coming of a New Operatic Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. One of two recent studies on the castrato phenomenon.

Joy H. Calico