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Exit arias: What opera can teach us about dying
The final scene of “La Bohème” during a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Oct. 20, 2019. In opera, death is an art — one that might light the way to a more mindful conversation about the end of life. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Two years ago, I heard mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sing the great final lament from Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” in Hamburg, Germany. Its text consists of just two sentences: “When I am laid in earth, let my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.”

Purcell sets the words over a solemn, steady bass, the vocal line searching at first. On “Remember me,” the music grows confident and impassioned, only to buckle on the “ah,” the melody wavering in a melismatic sigh. DiDonato vividly rendered this mixture of resolve and dread — her posture upright and still, except for brief moments when she swayed like someone gripped by vertigo.

The aria still echoed in my bones the following day, when I visited my father in his nursing home just outside the city. For years he has been largely confined to his bed in an advanced state of dementia, unable to walk or express himself with words or gestures. As I sat with my hand gripped by his, I found myself thinking of Purcell’s Dido in a new light — pity now mingled with envy. I was struck by the clarity and purpose of her farewell to life, the eloquence with which she shaped what she knew would be her last words. Compared with the mute and muddled twilight of Alzheimer’s disease, Dido’s death — like so many others in opera — seemed preciously clearsighted.

I understand that operatic exit arias have been a popular target of ridicule. Scenes in which a character dies, and sings about it at length, are fun to lampoon, and contribute to the sense of artificiality that can alienate a first-time listener. And feminist critics are correct to point out that the profusion of death scenes involving female characters cements patriarchal norms by ritualizing the destruction of exceptional women.

But in recent months my thoughts have kept returning to what opera might teach us about death. As a society, we generally shy away from talking about passing and what it might mean to take leave of life with agency and grace. (There are exceptions — like the Let’s Reimagine initiative, which seeks to enrich the conversation around end-of-life issues.)

This year has forced us to contemplate coronavirus victims who have died in sterile isolation, silenced by ventilators. It has forced us to watch the choked final minutes of a man suffocated under a police officer’s knee. Perhaps more than ever, the ability to formulate and deliver a farewell message feels like a privilege. In opera, it’s also an art — one that might light the way to a more mindful conversation about the end of life.

The artifice, far from alienating us, helps draw us in. Opera can both condense life and blow it up. Transformational processes that in nature are drawn out and messy are concentrated into (relatively) compact scenes. But at the same time, the stream of psychological affects and thoughts these experiences spark in us — which in reality are so often ephemeral and unexamined — are slowed down and magnified through music.

“There is a kind of distance that beauty gives, in some way, and there is another kind of proximity,” countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo said in an interview. “It’s about getting closer to what you feel but also being able to see it through a lens.”

Costanzo recalled a time in graduate school when an operatic lament helped him confront a real-life catastrophe. He was preparing to record Claudio Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna,” which begins “Lasciatemi morire” (“Let me die”), when he learned that he had thyroid cancer. He knew the illness might prematurely end his career. When he sang the aria in the recording studio, he recalled, “it felt like a kind of privileged catharsis.”

Death in opera comes in many forms: steel, poison, gunshot, fire. Characters sing their last words alone in prison or in palaces, or surrounded by shocked onlookers. Many expire in the arms of their beloveds. They might use their last breath to utter a curse, extend a blessing or reveal a secret.

When political figures, such as Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, die in opera, their exit arias are elaborate testaments that settle accounts, issue last orders and tie up personal threads with larger arcs. These characters take stock of their impact on society, their role in history, their legacy. Exit monologues like that of Brünnhilde at the end of Richard Wagner’s “Ring,” before she rides her horse into a funeral pyre to join Siegfried in death, are so expansive because they close multiple storylines.

Yet even these big, wordy and cerebral testaments funnel down to a single point: The tyrant begs forgiveness; love vanquishes the curse. That focus is what rings true, no matter the pomp and stylization.

One of the most poignant scenes in opera comes at the end of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème,” when the lovers are reunited only minutes before Mimì succumbs to consumption. She senses that she has little time left.

“There are so many things I want to tell you,” she sings, “or really just one, but it’s vast and deep and infinite like the ocean: You are my love and my life.”

Musicologist and conductor Will Crutchfield pointed out that a death like Mimì’s — undeserved and unexceptional, from a common illness — was new to opera in the 19th century. In earlier eras, opera hewed close to the rules of classical tragedy, in which premature death is brought on by a character’s tragic flaw. The Enlightenment brought operas in which death is meted out as just punishment to the wicked, like Don Giovanni. In both these cases, a listener’s sympathies with the dying are guided by morality.

In works like “La Bohème” and Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” on the other hand, opera presented death “almost in the random way in which it happens in life, in that it doesn’t discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving,” Crutchfield said, noting that many 19th-century operagoers would have lost loved ones to similar illness. The listener, then, was invited to identify more closely with both the victim and those left behind.

“I think it evokes from the audience an idealization not only of how they will face death but how they will face grief,” Crutchfield said.

One opera that shows the interrelation of grieving and dying is Verdi’s “Aida,” which ends with the two central lovers, entombed alive, blissfully invoking the end of their suffering. A level above them, a chorus of priests and priestesses intones a prayer while the princess Amneris, who unwittingly destroyed both her rival and the man she loved, utters a despondent plea for peace. It’s an example of many operas that idealize a process of peaceful surrender at the end.

In Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” that surrender is especially poignant when Lensky sings on the eve of a duel that he rightly suspects will leave him dead. Director Kevin Newbury said the emotion of the aria comes from the fact that it is sung by a healthy man in the prime of youth who is forced to put his emotional affairs in order because his mortality has suddenly pulled into sharp focus.

“It’s not a death that is rooted in illness,” Newbury said. “It’s about him knowing that he probably won’t survive this duel. And yet you compare that to tubercular heroines like Violetta and Mimì, who don’t want to die and are holding on to dear life with every remaining breath. Whereas Lensky lets go.”

Whether characters rail at their fate or surrender to it, opera composers endow them with a clarity and eloquence that is inspiring — and educational. The stages that opera characters model might be a helpful blueprint for a mindful exit from life: the conception of a personal legacy in a social context; the formulation of a single emotional message offered to another human, a gift; and finally a reconciliation with death, a releasing of the grip on life.

These lessons are most explicit in religious works like the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. And art songs like Gustav Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” are beautifully compact objects of contemplation. But opera, with its combination of vivid drama and vast spaciousness, allows us to temporarily clothe ourselves in the experience of death.

“We know from going through big moments, like a birth or falling in love, that they can feel very fast and slippery, and it can take a long time for us to understand them,” said Costanzo, the countertenor. “Opera gives us a way to look at these moments and have this beautiful, aestheticized lens through which to confront the things that give us meaning.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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