Imitation is often considered the sincerest form of flattery, and adaptation is no different. While it is most commonly seen with movie adaptations of musicals and vice versa, plays can also inspire musicals—and operas.
With an operatic adaptation of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel coming to Lincoln Center Theater next year, we look back at 13 other operas that made straight plays sing.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Five decades after its initial Broadway bow, this Tennessee Williams’ classic was adapted into a three-act contemporary opera by André Previn and Philip Littell. When Blanche seeks comfort in the home of her sister, Stella, she is met with resentment from her abusive brother-in-law, Stanley. The original cast featured the likes of Renée Fleming as Blanche Dubois, Rod Gilfry as ttanley Kowalski, and Elizabeth Futral as Stella. The work premiered in 1998 at the San Francisco Opera.
Lillian Hellman‘s The Little Foxes premiered on Broadway in 1939. Set in the spring of 1900, Hellman’s play told the story of Regina Hubbard Giddens, who struggles to gain independence both personally and financially in her society. The most recent Broadway revival in 2017 starred Cynthia Nixon (who won a Tony Award) and Laura Linney, alternating performances as Regina and her sister-in-law, Birdie.
Regina, a Marc Blitzstein opera based on Hellman’s play, opened on Broadway a decade after its predecessor. The adaptation followed the same narrative and starred Jane Pickens in the titular role, David Thomas and George Lipton asRegina's brothers, and William Wilderman as her ill husband.
After a 2005 Broadway run and a 2008 Oscar-nominated film adaptation starring Meryl Streep, Doubt, a drama set in a Bronx Catholic school, became an opera from Douglas J. Cuomo and the show’s original playwright, John Patrick Shanley. When Sister Aloysius Beauvier is suspicious that a priest in her school is sexually abusing one of their students, she and the naive Sister James must work together to uncover the truth, even if that means exposing the charming Father Flynn. The opera premiered at the Minnesota Opera in 2013 starring Christine Brewer as Sister Aloysious, Adriana Zabala as Sister James, and Matthew Worth as Father Flynn.
Angels in America
Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking two-part play was given an operatic update in 2004 when Péter Eötvös and Mari Mezei condensed it into a two-act staging. The production highlighted the most pivotal moments of Kushner’s work, narrating Prior Walter’s struggles of coping with his AIDS diagnosis as well as the hallucinations and images that overwhelm him during his treatment. Over a decade after its initial creation, the opera received its New York City premiere in 2017 courtesy of the New York City Opera, starring Andrew Garland as Prior.
During the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century, hundreds of people were falsely accused of and executed for witchcraft. This historical event was explored in Arthur Miller’s 1952 play, which followed John Proctor in his desperate attempts to prove the innocence of his fellow townspeople. Miller’s play was adapted into a 1961 opera by Robert Ward with a libretto by Bernard Stambler, which premiered at the New York City Opera. The production went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music.
The 1775 Frenc play, written by Pierre Beaumarchais, tells the story of The Count, who plans to marry his love, Rosine and, to prove her trustworthiness, disguises himself as a student to trick her into falling for him. His plans are thwarted, however, by Rosine’s guardian, who locks Rosine away to keep her to himself. The Count’s mission is then to rescue Rosine so they can eventually join in marriage. Gioachino Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini adapted the work into a two-act Italian opera in 1816, and it remains one of the most popular comedic music pieces of all time.
Based on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello, the 1887 adaptation was composed by Giuseppi Verdi with a libretto by Arrigo Boito. The play and its operatic counterpart both explore themes of racism, war, love, and betrayal as Othello struggles with jealousy. After over a century, it remains one of the most popular and produced pieces of operatic history.
Cyrano de Bergerac
Adapted from the Edmond Rostand drama, this four-act opera by Franco Alfano and Henri Cain follows the large-nosed Cyrano as he assists Christian in wooing Roxanne, the woman they both love. The opera made its world debut in 1936, but it was not professionally produced in the United States until 2005 when the Metropolitan Opera brought the story to life.
Mozart’s 1787 adaptation of the Don Juan legend follows a man whose promiscuous and detestably charming ways finally get the best of him. After his failed advances of noblewoman Donna Anna, and the duel leading to her father‘s death, Anna is determined to avenge her father by finding his masked murderer with the help of her lover Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira, one of Giovanni’s former conquests, and Masetto and Zerlina, a young engaged couple whose love story has been thwarted by Giovanni’s flirtation. Through two acts of zany antics, narrow getaways, and a case of mistaken identity, he finally meets his match and ultimately, his demise.
Based on Camille by Alexandre Dumas, this tragic love story between Violetta and Alfredo finds the ailing courteson living a life of pleasure until she falls in love with Alfredo, who can offer her true love at the risk of his own social standing.
In 2016, British composer Philip Venables staged his operatic adaptation of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis at the Royal Opera in London. Inspired by Kane’s personal struggles with depression, the story gives the audience insight into an individual’s struggle with a depressive episode. Venables’ re-imagining of the chilling play creates an intersection of spoken word and opera.
This operatic adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s play premiered in 2006. With composition by Ned Rorem and a libretto by J.D. McClatchey, the three-act production takes on three major themes: the simplicity of daily life, love, and loss. Wilder’s characters are brought to life once again in this new take that is very reminiscent of its source material, complete with minimalist staging and the Webb and Gibbs families as they grow and evolve together for over a decade.
Wozzeck’s origin story, Woyzeck, remained incomplete at the time of writer Georg Büchner's death in 1837. The show was officially produced for the first time in 1914 after a group of writers came together to complete the story. One of the show’s first audience members was Alban Berg, who eventually adapted the work into his first opera. Wozzeck, a young soldier with declining mental health, is taunted by violent ideas after discovering that the mother of his child, Marie, is having an affair. The Metropolitan Opera will present a new staging of the Berg's opera, directed by William Kentridge, in its upcoming 2019–2020 season.