Our stories

So I was coaching the Gavotte from Manon the other day. 

“Tell me about her,” I said.

“She loves pleasure,” said my student. Because that is what the libretto states, over and over. So she wasn’t wrong, but something rose in me. And then it fell.

Here‘s how it all worked back then for those women, I was about to say. 

But I didn’t say that. Oh, I absolutely talked about how “it” worked. What I didn’t say was “back then.”

This post isn’t about the news of the last week, opera-related or otherwise, even though that news is pretty freaking rich.

It’s about our repertoire. The stories we tell.

Based on numbers of performances in 2017-18 worldwide, the top ten most frequently performed operas are:

  1. La traviata
  2. Carmen
  3. Die Zauberfloete
  4. La boheme
  5. Tosca
  6. Il barbiere di Siviglia
  7. Rigoletto
  8. Le nozze di Figaro
  9. Don Giovanni
  10. Madama Butterfly

A quick (partial) thematic recap:

  1. Human trafficking (humans for sale to other humans for sexual purposes): 1, 10
  2. sex demanded as payment for something else (a dowry, a prisoner’s freedom, entry to a higher social class): 5, 8, 9
  3. Rape or attempted rape, kidnapping: 3, 5, 7, 9
  4. Characters experiencing lower status due to race: 2, 3, 10
  5. characters experiencing lower status due to disability: 7
  6. depiction of rigid class system: 1, 2, 3, 8, 9
  7. Attempted sequestering of woman in house as a way to control sexual activity: 6, 7,
  8. secret pregnancy: 8, 10
  9. Physical violence against a woman: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9
  10. suicide: 5, 10


Opera is a huge and generous and all-encompassing art form about life. And these are the ten stories that opera fans want to hear most.

Do opera fans like to watch women and the disadvantaged suffer? That might be a thing.

But maybe – maybe these are just The Stories. Our stories. Human stories.

Listen to me. Just maybe? I mean, look around us. Life is just as it is on the popular opera stage, and yet we try with all our might to pretend that it is not.

I’m so glad we are creating new stories. But I sure hope we talk about these old ones, because their narratives are by no means finished.

And I hope we can look at the great divide between our most popular stories and our reluctance to engage with the same stories in real life.

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