HONR 238I :Opera and Myth

Fall 2004,  Professor Paul Green


No text has been listed as required or recommended with the bookstores. I  will place  videos of the operas on reserve in the non-print media center on the fourth floor of Hornbake Library,. An invaluable general reference available on line is Grove on Line, which includes the most recent editions of both the New Grove Dictionary of Music and the New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Note that you have to access it through the campus network. A good    synoptic reference on the mythology is Bullfinch’s Age of Fable, also available on line. You are encouraged to read the sections relating to the Trojan War and the travels of  Aeneas at your earliest convenience. Other, more specific,  references are given below.

For those of  you who can read scores, full orchestral scores to all the operas we will study, except for the second part of Les Troyens, are available here.   A historically oriented survey of early operatic practice can be found here. 

Class Schedule

The class meets according to the following schedule:

Tuesday and Thursday:  3:30- 4:45 Hornbake 4210-R


If we were to view videos of all the operas we will be studying during the regular class periods, there would be time for nothing else. For this reason, the classroom has been reserved for an hour and a half following each Tuesday meeting. This time will be used for viewing  those portions of the operas which we do not view in class. Students who are unable to be present during some or all of these sessions will have access to the videos in the non-print media center in Hornbake Library, where the meeting room for the seminar is also located.

Provisional   Syllabus and Schedule


During the first half of the semester, we will study operas relating to the Trojan War.   The operas in question are, in chronological order of composition, which is also the order in which we will consider them:  The title of each opera is a link to the libretto. Unfortunately, translated opera libretti are very difficult to find on the internet, and each of these is only in the original language of the opera. Only Dido and Aeneas is in English, but I have included the others for the benefit of those students who may know some French, German or Italian. I will also place libretti with translations on reserve in the non-print media center.



Groves’ Dictionaries include articles on both the composers and the operas, all of which you are encouraged to consult. With the  exception of Idomeneo, the libretto for each of these operas is adapted from the indicated classical source, although the adaptation is freer in some cases than in others. Note that the specification of the source is a link to an English version available on the internet. Although Homer’s Illiad  and Odyssey are not among the direct sources for any of the operas,  Ii is worthwhile having links to them as  well. In particular, you might want to find some of the many references to Idomeneus (Idomeneo)  in both poems, even though neither of them tells the story on which Mozart’s opera is based.  Since the primary reason for the inclusion of  Idomeneo is the importance of Mozart, both as an opera composer and in general, I am including a link here to a brief survey of Mozart's last seven operas.


When I first outlined this course, I was unaware that a Hollywood film called Troy was in production. It was released this past summer and probably some of you will have seen it.  It is not in any sense prerequisite to this course and may, in fact, have generated some important misconceptions. For this reason, I am including this link to a page that indicates some of the important ways in which the film departs from its mythological sources.



The second half of the semester will be devoted to the four operas that comprise Wagner’s Nibelungen Ring (Ring of the Nibelungs),


Das Rheingold

Die Walkure

Siegfried, and



Piano-vocal scores for all four operas are  linked to their names above, and libretti (in this case, fortunately with translation) for the Ring operas are available at this link.    The music of the Ring operas is structured by a large and complex set of leitmotifs relating to characters, objects and concepts. We will be studying this structure in considerable detail. The site containing the libretti also contains a large collection of leitmotifs in midi format.   Here  and  here  are two websites, each of which contains a large collection of  Ring leitmotifs in mp3 format. Each of these sites also includes some analysis of the leitmotif structure, to which your attention is recommended.



Unlike the operas we studied in the first part of this course, which are based on classical mythology, the Ring is based on a different mythological cycle, originating in northern Europe. Bullfinches Age of Fable   includes a brief summary of this cycle, but I am also providing links to English versions of the Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga Saga, which  are more closely related to the Ring. I also recommend George Bernard Shaw’s essay The Perfect Wagnerite, which is a detailed  and informative discussion of the Ring operas, albeit  from a somewhat idiosyncratic point of view. Another recommended source, which is not available on the internet, is Jessie Weston’s  Legends of the Wagner Operas, which I will place on reserve in the non-print media center . You are encouraged to read the sections that deal with the Ring. You are also encouraged to consult the relevant articles in Groves. 


Homework Assignments

The written homework for this course will consist of  a sequence of short (2-3 page) essays and two longer papers.  Topics, required reading, and due dates for the first two essays will appear below; other will be added as the course progresses. Electronic submission of all written homework (as attachments in email to me) is encouraged. For this reason, the due dates are not necessarily those of class meetings.

Short Essay 1: Compare Nahum Tate's libretto for Dido and Aeneas with Book IV of the Aeneid. Some points you might consider addressing are:

How does the treatment of the story of Dido in the Aeneid reflects the fact that the poet is writing in Augustan Rome in the first century BC, about a century after the long economic and political rivalry of Rome and Carthage ended in the total destruction of Carthage?  (Look up the Punic Wars.)

How does the libretto of the opera, as compared with the Aeneid, reflect the fact that the opera was written to be performed at a school for young ladies in late seventeenth century England?

Although much of what Virgil wrote has been suppressed in Tate's libretto, both to effect the necessary compression and for other reasons, something has also been added. How does the introduction of the Sorceress and her witches contribute to a shift of focus between the two works?  

Due date: Friday September 10.

Short Essay 2: Choose one or more of the principal characters in "Iphigenie en Aulide":



Clytemnestra and


Compare the characterization in the opera with that in Euripides' play. Try to include some comments on how the music contributes to the characterization in the opera.  Due date: Monday September 20.

Short Essay 3: Both Iphigenie en Aulide  and Idomeneo  tell sacrifice stories. From this point of view, identify corresponding roles in the two operas. Some of these are obvious; others are more a matter of opinion, but try to take a relatively inclusive view. Compare the dramatic and (insofar as you are equipped to) musical treatments of corresponding characters. Due date: Monday September 27

Short Essay 4:  Les Troyens, unlike Dido and Aeneas, is sufficiently close to the  Aeneid to invite a fairly detailed comparison. In particular, many, although not all, of the scenes in the opera correlate with identifiable passages in the poem. Document this by identifying at least three such pairs, and comparing the two versions. Include at least one pair for which you can describe significant differences.  Due date: Friday October 8


Short Essay 5:  The dramatic structure of Elektra closely parallels that of  Sophocles' play on which it is based. Nonetheless, there are significant differences between the two. Using their common framework to structure your comparison, identify as many differences as you can between the play and the opera. Explain which ones you think are most important and why. Although libretto to which a link is given above does not include an English translation, here is a link to a piano-vocal score that does. Due Date: Monday October 18


Short Essay 6: In the transition between the first two scenes of Das  Rheingold, Wagner provides an explicit demonstration that there is a close relationship between the ring motif and the Valhalla motif. While there are other pairs of closely related motifs in the Ring cycle, there is no parallel that I can think of to this demonstration. Why do you think Wagner attached such importance to this particular motivic relationship? While there is no occurrence of the Valhalla motif in the first scene, both motifs occur frequently in the second scene and  thereafter. Some of these should be cited in your answer. Due date: Monday October 25.

Short Essay 7:  Just before pulling the sword from the tree in the first act of Die Walkure",  Siegmund sings what is unmistakeably the motif of renunciation of love. (See the second and third braces on page 71  of the piano-vocal score of Die Walkure on line. See also page 43 of the Rheingold score for the original statement by Woglinde, from which the name of the motif is derived. ) However neither the text nor the context suggests  that he is in any sense renouncing love, but rather the opposite. The question you are to address in your essay is: What is Wagner telling us here? Bear in mind that, while a consensus has developed over time regarding the names of the leitmotifs, the names were not provided by Wagner. You may be led, in the course of your essay,  to propose an alternative name for the motif in question. The puzzle I have set you here does not, so far as I am aware, have a consensus solution. Feel free to use your imagination. You may also wish to consult the chapter on renunciation in Dr. Dunning's Web Site.  Due date: Monday November  8.

Short Essay 8:  Throughout the first two operas of the Ring cycle, ensemble singing,  understood to mean simply  two or more characters singing at the same time, is restricted to two homogeneous groupings: the Rhine maidens in Das Rheingold  and the Valkyries in  Die Walkure. In particular, Siegmund and Sieglinde never sing simultaneously and the chorus of Nibelungs does nothing but scream a few times. In Siegfried, however there are two separate and highly contrasted instances of distinct characters singing simultaneously. Identify, describe and compare these, and explain as best you can why Wagner might have  chosen to break, in Siegfried, the pattern of avoidance of ensemble singing that he had set in the first two operas of the cycle.  Due  date: Friday November 19.

The two longer papers will be on on topics to be chosen by each student subject to my approval. They. should deal respectively with the two halves of the course; the first  will be   due at 9:00 AM on Sunday  October 31, and the second on the last day of class. Each student should schedule meetings with me to discuss the topic for the first paper no later than the end of September, and the second no later than the Thanksgiving break.


Grading Policy

Grades will be based on the assigned papers, both short and longer, and on class participation.  There will be no in class examinations.




Disclaimer: This page was last updated on 13 August 2004. While every attempt will be made to keep it current, it is likely, particularly during the early part of the semester,  that some of the information contained herein is obsolete. Feel free to send  comments   or queries to: 

Paul Green


Department of Mathematics
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742