Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Jules Massenet's 'Werther'

Why would an opera named for a desperate and suicidal young man feature happy children singing a Christmas carol? In July? Well, some say that for unhappy people, the holidays are the saddest time of year, and in Massenet's Werther, that's an understatement.

The unusual scene of summertime caroling, near the beginning of the opera, serves notice that the brooding hero of the drama is so distressed that for him, even Christmas in July is no picnic. By the time the holiday really comes, he's at the end of his rope. Massenet always had a dramatic knack for bold strokes of irony. Maybe by starting things off with caroling in July, the composer is simply saying that for Werther, every season is the saddest time of year.

Werther, and the book that inspired it, are among those tragic works of art that may feed the strange notion that suicide, especially in the name of love, is somehow a romantic, even noble, thing to do.

It's certainly hard to believe that, at the moment a person takes his own life, the act could possibly seem romantic — and it's surely nothing but tragic for the people left behind.

Still, the idea of romantic suicide has been around for a long time, and Werther proves that. The opera was completed in 1887, and is based on novel by Goethe, written more than a century earlier. The book was inspired by an actual event: The suicide of a young man who was in love with a married woman. Goethe's novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, consists mainly of letters from the title character to his beloved. The opera's libretto goes well beyond that. Still, while it does flesh out the rest of the pivotal characters, it remains Werther's story — and it's plain, right from the falsely cheerful beginning, that things are bound to end badly.

World of Opera host Lisa Simeone brings us a production from the historic Vienna State Opera, starring Neil Shicoff, one of today's most acclaimed tenors, in the title role.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit