The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Can breast cancer and opera mix?

June 17, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Breast cancer has touched my family and friends again, so it has been much on my mind and in my thoughts.

Recently, I saw the Madison Opera’s fine staging of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” one of the most popular of all operas, and probably the most popular opera Verdi composed.

The libretto, adapted from a play by Alexander Dumas, focuses on a fiercely independent woman, a heroine and courtesan, Violetta, who is dying of consumption (below, with her lover Alfredo in a photo by James Gill for the Madison Opera).

Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that infectious lung disease must have rung very true and been rich with personal meaning. It was prevalent – Chopin suffered from it most of his short life — and it was used in all kinds of art, including the German Nobel Prize-wining novelist Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” Puccini also used in it his opera, “La Boheme.”

Consumption – or tuberculosis, as we know it today – became a metaphor for all kinds of disorders and diseases, individual and social. That was discussed by the famed American critic Susan Sontag (below), who herself died of breast cancer.

For more about the role of TB in art and popular culture, visit:

So I found myself thinking: If you were to update the opera — as many stage directors do – would substituting breast cancer for TB work. Certainly, breast cancer is a scourge of women today with unexplained rises in incidence. It sure seems more present and threatening than consumption.

Sometimes modern updating seems gratuitous or provocative or just plain playful. The iconoclastic and highly creative and deeply original director Peter Sellars (below) is course prone to those. But he also does profound updating and revisions. I suspect he would not disagree with my idea about Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Indeed, perhaps he or someone else has already thought about it or done it.

After all, when the wonderful American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (below) was dying of breast cancer, Sellars cast her in Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous cantatas “My Heart Swims in Blood” and “I Have Enough” and had her sing in a hospital room, next to a hospital bed and dressed in a hospital gown complete with an IV drip and IV stand attached. By all accounts, it was a riveting performance that added new life and updated meaning to the old text and old but eternally haunting and beautiful music.

Here are some reviews of that 2001 performance:

Sadly, the modern updated staging proved prophetic. Several years later, Hunt Lieberson died of breast cancer.

Other famous women musicians, including soprano Dawn Upshaw – who says she listened to Hunt Lieberson’s recording of those Bach cantatas (below) for inspiration — have fought the same disease. And we all know the sad story of Elizabeth Edwards.

I wonder what they and others would say to the idea of Violetta in “La Traviata” and Mimi in “La Boheme” fighting breast cancer instead of consumption – and after all isn’t metastaic breast cancer just another form of  “consumption,” of a disease that literally consumes the mind and the body?

I suppose you could also use AIDS, or maybe some other more “modern” disease. But breast cancer strikes me as particularly fitting.

What would you say to the idea?

Could breast cancer be substituted for consumption or TB in opera and other works of art?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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