Chemistry of Opera

Aug. 16, 2013

The chemistry of an opera can fill an entire theatre with its own type of sizzling electricity – the illicit desires of Richard Wagner’s star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde, the passionate seductions of Georges Bizet’s fiery Carmen, and the unrequited yearnings of Giacomo Puccini’s doomed Madame Butterfly. However, those feelings aren’t the only type of chemistry at play.

The storylines of many operas involve poisons, love potions, and even pharmacists. For Joäo Paulo André, who saw his first opera during his third year of college and now works in the chemistry department of the University of Minho in Portugal, the science within such scenes was obvious. In a recent article for the “Journal of Chemical Education,” André divided operas into four categories: apothecary operas, operas of poisonous natural products, operas of the great poisoners of history, and arsenic operas.

The apothecary operas are those that involve the work of chemists or pharmacists. In 1768, Joseph Hayden composed a comic opera entitled “Der Apotheker.” The story involves a pharmacy apprentice named Mengino who is in love with an apothecary’s ward, Grilletta. In one aria, he sings about the virtues of rhubarb and manna, plant-based treatments for constipation and diarrhea – not subjects most audiences would expect to be sung about!   

Many operas invoke the use of poisons from natural products. Most people are familiar with William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” but Ambroise Thomas converted it to an opera in 1868.  Hamlet’s father is assassinated by his brother, who pours henbane extract into his ear while he slept. Henbane contains scopolamine, which blocks receptors in the brain from binding to a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Symptoms of scopolamine overdose include drowsiness, dizziness, agitation, fever, excitability, seizures or convulsions, hallucinations, coma, and death.

Among the operas composed around famous poisoners, the 1966 story of Antony and Cleopatra by Samuel Barber shows the Egyptian queen Cleopatra testing different poisons on poor or sick people under the guise of providing treatment. Historians believe she killed herself, although the method has been debated – legends say snake bite, but recent studies argue she died by poison.

An arsenic opera “Simon Boccanegra” by Giuseppe Verdi is based on the real first Doge of Genoa, who was assassinated by poisoning. However, while the opera shows Gabriele Adorno killing his future father-in-law, in reality his enemies carried out the sentence at a public banquet in celebration of the King of Cyprus’ visit to Genoa in 1363. The real plot by 15th century Italian nobles Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and their father Pope Alexander VIth to improve their status by dispatching guests with arsenic-laced wine became the basis for an opera by Gaetano Donizetti.

As chemistry plays an ever-increasing role in daily life, from cleaning products to medications, it continues its place in the tradition of opera. A recent production staged the story of Marie Curie, who discovered the element of radium, basically inventing the field of radiology, and won Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry about 100 years ago. So listen closely. The next time the fat lady sings, it may be a libretto about lithium!

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