Greek and Roman deities in opera

When you read the title ‘gods of opera’ you’re probably imagining a blog about the tenor who could hold the longest high C, or the baritone who can do push-ups while singing fiendish coloratura. But this time, we’re taking a look at the immortal deities who appear in our operas instead.

Sorry, Jonas, it’s not you this time. 

In the same way that the stories of the ancient gods have inspired artists and sculptors throughout history, from the very origins of the operatic form in the 16th century, opera librettists and composers have been obsessed with bringing the gods down to Earth, and presenting them on the operatic stage.

The artform now known as ‘Opera’ actually came into being from a desire to return to the musical devices of Greek and Roman theatre, where stories were told primarily through sung text. Its use has continued throughout the entire history of opera, sometimes as a way to distance the writers themselves from the subject matter, so that they could express their own views about morality, politics, religion, or society in general. If anyone disagreed with the views being expressed it could be blamed on the strange ideas of the Ancient Romans, and Ancient Greeks, who weren’t around to defend themselves. 

For a librettist, the world of ancient gods offered a palette of characters with fascinating backstories, symbols and ideology. There was a god for everything from agriculture to rainbows, so there was always someone to help the plot along. For composers, it is possible that a voice of almost superhuman beauty could provide the inspiration for the voice of a god or goddess. Combined, we find ancient marble sculptures are brought to life and given voices which they can use to share their experiences and to teach morals and life lessons to their audiences. 

The world of the gods can be quite complex and confusing, so here’s a quick breakdown of the main players and what they get up to, as well some of the operas they feature in. 

Roman Name: Jupiter or Jove

  • Greek Name: Zeus
  • Alternative Names: Giove (Italian) 
  • Symbols: Thunder and lightning, eagles, scales, scepter, throne on Olympus,
  • Responsible for: All the other gods, justice. 
  • Known for: King of the gods, infidelity, falling in love with mortals, giving birth to Athena/Minerva out of his head. 

Roman Name: Juno

  • Greek Name: Hera
  • Symbols: A golden carriage drawn by peacocks, goatskin cloak, spear and shield
  • Responsible for: Blessing marriage and childbirth, all things female
  • Known for: Queen of the gods, sons Vulcan the builder and Mars the god of war, marriage to Jupiter.

Roman Name: Venus

  • Greek Name: Aphrodite
  • Alternative Names: Venere (Italian)
  • Symbols: Myrtle, scallops, dolphins, mirrors, pomegranates, pearls
  • Responsibilities: Fertility, love, beauty, prosperity, victory, marriage, 
  • Known for: Mother of Aeneas, and therefore all of Rome. 
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Roman Name: Diana

  • Greek Name: Artemis
  • Alternative Names: Diane (French)
  • Symbols: The moon, the forest, deer, hounds, bow and arrow
  • Responsibilities: Hunting, chastity, the woods, children and childbirth, wild animals, archery
  • Known for: Twin sister to Apollo, as Artemis she is thought to have originated before the Greek traditions, and is still worshipped in many pagan traditions. 

Roman Name: Cupid

  • Greek Name: Eros
  • Alternative Names: Cupidon or L’Amour (French), Amore (Italian) 
  • Symbols: Cherub, wings, bow and arrow, darts, occasionally blindfolded 
  • Responsibilities: Making people fall in love 
  • Known for: Wayward arrows that fly where they want to, son to Venus and Mars.

Roman Name: Mars

  • Greek Name: Ares
  • Symbols: The Ancile, bronze armour, shield covered in blood, burning torch, vultures, dogs, woodpeckers, owls, a chariot drawn by fire-breathing horses
  • Responsibilities: War, protector of the army and soldiers.
  • Known for: Brother of Vulcan, son of Juno and Jupiter, second only to Jupiter in the Roman Pantheon, father of Romulus and Remus the founders of Rome. 

Roman Name: Minerva 

  • Greek Name: Athena
  • Alternative Names: Minerve (French)
  • Symbols: Owls, olive trees, snakes, armor 
  • Responsibilities: Wisdom, war, civilization, maths, crafts, strategy, justice, law, and the arts.
  • Known for: Born from Jupiter’s head already an adult and dressed in full armor, patron of weaving. 

Roman Name: Pluto

  • Greek Name: Hades, Plouton (which came to be known as the realm of the dead)
  • Alternative Names: Pluton (French), Plutone (Italian)
  • Symbols: Throne made of ebony, cypress, narcissus, precious metals, his three-headed dog Cerberus
  • Responsibilities: Taking care of the souls of the dead, ruling over the underworld
  • Known for: Brother to Jupiter and Neptune, abducted Persephone.

Roman Name: Somnus

  • Greek Name: Hypnos
  • Symbols: The river Lethe, poppies and opium, an inverted torch.
  • Responsibilities: Sleep
  • Known for: Twin brother of Thanatos (death), son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Darkness), his sons were the gods of dreams, including Morpheus the messenger, Phobetur bringer of nightmares, and Phantasos bringer of unreal dreams. 
Mercury by Hendrik Goltzius

Roman Name: Mercury

  • Greek Name: Hermes
  • Alternative Names: Mercure (French), Mercurio (Italian)
  • Symbols: Winged heels, winged hat, winged staff, the caduceus, a purse
  • Responsibilities: Messenger to the gods, commerce, god of shopkeepers and merchants as well as thieves.
  • Known for: Brother to Apollo/Phoebus, being able to travel between the heavens, the earth, and the underworld.

Roman Name: Apollo

  • Greek Name: Phoebus
  • Alternative Names: Apollon (French)
  • Symbols: The sun, lyre, laurel wreath, wolves, dolphins, ravens, bow and arrow
  • Responsibilities: Music, poetry, art, oracles, archery, plagues, medicine, light, and wisdom
  • Known for: Often takes on the role of the messenger in place of his brother Hermes, some mythology combines Hermes and Apollo as the same person, friend of the nine muses.

Roman Name: Bacchus

  • Greek Name: Dionysus
  • Alternative Names: Bacco (Italian)
  • Symbols: Grapes, wine, pine cone, leopard skin, panthers and cheetahs
  • Responsibilities: Wine, the harvest, fertility, madness, ecstasy, the theatre 
  • Known for: Arriving last to the Roman Pantheon, born from Jupiter’s thigh, being an outsider. 

The Operas

These mischievous gods really do crop up everywhere, from ringing gongs in Les Troyens to blessing marriages in The Fairy Queen, but there are a few operas where these gods really make their mark. Here are my top 5: 

Jupiter, disguised as a fly, tries to get Eurydice to fall in love with him. 
  1. Handel’s Semele features Jupiter, Juno, Somnus, Apollo, and a baby Bacchus, interfering with the lives of mortals. This is the origin of Jupiter’s famous aria ‘Where’er you walk’
  2. Offenbach’s Orhpee aux enfers is a riotous display of mischief, and disguises, featuring Jupiter, Juno, Pluto, Venus, Cupid, Mars, Minvera, Bacchus, Morpheus, and even Cerberus. 
  3. Nothing would happen in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria without the help of Minerva. This opera also features Jupiter, as well as Cupid (who appears again in L’incoronazione di Poppea, this time alongside Venus, and Mercury.) 
  4. Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie makes it possible for the kings of the three realms, Jupiter, Pluto, and Neptune, to all be played by the same singer. In this story Diana and Cupid also get into an argument, and Mercury has to visit the underworld. 
  5. Although it only features one goddess, with his devotion to Norse and German mythology in his Ring Cycle, or the Christian versus Pagan ideology of Parsifal, Wagner’s use of the Greek goddess Venus in his opera Tannhäuser particularly stands out. 

What are your favorite appearances of the Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses in opera? Which God or Goddess do you think should have an opera entirely about them?

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