Representational Conventions and Varieties of Operatic Madness: The Gap between Dramaturgy and Diagnosis

Matsumoto, Naomi. 2023. Representational Conventions and Varieties of Operatic Madness: The Gap between Dramaturgy and Diagnosis. In: Lorenzo Lorusso; Michele Augusto Riva and Vittorio Alessandro Sironi, eds. Effects of Opera Music from Brain to Body: A Matter of Wellbeing. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, pp. 125-129. ISBN 9783031347689 [Book Section]

[img] Text
Effects of Opera Music from Brain to Body.pdf - Published Version
Permissions: GRO Registered Users Only

Download (976kB)

Abstract or Description

This chapter encapsulates the main objectives of this collection and further illuminates issues concerning opera-medicine interconnection by exploring the origins and early developments of the operatic mad scene. Such scenes emerged in opera based upon several earlier cultural products including Greek tragedy and the Commedia dell’arte where insanity was represented in various forms. Opera has constructed its own conventions over time, drawn from past instances, and so it is often difficult to draw direct parallels between operatic representations of insanity and their contemporary medical practices. Also, the conventions of representing insanity led opera to incorporate behaviourally similar but pathologically distinct conditions such as sleepwalking, acute depression or even intoxication etc. This raises the problematic issue of defining operatic insanity per se. Moreover, examining mad scenes from the early modern period raises unexpected features of the ‘gendering’ of insanity, in that in early opera more male protagonists than female succumbed to the condition, unlike more famous, 19th-century examples.
We can see that the changes in the operatic representation of madness occurred in conjunction with attitudinal shifts in society towards those afflicted: madness moved from evoking laughter, to pity, and finally sympathy. Also, in the nineteenth century, opera began to demonstrate in mad scenes the deconstruction of the ‘Self’ rather than a simple behavioural aberration.
Through an exploration of the parallel between operatic and medical approaches to madness we can see how the insights of both come together for something deeper about the reception of madness in society – its symptoms, causes, its displays and disturbances, and its cultural meanings.

Item Type:

Book Section


History of opera, operatic mad scenes, gender, opera-medicine interconnection

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



5 October 2023Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

28 May 2023 14:29

Last Modified:

03 Feb 2024 09:01


View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)