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March 19, 1997

Opera: Desire, Disease, Death

Author Affiliations

Yale University School of Medicine New Haven, Conn

JAMA. 1997;277(11):935. doi:10.1001/jama.1997.03540350085041

The great opera masterpieces are among the most enduring artistic treasures in human history. Opera endures because it portrays universal human desires, experiences, and emotions. In live performance the best music and storytelling combine to produce a profound emotional and intellectual encounter.

In Opera: Desire, Disease, Death, Linda and Michael Hutcheon have combined medical and musical history to produce a unique perspective "on illness and death as represented on the operatic stage of Europe and North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." Illnesses, including tuberculosis, the plague, syphilis, cholera, and AIDS, are discussed in the context of operatic portrayals of their social importance and human suffering and of contemporary medical knowledge. In addition, a significant portion of the book is devoted to smoking.

The authors successfully illustrate how the symbolic portrayal of disease and smoking changed in opera as more scientific knowledge was accumulated and disseminated throughout society.