You’d have to be mad to treat opera as any kind of life guide: operatic behaviour is a sure way to a sticky end. Opera’s personnel, driven furiously onwards by their desires, forever on the lookout for forbidden and dangerous things to have a go at, surely exist more as a warning – or at best, they are there to confront and grapple this perilous thing called life, so that the rest of us don’t have to.

But “how to live” – even if our heroes come up with extreme answers – is the artform’s meat and drink, and there’s not a human situation that doesn’t come under opera’s lyrical microscope. And while opera’s principal obsession throughout its history is love, its absence is also an inescapable part of the package: solitude, abandonment, loneliness, everything written on the other side of love’s fragile coin. And there is a paradox at the heart of opera. Its main vehicle for expression is the aria, an interior soliloquy delivered by someone very often completely alone on stage, yet opera characters cannot bear to be on their own for long: their social lives might be intense and stressful, but they really can’t do without them.

On the face of it, people in opera cope extremely poorly with solitude. They may be good at talking to themselves, but opera is irreducibly social, its characters meshed in emotional webs with everyone around them. Take that away and they can fall to bits very quickly. And given the accelerated timescale of opera – they must live, love and often die within their allotted three hours – I suppose five minutes alone is like a stretch of solitary. It takes just an instant of abandonment for their thoughts to turn to self-annihilation: look at Mozart’s Pamina in The Magic Flute. The second Tamino stops talking to her (one of the fairly random conditions of his captivity by Sarastro’s team) Pamina begins to sharpen the knife her mum gave her, sinks into a pathetic G minor and prepares for death – luckily diverted by the appearance of the three boys who cheer her up with a few standard jollifications.

Opera’s first hero, Orpheus, sets the standard for loneliness, which henceforth almost always means losing your beloved. But in his first appearances in opera, at least, Orpheus doesn’t wallow in it: Monteverdi in 1607 allows him to lament the dead Eurydice but quickly sets him to work to fetch her back from Hades. Things are very different with Gluck, 150 years later: by now the aria is a fully developed form, the musical experience of emotion deliberately felt and communicated, and Gluck’s hero can sing his heartbreaking “Che farò senza Euridice?”, exploring the pain in his heart, the emotional reality of being utterly alone, in masochistic detail. Somewhere between these two works, a new emotional consciousness has been born, and a new means of expressing it in music, a single wracked character on a stage speaking directly to each member of the audience about things everyone feels, framing them in a musical language that bypasses the intellect and zeroes directly in on the heart.

Handel’s operas usually deal with a place where power politics intersect with violent sexual desire – his usurpers and tyrants are frequently motivated by “love” or one of its more or less distant relations. This entails a surfeit of partings, lovers forcibly sundered, and it is the pain of this separation that is the real sting of solitude. At the beginning of Rodelinda, the heroine believes her husband dead, though in fact he is in hiding; each thinks obsessively of the other, and Handel’s orchestra turns the telegrammatic phrases into a genuine torment of the soul: their echoing arias “Dove sei, amato bene?” and “Ombre, piante” obsessively turn their thoughts to the physical impossibility of being both apart and alive.

Impossible, but obligatory: opera is devoted to life, and suicide, with rare exceptions, is not an honourable option. Life must be lived: if joy and ecstasy can be felt and expressed with limitless abandon, these characters must be ready to suffer the opposite, too; nobody has the right to spare themselves, they must drink each cup to the dregs. In Radamisto, Handel turns a hackneyed opera seria metaphor about a boat lost in stormy seas into an essay on the essence of loneliness: “Qual nave smarrita”, set to a sad sarabande whose pauses and silences are as eloquent as its chords and wistful melody. Where another composer might have painted the storm, Handel digs into a despair of awful clarity in Radamisto’s heart: no light, no port, no star to guide the foundering boat as it’s driven towards the reef in the blackest night. Lost, alone on the dark ocean, without hope of salvation: it is a metaphor for life, of course, the stark truth about a human condition that drives us to seek the comfort of other hearts to keep the horror at bay.

Because opera is so fanatically social, it’s rare to find solitude self-imposed. And when we do  it tends to be far from the gregarious Mediterranean. Hermits crop up every now and then in German opera (Weber’s Der Freischütz, for example) without telling us very much about themselves, although they seem pretty happy in their choice of career. But most loners are deliberately presented as a perversion of everything properly human: see Wagner’s miserable Hagen in tterdämmerung, for example, sitting alone through the nights thinking black thoughts and dreaming awful things implanted in his genes by his father Alberich. Or Fafner, once a giant in the construction trade, now a dragon who lives in a cave with a horde of gold: gloomily snoozing the years away, waking only to be killed by Siegfried, a wormy parable of pointlessness.

One who retains all her operatic and human credentials in self-chosen seclusion, Verdi’s Leonora in La forza del destino tries the hermit life as a refuge from fate – which eventually comes knocking, of course, in the form of her lost love and her brother trying to murder each other outside her cave. Time-frames are sketchy, but it seems Leonora must have been here for years (a war has taken place in the meantime, and the opera has skittered from Spain to Italy and back again), without once thinking of taking up a hobby: when we tune back in after a couple of acts we find her still determinedly lamenting her Inca love Alvaro and begging for peace and release – a typical Verdian moment, the pleading melody with its pathetic falling semitones and yearning sixths entreating a universe that doesn’t hear or care. Life is pain, death is peace. The briefest moment of joy years before is paid for with an eternity of wracked memory, remorse, self-laceration.

The ne plus ultra of solitude, devised simply to impress on the subject that he or she is utterly alone, is actual imprisonment. Operatic jurisprudence, being primitive, tends to imply that if you find yourself doing time, it probably means curtains: opera prisoners are therefore free to concentrate strongly on the hopeless finality of their position. The king of prisoners is Beethoven’s Florestan, an unseen presence from the beginning of the opera who finally appears, alone in the deepest dungeon, to sing his great scene of torment “Gott! Welch dunkel hier”, a mixture of despair, defiance, a thirst for the release of death, with a vision of wife Leonore in the form of an angel leading him there in an ending of almost hysterical longing. But Beethoven is not one to take on the operatic notion of death as release without a struggle: every note of Florestan’s from the swelling, desperate cry of “Gott!” is a rebellion, a spiritual revolt against the idea of acceptance, of fate, of extinction. Florestan cannot truly long for death, and Beethoven, here as throughout his music, suggests that even mortality can be overcome by the indomitable human spirit – as indeed it is, finally, in Fidelio.

Beethoven’s refusal to accept the inevitable sets him apart, and perhaps is one reason why opera was not a comfortable medium for him. Opera without death is a world without shadows, mortality and eternal separation the requisite payment for the impossible miracles of life and love. Britten’s sailor-boy Billy Budd, handcuffed below decks as he awaits the dawn of his execution, sees it all very clearly in a gentle lullaby of renunciation, daydreaming his own death, then gathering himself for a staunch-hearted jack tar’s farewell to the world. And then – a kind of redemption, as Britten’s orchestra plays chords pregnant with spine-tingling import, and Billy finds peace and meaning.

And this is where it all leads: opera’s final insistence, which runs like a thread throughout its history, that there are worse things than death. It may not be exactly triumphant, but there is something magnificent about it. Opera’s doomed characters, eventually, are all alone, but in their hopeless solitude they throw life and death in the balance, and a terrible lucidity is born. In Handel’s Theodora – written as an unstaged oratorio but absolutely an opera in its sensibility – the heroine and her chaste beloved Didymus are finally executed, “gone to prove that love is stronger far than death”. Earlier, in prison, Theodora suffers torments of doubt and fear, but some inner voice (represented by a soft “sinfony” whose stately chords are penetrated by a high, repeated single note on the flute) brings sureness, courage, understanding. She realises there is nothing to fear – and of course is comforted by visions of heaven. But this is something beyond faith and afterlife. Opera’s heroines and heroes, who exist inside love as the rest of us breathe air, for whom life is love, are only completed when they lose it, when thrown back on their own fragile selves, where they discover that mysterious, nameless thing that confers a strength they never knew.

Words can grope at this – William Wordsworth’s great poem Intimations of Immortality does it; music, unfettered by literal meaning, in the way it can sketch the indescribable, has an advantage. When Handel’s lost creatures are at their most alone and bereft, he will introduce a lone oboe or violin to hold their hands through the dark night. It is one way of saying that we must first be alone in order to realise: we are not alone.


Writer, editor, broadcaster and translator, Robert Thicknesse is a regular columnist with The Critic magazine. He has written on opera for The Guardian and Opera Now, and scripted and presented the Radio Four series In Chorus.