Top 10 Most Miserable Opera Characters

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Last week, as I found out that Anthony Bourdain’s latest destination for his Travel Channel TV show No Reservations would be Finland, I felt a twisted sense of glee: Nothing says good television like sending a salty New Yorker to Scandinavia in the middle of winter. In fact, the formula was a success for Bourdain in the first season of No Reservations when he visited Iceland in January and was caught in a freak snowstorm.

For whatever manifold reasons, we like to see people suffer. Bourdain is even a greater example of that when one considers that his rise to fame came primarily through a tell-all memoir that revealed the seedy underbelly of New York’s restaurant scene, as well as his past troubles with drug addiction.

But that we love our heroes to be fallen and miserable is no great trend in entertainment. In fact, it’s part of opera’s intrinsic DNA when you look to its roots in Greek tragedy—conflict makes for good drama, and you can’t have strong conflicts without some characters getting the short end of the stick. With that in mind, we take a moment to count down our top ten saddest sacks in the canon. Read on for our picks and tell us in the comments below: Who are your favorite miserable opera characters?

10. Don Pizarro (Fidelio)

Talk about a conflict of interests: When the nobleman Florestan attempts to expose Pizarro, the governor of the prison, as a criminal and a rogue, the latter uses his position to have Florestan arrested. Fortunately, his attempts to murder both Florestan and his wife are foiled, providing a rare happy outcome on this list. Still, there’s no redemption or reconciliation for Beethoven’s corrupt and crooked nobleman. And what makes him truly hopeless is that he has no real motivation to be an evil man. It may not leave him anguished in the emotional sense, but there’s really nothing sadder than a villain without purpose. 

9. Turandot (Turandot)

Late in Puccini's opera we learn that Turandot has a backstory that has made her who she is. But the first introduction we have to the ice princess is that of a slew of would-be suitors beheaded and impaled on pikestaffs, all because they couldn’t answer three riddles. And then when a prince is able to answer those riddles, she’d rather see him die than marry him. Yes, Turandot, life is tragic and it's awful about your ancestor, but killing as many men as possible is not the way to resolve those deep-seated issues you have with the opposite sex. Listen to Adele’s “Someone Like You,” write some bad poetry and pop a Xanax.

8. Filippo II (Don Carlo)

I considered Boris Godunov in this slot, but "Ella giammai m’amo" sets Verdi’s Spanish monarch over the edge. Simply put, there is no aria more miserable than the lament of Filippo II, the 16th-century king of Spain whose young wife—initially promised to, and still infatuated with, his son—never loved him. He can’t muster up enough pathos in this aria to suffuse the title line with anything but cold, hard, sad fact. And from there it’s an Ethan-Frome–style sled ride into a sinister, sleepless, realization that his marriage, his reign and possibly his life is little more than a sham.

7. Elektra (Elektra)

Leave it to the Greeks and Richard Strauss to give us good, juicy tragedy. And while things at least end happily for Ariadne, Elektra is one of those poor souls from Trojan times who just can’t catch a break. She’s stuck with a disagreeable family situation when her mother murders her father, is tortured by her servants, abandoned by her sister and even when she discovers that her brother is not dead, as previously believed, still feels shame and remorse. Just when things start to look up, she dies.

6. Cassandre (Les Troyens)

Cassandre reminds me of another television character endemic to my generation, that of MTV’s Daria Morgendoerffer. A misfit teen in suburban America, Daria’s personality is summed up in a season one episode when her friend says: “When they say, ‘You’re always unhappy, Daria,’ what they mean is, ‘You think Daria. I can tell because you don’t smile.’” So if ignorance is bliss, then Cassandre is rightfully one of the most afflicted, tortured, woebegone characters you’re likely to come across in opera. In the opening scene of Les Troyens, the prophetess and daughter of doomed ruler King Priam can’t celebrate with her fellow Trojans because she alone sees that her impending marriage won't come to be and that Troy is likely to fall. Spoiler alert: It does.

5. Hamlet (Hamlet) and Macbeth (Macbeth)

It’s hard to separate Shakespeare’s moody Dane and moody thane, so let’s look at the operatic incarnations of these two downers in tandem: Hamlet’s plight is more righteous (avenging his murdered father) than Macbeth’s (he himself is a murderer), but grappling with the guilt of killing someone with your own hand isn’t exactly a walk in the park either. They have similar separate-yet-equal relationships to their love interests: Hamlet spurns Ophelia for his quest, while Macbeth becomes subservient to his wife as he sinks deeper into moral and monarchial decrepitude. It seems, whether high or low, all roads lead to woe.

4. Herman (Pique Dame)

Read enough Russian literature and you get the sense that this is a culture in love with its own suffering. But Herman in Tchaikovsky’s card-counting drama is elevated even beyond his gloomy bearings in Pushkin’s source story about a man obsessed with winning at cards and love. Whereas Pushkin’s Herman merely manipulates a young woman to get her grandmother’s gambling secrets without any hope at marriage, in Tchaikovsky’s world he is also genuinely, jealously infatuated, causing the object of his affections to ditch her good-guy fiance while also inadvertently killing her grandmother in the process. His melancholia soon diverges into a madness that leaves three bodies in its wake.

3. Werther (Werther)

There is something intoxicating about loving a tortured, Romantic (with a capital-R) soul—hence the popularity of the Twilight series. But Werther is one of those characters that, after repeated exposure, gives you the urge to smack him across the face and tell him to man up. Don’t get me wrong, I love “Lorsque L'Enfant Revient D'Un Voyage” and “Pourquoi Me Réveiller, Ô Souffle Du Printemps?” as much as the next girl, but Werther strikes you as so classically pathetic a character that, even if he were to win over the unattainable, married woman he loves, he would still find a reason to be dissatisfied. Which brings us to…

2. Don José (Carmen)

Don José, the naive soldier in Bizet's opera, is a character who does get the girl — heck, he even has to be convinced to get the girl — but isn’t satisfied. True, the relationship, predicated as it was on a lot of tit but no tat, is doomed to fail from the get-go. But José’s woes go past general whining into darker territory when you consider that, in Mérimée’s source text, José is a convicted murderer long before he meets Carmen. The poor guy just can’t seem to catch a break: His misery leads to rash action, and his rash actions in turn lead to more misery.

1. Rigoletto (Rigoletto)

Rigoletto, the jester of the licentious Duke of Mantua, is one of those characters whose backstory is a mystery, yet he wears the scars of it on his sleeve. At some point in his life, he must have been happy enough to father a child, but otherwise he faces a demeaning job, a physical deformity and an overall bitterness that isn’t even tempered—in fact, it seems even more heightened—by his darling daughter Gilda. Naturally, his obsession with protecting her in turn leads to her undoing, and, presumably, his own.