Тахонов Иван, YouTube
Тахонов Иван, YouTube

13 Operas Adapted From Famous Novels

Тахонов Иван, YouTube
Тахонов Иван, YouTube

We’re all accustomed to our favorite books being made into movies. From 2015 Oscar nominees like Carol and Room to Sherlock Holmes and Dracula adaptations dating back more than a century, filmmakers have been bringing books to screen since the dawn of cinema. But you might not know that opera composers also love a good novel adaptation. 

While centuries-old classics by the likes of Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi continue to be performed, 20th and 21st century composers have created their own operas, frequently drawing inspiration from modern novels rather than the fairy tales, Ancient Greek myths, and classic dramas that were once traditional opera fodder. There’s something fascinating and a bit surreal about seeing a familiar book set to music, its story sung in the distinct style of opera. From beloved classics to contemporary bestsellers, here are 13 famous novels that have been transformed into operas. 


The classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of wealth and excess in the Jazz Age was adapted in 1999 by John Harbison and opened at the Metropolitan Opera to mixed reviews. Though the opera diverged from the novel in a few ways (for instance, changing the ending slightly), it hewed closely to the plot and tone of its source material, even using 1920’s style pop music interludes. The New York Times called it “too respectful of Fitzgerald for its own good.”


Unsuk Chin’s 2007 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland mimics the dreamlike qualities of the original novel. Simultaneously dark and whimsical, the opera (which can be viewed in full here) sets much of the original dialogue from the novel to music, including the famous riddles from the Mad Hatter’s tea party above.


John Steinbeck’s story of a depression era family’s migration to California in search of work and new hope is certainly epic in scope. And, according to The New York Times, its operatic adaptation, written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie in 2007, is similarly ambitious, telling the story of the Joad family in a musical style that takes its inspiration from American balladry and Hollywood musicals.


Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita makes for a strange, and strangely fitting, operatic tale. Like many classic operas, the novel tells a story of forbidden love. But the novel’s unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert isn’t the opera's average ill-fated lover, and his disturbing obsession with the 12-year-old object of his affections veers into pretty dark territory. Written by Rodion Shchedrin, who is also known for his adaptations of Russian novels like Anna Karenina and Dead Souls, the opera premiered in Stockholm in Swedish (because, according to the Associated Press, Hollywood had the rights for an adaptation in a major language) in 1994. It later played in Moscow, where it was nominated for Russia’s Golden Mask Award.


Like Lolita, Thomas Mann’s 1912 book Death in Venice centers on an older man’s romantic obsession with a pre-teen—in this case, a young boy named Tadzio, who the main character sees, but never speaks to, on a trip to Venice. The opera, written by Benjamin Britten in 1973, solved the problem of having a primary character who does not speak by casting Tadzio as a silent dancer, rather than a singer. The opera was released as a movie, shot on location in Venice, in 1981. 


Based on the 1994 novella Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this opera adaptation was composed by Peter Eötvös and premiered in 2008. Critics lauded Eötvös’s score but complained that the libretto by Kornel Hamvai almost completely erased the novella’s 18th century Latin American context. The opera can be heard in its entirety here.


Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s book about the adventures of a lost pilot and an other-worldly prince was adapted into an opera by Rachel Portman and Nicholas Wright, and premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2003. Then, in 2004, the BBC re-created the opera as a televised movie, which can be seen in full above.

8. 1984

Lorin Maazel’s opera of George Orwell’s dystopian novel premiered in 2005 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In the scene above, a crowd sings its hate for enemies of Oceania before a photo of Big Brother.


Based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, the opera adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was composed by Poul Ruders and premiered in 2000. Like 1984, the novel is set in a dystopian future ruled by a totalitarian regime.


Composed by Nolan Gasser with a libretto by Carey Harrison, The Secret Garden premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2013. It tells the story of the orphaned Mary Lennox and the sickly Colin Craven as they stumble upon adventure and friendship.


Using computer graphics and elaborate staging to tell its story, Jake Heggie’s adaptation of Moby-Dick was designed to make Melville’s famously dense novel more accessible to audiences. The opera premiered at the Dallas Opera in 2010, and followed the same overarching plot as the original novel, though it streamlined Melville's lengthy story and changed Ishmael’s name to Greenhorn.


Based on the 1992 thriller by Stephen King, composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchey’s Dolores Claiborne tells the tale of an elderly servant accused of the murder of her wealthy socialite employer in a small Maine town. Commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2013, Dolores Claiborne was the first opera adaptation of a Stephen King novel ever performed. However, there's at least one more Stephen King opera on the horizon: An adaptation of The Shining will be premiering at the Minnesota Opera this May.


A story of romance, betrayal, and revenge, Rushdie’s 2005 novel Shalimar The Clown seems like it’s practically begging to be made into an opera. A lyrical novel about a Kashmiri village of acrobats, actors, singers, and dancers, and the external forces that begin to threaten their way of life, the novel has both the heightened emotions and love of elaborate performance that characterize many great operas. It also addresses the ways new media like television and movies threaten traditional performance arts—an issue that has, of course, plagued opera in recent decades. Set to premiere this June at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, Shalimar The Clown was composed by Jack Perla and written by Rajiv Joseph with Rushdie’s blessing. Perla's score blends European opera techniques with the tabla drums and sitar of Kashmir’s traditional music, and promises to be an interesting blend of two musical and performative traditions.

SP Books
A Limited Edition, Handwritten Manuscript of The Great Gatsby Can Be Yours for $249
SP Books
SP Books

Fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby need to put this on their holiday wish list: The French manuscript publisher SP Books is releasing a deluxe, limited-edition version of Fitzgerald’s handwritten Gatsby manuscript.

A handwritten manuscript of 'The Great Gatsby' open to a page
SP Books

The 328-page, large-format edition is cloth-bound and features an ornamental, iron-gilded cover. The facsimile of Fitzgerald’s original manuscript shows how the author reworked, rewrote, and otherwise altered the book throughout his writing process, changing character’s names (Nick was named “Dud” at one point), cutting down scenes, and moving around where certain information was introduced to the plot, like where the reader finds out how Gatsby became wealthy, which in the original manuscript wasn’t revealed until the end of the book. For Fitzgerald superfans, it's also signed.

A page of the handwritten manuscript with a pen on it
SP Books

The publisher is only selling 1800 copies of the manuscript, so if you’re a lover of literary history, you’d better act fast.

It’s available from SP Books for $249.

Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]


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