Does the addition of wine make opera more dramatic? The musical form of opera, long considered a synthesis music and literature, arose in cosmopolitan cities such as Milan, Vienna, Paris, Florence and Dresden — all places where royalty, wealthy nobles and rich merchants could commission operas to be performed. Also, consequently, all places where wine-drinking was a fundamental part of society and culture, and places where wine-growing regions abounded nearby.
The topic of wine can be found in many operas, and throughout the genre you’ll find scenes in pubs or parties or galas where the opera characters are imbibing, and often singing about wine and its intoxicating effects.
Mozart famously incorporated wine into his operas. In Don Giovanni (1787), the main character Don Gionvanni sings a song about planning a party in which everyone will get “hot headed with wine,” which will then aid the success of his flirtatious advances at the party.
But wine wasn’t always a tool that worked in the favor of the main characters.
In Johann Strauss Die Fledermaus (1874) opera, champagne is blamed for all the trouble. After the main character, Eisenstein, gets into heaps of trouble with his wife, he sings a song, and some of the lyrics translate to:
“Champagne was to blame,
for all we have endured today.”
One of the most well known opera arias of all time is the drinking song in Verdi’s La Traviata (1853). The aria, entitled “Lets Drink from the Joyful Chalices” is sung at a late night party when Alfredo is attempting to woo Violetta:
Let’s drink from the joyous chalices
since the beautifulness is blossoming,
Lets drink, love among the chalices will make our kisses warmer.”
Violetta joins him in the song, and they commence a brief relationship before things begin to unravel.
Later in life, Verdi wrote several more wine-infused scenes in Falstaff (1893), his operatic adaptation of some of Shakespeare’s writings. At the end of the second act, Falstaff is thrown into a river in a laundry basket, and later when he climbs out, he warms his spirits and his clothes with hot wine at a tavern.
These are just a few of many examples of wine appearing in the opera genre. But they demonstrate the many subtle ways that wine-as-culture can emerge repeatedly, with each performance around the world, and continue to influence us today. In opera, wine is usually used as a dramatic catalyst — a product that will have an effect on the scene and change the circumstances in some way. For Don Giovanni, things change for the better; for Eisenstein, his drunken revelries get him in big trouble with his wife; and for Alfredo, the drinking song helps him to win the love of Violetta.
Because of wine’s known ability to alter a person’s state, it has become a useful dramatic tool in the world of opera. The audience might not believe that Alfredo can go to one party and win over Violetta in a short period of time — but add wine? It seems more plausible. The audience might not believe that Falstaff, after climbing out of a river, would go straight to a pub instead of a private room to dry off — but when he orders hot wine to warm up? It suddenly makes sense, and it’s kind of funny.
So when wine turns up again and again in opera, it is often as a very useful mechanism to move the plot forward and provide some lighthearted scenes. Not to mention fun for the audience to enjoy at intermission as well…