The inter-sectoral project “Medicine at the Opera” began in 2012, when the Italian opera specialist Carlo Menardi delivered a lecture on that subject in terms of Italian operas. The lecture attracted a great deal of interest, and you can now view the first exhibition from the project, “Doctors in Operas.” It is the first of three exhibitions in the series, to be followed by “Illnesses and Treatments in Operas” and “Death in Operas.” The exhibition has been developed in close partnership with the Latvian National Opera, the Museum of Writing and Music, and the Latvian National Museum of Art. The curators would like to thank SIA Sistēmu Inovācijas, the Latvian Innovative Medicine Fund, the Saule pharmacies and the Kārumu factory for their support.
This exhibition is unique at the museum in that it emphasises set design and the presentation of audiovisual information in a concentrated way.
Operas often focus on the elements of human lives during the relevant century. Opera librettos and the views of directors make it possible to deal with the typical health problems of the age and the ways in which illnesses were treated. During the three centuries that have passed since the origins of opera as a genre, audiences have been able to evaluate changes in the social status of doctors in society.
Doctors are characters in approximately 10% of the world’s produced operas, and their image has changed over the course of the centuries. We will mention just a few examples here, but the exhibition will allow you to learn about many more physicians in operatic stories. The earliest classical operas from the 18th century were mostly of a mythological nature, and the role of doctors was not particularly emphasised. By the latter part of the century, as the period of Romanticism began, charlatans, barbers, travelling physicians, false doctors, etc., started to appear in tertiary roles, particularly comic ones. Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” for instance, features the servant woman Despina, who pretends to be a doctor and tries to bring back to life some soldiers who have drunk poison. Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” includes an itinerant salesman, Dr Dulcamara, who sells a substance which he claims to be a universal treatment for disease.
Prototypes of family doctors began to appear in 19th century operas such as Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” in which Dr Miracle treats Antonia – a young woman thought to be suffering from hereditary heart disease. Then there is Verdi, the 200th anniversary of whose birth is being commemorated this year. “Traviata” includes Dr Grenvil, who treats Violetta’s tuberculosis. During this era, doctors began to appear in operas as honourable citizens.
20th century operas usually present doctors not just as clinical specialists, but also and more frequently as scholars and researchers. Typical in this regard is Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck,” in which a character known only as the Doctor conducts medical experiments and observations.
This exhibition demonstrates the development of the role of physicians in the operatic arts, thus illustrating not just the development of medicine as such, but also changes in public attitudes toward the medical profession under various socioeconomic and political situations during the past three centuries.