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Opera and madness: Britten’s Peter Grimes—a case study
  1. G Durà-Vilà1,
  2. D Bentley2
  1. 1
    Division of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Imperial College London, London, UK
  2. 2
    Music Department, King’s College London, London, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Glòria Durà-Vilà, Academic Unit of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Imperial College London, St Mary’s Campus, Norfolk Place, London W2 1PG, UK; duravila{at}


In this paper, Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (1945) is used as an illustrative case study through which to examine the depiction of psychiatric disorders in opera. It is argued that Peter Grimes is a powerful example of how opera, in the hands of a great composer, can become an invaluable tool for examining subjective human experience. After a brief discussion of opera as a vehicle to express emotions, various operas are drawn upon to provide a historical perspective and to demonstrate the long interconnection existing between opera and madness. An in-depth analysis of Peter Grimes, its background and central character, is then provided, in order to demonstrate how opera can elicit empathy for individuals affected by mental health problems.

  • arts in health/arts and health
  • Music
  • Doctor
  • psychiatry
  • medical humanities
  • emotion
  • opera
  • music
  • psychiatry
  • madness

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  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • i All quotations from Peter Grimes are taken from the libretto published in London in 1945 by Boosey and Hawkes; page numbers refer to that work.