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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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The expression theory of art, in its original form, maintains that the creators of a work of art—musicians, painters, poets, …—undergo an experience that they want to transmit to others, externalising it through a painted canvas, complex musical sounds or a structure of words, wishing others to undergo their experience.1 As Leo Tolstoy worded this theory:

Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them. (p123)2

In this article we explore the proposition that the depiction of madness in opera relies on the composer’s ability and not just the librettist’s talent, as the composer will sometimes go beyond the apparently disordered content and form of the character’s speech to make it understandable through the music being sung. We argue that music—through the creation of a subjective experience—can help us to understand operatic characters in the light of the individual character’s unique combination of external environmental and internal personal circumstances. As we will discuss later on, Britten’s music may momentarily make us become the character of Peter Grimes, thereby giving us the chance to see the world through his eyes, allowing us to understand him as a human being beyond psychopathological categories. Opera creates a new connection between the audience and the characters; we could even go as far as to venture the idea that opera might serve as an analogy of a psychiatric interview, vividly portraying the complex dynamic interaction between the individual character (patient) on stage and the audience (the psychiatrist) reciprocally influencing one another.

In order to put our case study, Peter Grimes, into historical context, we first draw upon a selection of operas, demonstrating the interconnection that has long existed between opera and psychiatry.

A brief history of the depiction of madness in opera

Opera is fascinated by madness, from composers making their characters enact florid psychotic scenes on stage to recent stage directors choosing to place their operas in psychiatric contexts, such as New York City Opera’s production of Mozart’s La finta giardiniera being set in a mental asylum, where the characters sought cure through group therapy. The operatic “mad scene” has been a staple of the genre at least since the late 17th century: Charpentier’s Médée has one of the most extraordinary and convincing depictions of a character’s losing contact with reality, in Creon’s recitative in act 4, where Madness appears with his torch and takes away Creon’s reason. Indeed, throughout the opera Charpentier shows himself capable of depicting heightened emotions through often simple but dramatically highly effective ideas, such as the whirling strings that accompany the character of Médée, portraying her inner turmoil and the cruelty of one who is capable of stabbing her own children as revenge against their father. In the 18th century, Handel’s Orlando, based on Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, provides us with another powerful representation of a character losing his mind and who embarks on a murderous rampage when he discovers that his beloved Angelica is in love with another man.

Moving to Mozart, who increasingly is appreciated not just as a great composer but as a great dramatist,3 we can see one of his “tricks” to be the direct contact with the audience’s emotions, often undermining or contradicting the obvious interpretation of a dramatic situation. Mozart is perhaps one of the few composers to appreciate, and to have the skill to use, the raw power of music. He is indeed a master in provoking an empathic understanding of his characters through recreating their feelings in us. Although Cosi fan tutte has no explicit mad scene, we include it to illustrate this point, to show how Mozart’s exploitation of the affective power of music creates new layers of meaning in a scene impossible in any other medium or for a lesser composer. The scene is the trio “Soave sia il vento”, a comic situation (when Alfonso with Fiordiligi and Dorabella pray for the wind to be soft, as the ladies’ suitors sail off to sea, while Guglielmo and Ferrando actually hide in the wings) that unexpectedly becomes profoundly moving through the sheer beauty of the music. And here is the point: just as the audience can hardly fail to be moved, Alfonso can similarly not fail to be shaken by what Mozart is making him sing. The listener cannot take seriously Alfonso’s cynical following words, “Non son cattivo comico!” (“I am not such a bad actor”). Later on, by way of contrast, we will discuss a scene from Britten’s Peter Grimes in which the evident inability of the crowd to hear the music of another character is a source of dramatic power.

Mozart also excels in Don Giovanni in creating a disturbing character who might fit our current diagnostic criteria for dissocial personality disorder, with his callous unconcern for the feelings of others, his behaviour full of total disregard for social obligations and his incapacity to experience guilt. But through Mozart’s music we can understand the character’s charm and his effect on others. How else can the seduction scene where Giovanni sings “Deh, vieni alla finestra” be convincing to us unless we are seduced by the sheer beauty of the song? It needs no acknowledgment, no statement of the reaction of the other (unseen) character, Elvira’s maid: we know exactly how she feels.

Nineteenth-century Romantic opera is well known for heroines in scenes of florid madness. This is partly a reflection of the growing commercialisation of opera in the early 19th century and the popularity of a more emotionally expressive style in the arts.4 Two good examples of these tragic heart-broken characters are Donizetti’s Lucia, with her mad scene, in which after killing her bridegroom she imagines that she is with Edgardo, the man she loves; and Bellini’s I puritani, where Elvira believes herself deserted by Arturo and loses her reason. Donizetti uses the resources of 19th-century music, including a wide range of dissonance, sudden contrast in tonality, wide vocal leaps, and so on, to deepen our understanding of the psychology of Lucia. (Nagel5 discusses this further.)

Madness slithers through 20th-century opera, probably under the influence of the increasing interest of the inner workings of the mind as exemplified by Freud, illustrations being Strauss’s Elektra and Berg’s Wozzeck. However, Wozzeck and, as we shall see, Peter Grimes, both provide strong evidence of the important role that society—with its brutality and injustice—plays in the aetiology of mental illness.

Peter Grimes


We use Britten’s Peter Grimes as a case study with which to illustrate the depiction of madness in opera, as its music is imbued with its hero’s complex psychopathology. It was Britten’s first major opera and one of the most important events in 20th-century British music. It was originally commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky while Britten was in the USA during World War II (p38).6 As a pacifist and conscientious objector, Britten found it impossible to remain in Britain at this time. Its premiere took place in London in 1945, with its leading role—that of Peter Grimes—being sung by the composer’s lifelong partner, Peter Pears. It is today considered part of the standard repertoire, being widely performed both in the UK and internationally.

Like any other work, it did not spring out of nothing, but reveals the composer’s study of Verdi, Puccini and in particular Berg’s Wozzeck. Indeed, at one point during the 1930s, Britten was seriously considering going to study with Berg in Vienna. His teacher, Frank Bridge, thought that experiencing “a different musical climate” would be valuable experience for the young composer, who had already shown markedly more “European” attitudes than some of his contemporaries (p51).7 It is noteworthy that while Britten was composing Grimes he attended performances of Verdi’s La traviata and Rigoletto, and Puccini’s La bohème (p41)6 and certainly he learnt a great deal from his 19th-century predecessors. In the opera, Britten makes use of some standard 19th-century operatic devices, such as the storm scene, to externalise characters’ inner turmoil, but in this piece, written in the middle of the 20th century, Britten focuses on the relationship between an individual and society. The strongest influence on Britten was Wozzeck (mentioned above), obvious not only in the central character and from certain individual scenes but in the interaction of Grimes with the world around him.

The opera takes its plot from an episode in George Crabbe’s poem “The borough” but significantly alters the original and in particular the character of Peter Grimes, as Britten and his librettist, Montagu Slater, were more concerned with making him a victim of society, removing all mention of Grimes’ father or his alcohol misuse. Britten and Pears also revised Slater’s libretto to the point that he subsequently published his original version separately (p217).7 They were careful to avoid society’s tendency to label deviance in “medical” terms, focusing on the brutality of his social and environmental context as being to blame for undermining his sanity, and ignoring psychological and biological aetiological aspects. The composer wanted to insist on the social message of the drama: Grimes’ mind succumbs to the borough as he becomes the monster he perceives they think him to be, ending up accepting society’s condemnation of himself.8 He wanted to emphasise that (a) society is at fault for his crimes and yet (b) the qualities that he gives to his (rather than Crabbe’s) Grimes are precisely things that compound his problems with the borough. Carpenter, in his biography of the composer, states, “Grimes is presented as an introvert outsider … at war with his nature and his fellow-beings” (p158).7 However, quoting a letter from Peter Pears: “P[eter] G[rimes] is an introspective, an artist, a neurotic, his real problem is expression, self-expression” (pp199–200).7 In fact, the transformation of Grimes had made him into someone whose sensitivity and introspection only go to cause further alienation (p203).7 Twenty years after the first performance, the composer and his partner summarised their attitude thus:

A central feeling for us was that of the individual against the crowd, with ironic overtones for our own situation [as conscientious objectors] … I think it was partly this feeling which led us to make Grimes a character of vision and conflict, the tortured idealist he is, rather than the villain he was in Crabbe. (p203)7


The opera begins with Grimes, a fisherman, being questioned at an inquest about the death of his apprentice. The townsfolk think that Grimes is guilty, but the coroner, Swallow, records a verdict of “accidental circumstances”. Although advised not to get another apprentice, Grimes, who claims to be in need of help, hires a new one who is fetched by Ellen the schoolteacher, the only one who will help him. Later, Ellen is horrified to find a bruise on the apprentice’s neck but when confronted about it, Grimes dismisses it as an accident. Growing agitated at her interference, he hits her and runs off with the boy. Observing this, the chorus becomes a mob and converges on Grimes’ hut, which they find empty: hearing them approach, Grimes has rushed to set out to sea and the apprentice has fallen to his death while climbing down to the boat. Grimes returns after days at sea without the boy, and a jersey that Ellen knitted for him is found washed ashore. While the chorus searches for Grimes, he appears, very disturbed, singing a long incoherent monologue. Balstrode, an old captain, persuades Grimes to take his boat out to sea and sink it.

Peter Grimes: the character

In Peter Grimes, Britten depicts the interaction of characters with each other and the environment using simple but flexible musical ideas and gestures to delineate character and emotion. The whole first scene combines the coroner’s blustering, rather stereotyped music with Grimes’ rhythmic evasions; he refuses to adopt his interrogator’s time signature or key and seems to be in his own musical and psychological world. After the inquest, the teacher Ellen attempts to make contact with the emotionally cold and detached Grimes, but she cannot even get him to sing in her tonality: he interprets her G sharp in the key of E as an A flat in the key of F minor, reinforcing the emotional abyss between them.

Despite Britten’s conception of the character of Grimes as being a victim of his society, throughout the opera we hear and see accumulating evidence of his psychopathology. Yet, it is interesting how the music compels us to hold the possibility of interpreting all of Grimes’ actions in a positive light: the boy’s death before the opera begins could have been an accident; his isolation, that of a man with ideas beyond the narrow limits of his community. But at the same time that we fight to keep this positive interpretation, scenes in which we are confronted by stronger evidence of the deterioration of his mind begin to occur, with acts of random cruelty and hints of a sinister predatory desire which threatens to override the view of Grimes as “a tortured idealist”.

From a psychiatric point of view, the character of Grimes shows a complex combination of several personality traits belonging to different personality disorders (such as schizoid and dissocial) to an extreme of complexity that may leave many psychiatrists in wonder. Although some aspects of Grimes’ presentation could be seen in psychiatric practice, we need to take into account that in a work of art the most important criterion is the artistic aim of its creator rather than that it be a realistic coherent psychiatric portrayal. Having said that, the character of Grimes is a considerable advance on the psychiatry seen in most 19th-century opera, where we see madness treated as a refuge from the conflict between the ideal of freedom and the constraints of society,4 and is for the most part convincing.

At the end of act 1, scene 1, we witness Grimes’ idealism dramatically laid bare as he describes his unrealistic expectations for the future accompanied by feverish rushing string figures (compare this with Médée mentioned earlier). In act 3, scene 2, Grimes has a “mad scene” that could lead, according to DSM-IV, to a diagnosis of a “brief psychotic disorder (298.8) with marked stressors”9 (“acute and transient psychotic disorder with associated acute stress” (F23.81), according to ICD-10).

The extreme emotional distress that Grimes has been subjected to precipitates an acute and transient psychotic state, with an eventual return to his premorbid level of functioning before the opera’s finale. In this scene, we witness how Grimes perceives the stress he is confronted with as completely overwhelming (both apprentices have died within a few weeks). He appears in a state of perplexity and his speech becomes incoherent—almost incomprehensible—with his attention to what is happening around him being clearly impaired. In contrast with a romantic view, his “madness” is not in any way a refuge but is a negation of all the positive aspects of his personality, resulting in a breakdown of Grimes’ music and an emotionally numbing experience for the listener. Some authors have argued that people with personality disorders are more prone to develop brief psychotic disorder in stressful situations.10 Grimes appears to have, at the very least, personality traits, if not personality disorder, although one might question whether the composer fully intended this particular interpretation.

Now we are going to examine in detail a scene where the reaction of the characters is to see Grimes as mad but where Britten is clearly leading us to a different interpretation, one that is consistent with his view of the character. The storm scene, at the end of act 1 (libretto, p16),i that disturbs the normal life of this close-knit fishing community offers probably one of the most moving moments of the opera: in this scene, Grimes appears at the pub “The boar” singing an apparently irrelevant aria beginning “Now the Great Bear and Pleiades …” (libretto, p21). The stillness of the music is in total contrast with the succession of bawdy tavern conversation and song, with brief musical glimpses of the storm outside. Although Grimes’ “poem” could superficially seem thought-disordered, one cannot escape the conclusion that the genuineness of the music is leading us to a different interpretation of his words. They seem to have meaning for Grimes himself and indeed are rooted, and can be understandable, in the light of his everyday experience (“constellations”, “in storms or starlight”, “a shoal of herring”) (libretto, p21). The music here is a canon, a logical way of constructing music, centred on the key of E. The music is direct, simple and moving, compelling the listener to want to understand Grimes despite the apparent discrepancy with the words; the people gathered in the pub hear only his words and sense the contrast with their own view of the world. If our empathic understanding of Grimes’ subjective experiences could truly enable us to “feel ourselves into” Grimes and get beyond his seemingly disordered flow of thinking, then the words would make sense, or at least make as much sense as the music that carries them. Britten gives us the hope or possibility of there being something genuinely extraordinary in Grimes. Yet the immediate reaction of the mass is to condemn and alienate him—“He’s mad or drunk” (libretto, p22)—laying the foundation for the tragedy to follow. They perceive his words as almost devoid of meaning, rambling and unfocused, whereas the audience have a broader, perspective: we hear with ears that have heard Grimes’ earlier solos and duets (unheard by the masses). The music adds the layer of affective engagement, speaking directly to a contemporary audience’s emotions.

Concluding comments

Sidney Bloch argues that cultivating the humanities—especially music, literature, the visual arts and film—can help psychiatrists to relate empathically and compassionately to patients and their families. He invites psychiatrists to weave the humanities into clinical practice and to promote them in educational programmes, with enriching benefits for patients and professionals alike.11 Most medical humanities educational initiatives to date have involved art, literature and cinema. An interesting Brazilian paper by González Blasco, Moreta and Levites provides a notable musical exception.12 Forty medical students attended 15 opera performances. On the basis of student discussions and reflections, the authors concluded that exposure to opera can be a valuable educational resource for teaching medical students, stimulating them to reflect on and disclose their own emotions as well as encouraging empathic attitudes.

Through a detailed study of the case of Peter Grimes, we have attempted to illustrate how engaging with evocative opera can offer a compelling chance to foster empathy. Britten’s music suggests ways in which psychiatrists can go beyond the observation and categorisation of abnormal psychological events in an attempt to better understand the internal experiences of patients. In our case study, the composer’s attitude to his characters is one that those working in the health professions would do well to emulate: he seeks to understand them, primarily by giving them the chance to speak with their own true voice.

If someone had been able to see beyond Grimes as the vicious antisocial misfit that his townspeople consider him to be, and had learnt to listen to the human being who was trying to communicate with them, perhaps he could have been helped to recover his lost sense of self. Oliver Sacks uses a musical analogy to explain what, for him, this means in practice: he describes treating each patient like a piece of music, as a complex creation that must be felt to be understood.13


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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.

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