Insanity has always been a fascinating topic in the arts, including opera. Many scholars have analyzed individual operas and their representation of insanity, but limited work has been done on the overall use of insanity in opera. Comparing representations from different periods, one can detect an apparent shift in how opera has portrayed madness. The reason for the change is not immediately obvious, leading to the main question of this study, which considers what might have caused an evolution in operatic portrayals of madness. In an attempt to find an explanation, this project evaluates both the general perception of insanity and several ‘mad’ operas from different eras. Shifting portrayals of madness in opera are observed to arise alongside shifts that occurred in medical psychology for the most prominent schools of thought about insanity. The public understanding of insanity changes as academic interpretations change, all of which affects the evolution of the general expectation of madness’ appearance both in real life and the arts. The argument is supported by comparisons completed for several ‘mad’ operas and scenes. For each period of opera with a distinct portrayal of madness, consideration is given to major diagnoses in use at the same time. Respectively for the Early Modern, Bel Canto/Romantic, and the Modern periods, there were concepts such as melancholy, hysteria, or from Freud’s influence on popular perception and artistic depictions. Overall, the results of this study support that the development of psychology could be a major cause for the evolution of operatic madness.

Semester/Year of Award

Fall 2015


Erik Liddell

Mentor Professional Affiliation

Languages, Cultures, and Humanities

Access Options

Open Access Thesis

Document Type

Bachelor Thesis

Degree Name

Honors Scholars

Degree Level



Language and Cultural Studies, Anthropology, and Sociology

Department Name when Degree Awarded

Languages, Cultures, and Humanities