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Four centuries of suicide in opera

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For suicide is not simply a medical “problem”, or even a public health “problem” — it is a complex cultural and moral concern that is deeply embedded in social and historical narratives and is unlikely to be greatly altered by any form of health intervention.1

In the late 19th century, the founder of modern sociology, Émil Durkheim, showed that suicide rates differed between countries.2 He found that, in Europe and Scandinavia, the order for countries ranked from lowest to highest suicide rate was Italy, England, Norway, Sweden and France, and recent research has confirmed that this order has remained the same.3 The consistently different suicide rates of different countries suggests that culture influences these rates. The impact is presumably bidirectional — culture (in essence, the shared products of human society4) shapes our lives and, over time, our lives shape culture.

Opera is one of the many strands of aesthetic culture in human society. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (Orpheus), which was debuted in 1607, is regarded as the first successful opera;…