On Doctors and Their Operas: A Critical (and Lyrical) Analysis of Medicine in Opera

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The goal of this research was to analyze the opera repertoire in terms of contents of physician roles. An additional goal was to pinpoint significant characters and passages that exemplify the changing role and perception of medicine in society over five centuries. A systematic search was performed. Musical characteristics and performing roles, and their determinants, were tabulated and formally analyzed. Of 493 operas listed, 53 (10.7%) were identified as having either a patient and/or doctor as characters. These operas span 239 years, from 1777 to 2016. Beyond unspecified Family Medicine and Generalists, some operas could be attributed to medical specialties, including 3 (5.7%) to Respiratory. Most interestingly, the 34 operas (6.9%) with physician roles are all represented by male characters, distributed by voice register mostly in the grave chords. Overall, the composer that appears with the highest interest in reporting disease is Giuseppe Verdi, with nine operas that include medical doctors. Finally, a trend can be observed regarding the evolving role of doctors, from mostly minor, buffal roles, either with magical or comical components in the 18th century, to a professional/technical physician more recently. Opera depicts a changing perception of the roles of doctors throughout history, with a blatant gender bias that still persists.

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